Commentary  More black history in our politics, more politics in our Black History Month

The way we think about blackness in Canada must change. During Black History Month in particular, we are encouraged to recall the past oppression of black people and appreciate the gains of the last century, particularly those of the American civil rights movements. However, the focus on remembrance overlooks larger issues and presumes our work is done. Racism still exists – discrimination and under-representation are ongoing; systemic injustices facing black people, and our society’s limited, historicized approach of reflecting but not acting, only perpetuate the problem.

Education on black issues, for one, is lacking from primary to postsecondary institutions. McGill offers interdisciplinary programs in African Studies and Latin American and Caribbean Studies, but both are woefully deficient. Thanks to chronic underfunding and institutional neglect, African Studies doesn’t have enough professors – which means a lack of research, few course offerings, and a dearth of advising for students majoring in the program.

In stark contrast to the present, McGill and Montreal were notably progressive on race issues in the past. They witnessed a burst of black political activism in the sixties: anti-racist protests, lectures by celebrated scholars like C.L.R. James, the 1968 Congress of Black Writers that drew over 10,000 people to the Leacock building, and the Montreal-based Caribbean Conference Committee, whose members established left-wing groups in Jamaica, Trinidad, and Antigua. In 1969, McGill implemented Canada’s first university-level African Studies program, but similar efforts at the forefront of political advancement have since been non-existent, and current pedagogy fails to represent the ongoing history of this city’s black communities.

More broadly, education about blackness and racism in Canada is problematic. Canadian black history is not a prominent, independent concept, but rather is eclipsed by American racial politics. Canadian textbooks quote Martin Luther King, Junior, high school English classes read To Kill a Mockingbird. While this is seminal and valuable, it can replace a distinct Canadian black history with one that does not represent the individuality and nuances of black experiences in this country. 
This devalues our country’s anti-discriminatory advancements and overshadows historic black communities in Canada, but more importantly, it also ignores Canada’s complicity in perpetuating racism. Eagerly lauding American accomplishments, Canadian society dissociates itself from its own involvement in systemic discrimination. The British Empire may have ended slavery 50 years before the U.S., and Canada didn’t codify segregation on the same scale as the American government, but our society has still been marked by pervasive racism and implicit segregation. Black labour has been exploited in this country as well: companies with state support brought African-Americans to work on railroads in the 19th century and West Indians to do agricultural labour in the 20th century. In the sixties, Africville, an almost entirely black community in Halifax, was destroyed for transit development.

In short, the glorified, innocent image of Canada as removed from discrimination is false. By historicizing racism we make it someone else’s problem and someone else’s past, and obscure contemporary problems of racial discrimination.

Though we often speak of our society as being a post-racial cultural mosaic, racism continues to exist. Racial profiling, the gentrification of Little Burgundy, Montreal’s historic black neighbourhood, and the under-representation of visible minorities in Canadian Parliament all indicate the inadequacy of the current racial climate. Marginalization in Canada continues, and the lack of institutional engagement covers it up.

We need to look around ourselves, at the fact that McGill, located in a city with nearly 150,000 black people, has such a small black student population and chronically underfunds its African Studies program. There is a problem in the structure of our society. Even if all we begin with is a re-evaluation of where we are, we can move toward re-establishing engagement and activism. Though there is undeniable value in Black History Month, reflecting on the past cannot be an excuse for us to forget the changes that still need to occur. We need to rethink the powerful role of race in our society. Black history should not be thought of as over, but rather as an ongoing source of inspiration for further change and activism in the future.