The Origins of Black History Month in Canada
February 2021 marks 95 years since Carter G. Woodson, an African American historian, first suggested a period to acknowledge the history and accomplishments of Black peoples in America. ‘Negro History Week’ was first celebrated in the second week of February 1926, coinciding with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In the early 1970s, the name was changed to Black History Week, and by 1975, the celebration had been expanded to the entire month of February.
Black Canadian activists and leaders soon pushed for Canada to join our American neighbours in celebrating Black History Month. In 1979, Toronto became the first Canadian city to proclaim February Black History Month after petitions from the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS). The province of Nova Scotia followed suit in 1988, and Ontario adopted Black History Month province-wide soon after in 1993.
Encouraged by these successes, then-president of the OBHS, Rosemary Sadler, brought the idea of a national Black History Month to Dr. Jean Augustine (Canada’s first Black woman in parliament) in 1993. Two years later, Dr. Augustine introduced a motion to the House of Commons, and it was passed unanimously.
One final step remained to have Black History Month properly recognized in Canada: a motion to the Canadian Senate. In February 2008, the nation’s first Black senator, Donald Oliver, introduced the ‘Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and February as Black History Month.’ On March 4th of that year, the motion was unanimously approved, and Black History Month became a permanent fixture on Canada’s calendar of official celebrations.
Beyond the Surface of Black History Month
Across Canada, organizations and institutions spend February celebrating the accomplishments, contributions, and culture of Black Canadians. Corporations often recognize African, Black, and Caribbean food, art, music, and customs and integrate these acknowledgements into their marketing efforts. Government bodies plan events to acknowledge Black changemakers and notable figures who helped to shape Canadian history. Schools host assemblies to honour prominent Black alumni and community members and introduce elements of Black history to their curricula.
These observances are all important ways of acknowledging the impact Black Canadians continue to have on this nation. But they are not enough. Current approaches to Black history month typically fail to look beyond the surface. They sanitize uncomfortable truths about the history of Black people in Canada and the way those realities contribute to the present-day inequities Black Canadians face.
Canada’s ‘Forgotten’ Black History
Many Canadians incorrectly believe that Black history in Canada begins with the nation’s role as a stop in the Underground Railroad. They also misunderstand our country’s relationship with the enslavement of African peoples. While Canada was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Canada was also an active participant in slavery. When British and French colonists came to Canada in the early 1600s, they enslaved and traded Indigenous peoples before bringing in enslaved Africans via the Transatlantic Slave Trade. Though Canada enslaved fewer people than our American neighbours, slavery was still violent and dehumanizing for those who were subjected to it on Canadian soil. One of the most prominent stories of the brutality of slavery in Canada is that of Marie-Joseph Angélique, who was hanged and burned after she tried to escape her enslaver and allegedly set 46 buildings in Old Montreal ablaze. Her confession was obtained after terrible torture, and it is unclear whether Angélique even set the fire.
The practice of slavery was not abolished in Canada until 1834 after many bloody revolts across the British colonies. Slavery would continue in the US until 1863, and Canada became known as a place to which enslaved people of African descent could flee from the barbaric practice. Between 1815 and 1860, more than 30,000 enslaved Africans sought refuge in Canada from the US.
However, Canada was not always the haven these escapees needed. There were many immigration laws that discriminated against people of African descent. Segregation became a common practice, with Black communities often being overlooked and underserved in terms of government funding and support. For example, the Black Nova Scotian community of Africville was declared uninhabitable and destroyed in 1970. However, the community was only in such dire condition because the City of Halifax refused to provide basic amenities like clean water and garbage disposal and built dangerous facilities like an infectious disease hospital and a garbage dump in the area.
Such anti-Black racism and discrimination meant that Black Canadians struggled to access mortgages and rental spaces, education and job opportunities, and other resources that would support their social and economic success. The impacts of this deep-rooted and systemic anti-Blackness continues to be seen today in the way that Black Canadians and communities face negative outcomes in nearly every space. These challenges include overrepresentation in incarceration and child welfare interactions to underrepresentation in C-suite positions and political office.
Recognize the History; Reshape the Future
The difficult truth is that the history of Black people in Canada has not always been a positive one. Though it has been left out of classroom curricula, government observances, and general conversation, the reality is that the Black experience in Canada was shaped by slavery, anti-Black policies, and racist practices. That means that the accomplishments and contributions we celebrate during Black History Month were achieved despite the challenges of anti-Black racism, not because of the absence of it.
If we continue to ignore this history, we condemn Black Canadians to an uphill battle that will span generations. If Canada, as a collective, is unable to recognize the deep roots of anti-Blackness in this country, systemic anti-Black racism will not end. The child welfare and criminal justice systems will continue to be harmful to Black families. Inadequate and oppressive education programming will keep failing Black youth. Healthcare and social services spaces will go on jeopardizing Black wellbeing. Boardrooms, political offices, and other decision-making spaces will continue shutting out Black voices.
Re-imagining Black History Month for a Better Black Future
It is simply not enough to praise the accomplishments of Black Canadians who have thrived in the face of anti-Black racism. We cannot merely indulge in the cultures of African, Black, and Caribbean people without recognizing how those cultures have been marginalized, both historically and contemporarily. Black History Month provides us an invaluable opportunity to celebrate Black Canadians. But is also a chance to educate ourselves and others on the history of Black people in this country; recognize and address anti-Black racism in our communities and workplaces; and create opportunities that support the wellbeing and success of Black people. All of these are key to taking a more equity-informed and transformative approach to Black History Month.
What could that look like?
- Acknowledging the reality of anti-Black racism in Canada; examining how it manifests in your spaces and spheres of influence; and taking action to disrupt it however you can
- Exploring Black history in Canada (and the world) outside of what is taught in the history books by engaging with the works of Black scholars and creatives
- Committing to expanding your knowledge of Black people, Black history, and anti-Black racism beyond the month of February
- Challenging and unlearning your own biases, beliefs, and ideas around Blackness and Black people
- Supporting and amplifying the work of Black-led organizations that are working towards more equitable outcomes for Black peoples and communities in Canada
- Broadening conversations around Black History Month to include what can be done to create measurable positive outcomes for Black Canadians
By adopting these equity-informed approaches to Black History Month, we can work towards eradicating the anti-Black racism that has underpinned Black history in Canada. In this way, we can truly honour the Black Canadians that have shaped our nation’s history and make way for a future where Black people in Canada know true equity.
If you are a professional in Community & Social Services, Child Welfare, Healthcare, or Criminal Justice who wants to learn how to take transformative action against anti-Black racism year-round, stay tuned for Daring to Do™: A Framework for Anti-Racist Action. Learn more.
We also offer a helpful guide to understanding and practicing equity, available in the KOJO Institute Shop. Challenging Systemic Barriers: Anti-Racism and Equity is a companion guide to a series of videos created by Wellbeing Region Waterloo that facilitates meaningful discussions about equity. Shop the Guide.