Commentary  In recognition of Black History Month

In February 1996, Canada celebrated its first Black History Month. The original idea was presented to Parliament by MP Jean Augustine, the first black woman elected to Parliament and later the first black woman in the federal cabinet. Its goal was, and still is, to educate all Canadians about the achievements, contributions, and experiences of Canadian black communities, something often lacking in the history curriculum taught in schools and in our country’s collective consciousness.

Our conception of black history often neglects the reality of the shared experiences of black Canadians while simultaneously pointing to the more distressing situation south of the border. This use of contrasting narratives enables Canadians to both trumpet their involvement in the Underground Railroad, for example, while ignoring an equally problematic relationship with slavery and institutional racism. The resulting conclusion is that Canadian society is liberal, progressive, and colourblind. This post-racial narrative, often described in terms of Canadian multiculturalism and acceptance, is both counterproductive and fundamentally untrue.

Oppression faced by black Canadians is both institutional and systemic. In 2008 Canadian police reported that forty per cent of racially-motivated hate crimes were committed against black people, the most heavily targeted racial group. A leaked internal Montreal police report drawn from 63,000 “contact cards” filled out by police officers between 2001 and 2007 showed that 30 to 40 per cent of young black males in some Montreal boroughs had undergone police identity checks as compared to five to six per cent of white males. In 2009, McGill student Jackie Jones was handcuffed and slammed to the ground by five STM security guards in an act of excessive and unwarranted aggression. Jones had been asking for clarification on an order given by STM guards – her experience further demonstrates that racial profiling is an ongoing and systemic problem in Montreal.

According to a 2010 study of Montreal black communities, poverty and unemployment rates are twice as high as those in non-black ones. The reason behind the discrepancy is attributed to black people being overrepresented in low-paying occupations and underrepresented in high paying ones. The average annual income for black Montrealers is $22,701, while other racial groups make on average $34,196.

The reality that black communities continue to be economically disenfranchised is a reflection of how Canadian society is organized. Even if most members of society don’t hold racist views, that doesn’t change the fact that to be economically disenfranchised is to be poltically disenfranchised, leaving black communities at a severe and long-lasting disadvantage. Programs that enable the poor to be upwardly mobile, such as national childcare and welfare, are either non-existent or poorly funded, which simply serves to compound the problems of intersecting racism and poverty. Affirmative action programs alone, like Canada’s Employment Equity program, cannot transform the broader system that has been perpetuated through capitalism.

Capitalism’s historic roots are based upon imperialism, which in turn relied on the brutal subjugation and dehumanization of many peoples. Canada must acknowledge that endorsing capitalist ideology involves an inherent and systemic legacy of racism, elitism, and violence. Deliberate ignorance of these institutional facts, specifically through the belief that we have moved beyond racism, perpetuates inequality and limits the policy prescriptions available to address these problems. This legacy of institutional racism lives on through the perception that black history and Canadian history are polarized and mutually exclusive – a view that needs to be both acknowledged and transformed. Black history is an inseparable part of all history, and this month is an opportunity to start a discussion about race and racism that should continue year-round.