Commentary  Editorial: Bringing Canadian black history to class

Canadians tend to look south for black history, pointing fingers at the U.S. for slavery and segregation while ignoring blemishes on our own history. As February is Black History Month, we thought it would be a prime opportunity to turn our attention to black Canadian history, especially the parts that are too often swept under the rug.

First, there’s the overlooked fact that slavery existed in Canada. Here’s a quick history lesson: the first slave in Canada was a child in Quebec in 1628, and thousands more were brought to the Maritime provinces, Quebec, and Ontario by loyalists fleeing the U.S. after 1783. Slavery remained legal in Canada, as in the rest of the British Empire, until 1834. More recently, in 1964, the Canadian government evicted the residents of Africville, Nova Scotia – a black community founded by former slaves. But for some reason, schools and media outlets in Canada skip over these chapters of our nation’s history, focusing instead on America’s past. Students are more likely to learn about Harriet Tubman than Mary Ann Shadd.

Though we have a long way to go concerning minority relations, Canadians are at least more aware of other minority histories – for instance, the abhorrent treatment of Chinese-Canadians during the construction of the railroad, the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WWII, and the abusive residential schools for First Nations children. However, the only critical discourse in Canadian black history tends to be about our southern neighbours. Instead of an opportunity to engage in dialogue, Black History Month becomes a culture celebration that often fails to extend beyond isolated communities.

The official theme of Canada’s 2009 Black History Month is “Building Canadian Identity.” However, the focus of this theme, as explained by Minister of Citizenship, Immigration, and Multiculturalism Jason Kenney, largely seems to tokenise contributions of black Canadians – the three elements highlighted are a black battalion in WWI, black Olympians, and the preservation of museums of black history. If Canada really wants to build a national identity, it needs to acknowledge that there’s more to its black history than the Underground Railroad. However, it’s not just the past that we need to analyse. Identities are forever transforming, and we need to take a good look at race today.

Canadians also shouldn’t forget diversity within the black community, and when forming a national identity, must take into consideration heritage from the West Indies and North Africa – particularly in Montreal, where francophone Africans make up a large part of the community. Canada’s obligation to its black citizens and residents should address the particular needs of such communities, especially as issues of racial profiling in Quebec show no signs of waning.

Perpetuating myths that we live in a colour-blind or post-racial society would be failing to acknowledge the role that race still plays in politics, economics, and social interactions. Further, it fails to recognize an integral part of Canadian history and identity. Canada – The Daily included – desperately needs to take a critical look at its own black history, and engage in dialogue that will achieve real progress – not the type imported from the United States along with other elementary school history lessons.