Recently on our social media, we asked the question: What is Black History Month in Canada really about?
For most organizations, February is filled with celebrations of Black changemakers, culture, and achievements. Rarely—if ever—do organizations spend February examining their treatment of Black staff and service users or addressing anti-Black racism within their policies and practices.
This is not a coincidence. As a nation, we have become comfortable with acknowledging how the contributions of Black people and culture have been overlooked. Black History Month, then, is viewed as an opportunity to undo that erasure by acknowledging and celebrating African, Caribbean, and Black people in Canada.
What we don’t acknowledge is that, along with the erasure of Black people’s achievements and accomplishments, the history of Canada’s mistreatment of Black people over more than 200 years has been systematically obfuscated and denied.
Canadian history books paint a picture of Canada as an idyllic and inclusive nation devoid of the anti-Black racism we associate with the United States. Our school curricula teach us that Canada was a safe haven for enslaved people escaping from enslavers in the US. They depict Canada as a welcoming and inclusive place where Black people found refuge and belonging.
So, Canadian organizations’ uncritical approach to Black History Month is not surprising because it is rooted in the fact that we have not collectively named or confronted the truth of Canada’s mistreatment of Black people throughout our country’s history.
But the first step to fixing any problem is to acknowledge that it exists. In the first post of this three-part blog series, we will explore some of the events that were left out of the Canadian history books, and how their erasure has shaped the experiences Black people in Canada have today.
Canada’s Untold Black History
Despite representations of Canada as welcoming, inclusive, and diverse, our nation’s relationship with Black peoples over the last 400 years has included legalized anti-Black racism in the form of the transatlantic slave trade; discriminatory immigration policies; inadequate resourcing for Black communities; and voting and political exclusion. While this is not an exhaustive list of examples of anti-Black racism in Canadian history, they represent some of the most insidious ways that Black people have been harmed in Canada.
Let’s examine each of these in more detail.
Canada and the Transatlantic Slave Trade
One of the greatest myths of Canadian history is that slavery did not happen here. Canada has become known as the final stop on the Underground Railroad for enslaved people escaping from the US. But Canada played its own active role in the transatlantic slave trade.
In the 1600s, New France—the first major settlement in the land now known as Canada—was home to around 3,600 enslaved people. Many of those people were Indigenous, but that number also included Black people who were brough to Canada via the transatlantic slave trade. The practice of slavery continued in Canada after the British conquered New France, with white people from all levels of society enslaving Black people and depending on their labour for everything from household work to skilled trades.
Enslavers in Canada denied enslaved people basic human rights, exploited their labour, treated them as property, and subjected them to violent physical and sexual abuse as punishment for ‘defiance.’ Often, enslaved people were forced to “earn” their freedom through indentured servitude to their enslavers. Ironically, others fled to colonies in the US, like what is now New York, where slavery was already abolished.
Canada’s journey toward abolition was a slow one. In 1793, Upper Canada introduced an Act that would bring a gradual end to slavery by making it illegal to bring more enslaved people to the region and granting freedom to people born into slavery once they turned 25. However, this Act did not free people who were enslaved at the time of its passing. It was not until 1834, with the abolition of slavery in the British empire (including all its colonies), that slavery was officially ended in Canada and enslaved people were freed. Many enslavers actively resisted abolition, and the British government compensated many enslavers for ‘property loss’ when abolition was passed.
Legalized Anti-Black Racism in Canada’s Immigration Policies
Anti-Blackness in Canadian history did not end with slavery. Despite being touted as a refuge for enslaved people escaping via the Underground Railroad, Canada did not welcome Black people with open arms. In 1910, less than one hundred years after the abolition of slavery in Canada, the Immigration Act was introduced, which allowed the government to determine who could and could not enter Canada. Among those who were either denied or dissuaded from immigration were Black Americans fleeing slavery.
In 1911, Canadian interior minister, Frank Oliver, proposed an order that would ban Black immigrants because they were “deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” The order was adopted but not passed. However, anti-Black racism continued to impact Canada’s immigration policies.
The Canadian Department of Immigration offered doctors cash rewards to administer unnecessary exams to deter Black migrants. They also had people travel to the United States for the expressed purpose of discouraging Black people from coming to Canada, with stories of difficult weather and the risk of violence and exploitation. Black people who did attempt to immigrate anyway were met with administrative red tape. This included immigration officers refusing to issue occupational certificates and railway representatives denying Black immigrants more affordable settler fares.
This resistance to Black immigration did not come exclusively from the government. There were many individuals and organizations dedicated to stopping Black immigration. Many of those people viewed Black people as dangerous and undesirable and feared that an influx of Black immigrants would lead to race-based conflicts, similar to those occurring in the US at the time.
Canada’s Inadequate Resourcing of Black Communities
Despite immigration restrictions, throughout the 1900s, the Black population in Canada grew. However, Black Canadians who were formerly enslaved along with Black migrants were subject to segregation similar to what was common in the United States. Based on the same ideas of racial inferiority and anti-Blackness that were used to justify slavery, Black Canadians were systematically denied opportunities and rights in Canada.
In addition to schools, theatres, restaurants, hotels, and recreational facilities, Black Canadians were also denied access to certain communities and housing opportunities. Black Canadians who were entitled to land allotment were either denied that land entirely or given small, low-quality plots that were separate from white communities. Laws in various provinces restricted land ownership or sale to Black residents (along with other racialized groups) in certain areas. These discriminatory laws forced Black Canadians into segregated communities.
Those communities were often intentionally underserved and inadequately resourced. One of the most poignant examples is Africville. Africville was a Black settlement built near Halifax after the War of 1812. It was a tight-knit and well-established community of hundreds of people and families and had a range of amenities including a school, a church, a post office, and local stores.
Africville’s development, however, was stunted by the Canadian government’s negligent and harmful actions. In addition to building an infectious disease hospital, a dump, and a prison in the surrounding area, the government of Halifax also refused to provide essential services like clean water, sewage, and garbage disposal. As many of the residents of Africville fell ill from exposure to toxic substances and the settlement fell into disrepair, the government’s response was to destroy the community and relocate its residents without ever seeking their input. By January of 1970, the last home in Africville was torn down.
Black Political Exclusion Throughout Canadian History
In the years that followed the abolition of slavery in Canada, there were no official laws that directly prohibited Black men from voting. (At the time, Black women were still restricted from voting along with their white peers.) However, anti-Black public sentiments meant that some white Canadians actively impeded Black men’s right to vote. For example, in 1848 the white residents of an Ontario town physically blocked Black men from accessing polling stations.
Voting rights were further limited by many provinces’ requirement that voters be property owners, which left many Black people ineligible to vote until 1920 when those laws were repealed. Holding office was equally as difficult. It was not until 1859, twenty-five years after the abolition of slavery, that the first Black man was elected to municipal office (Abraham Shadd). It was more than a century before a Black man first served at the federal level (Lincoln Alexander, Member of Parliament, 1968).
Black women activists played an integral role in securing the right to vote for women in Canada and gained the right to vote along with white women in 1918. However, their journey into political office would be a long time coming. The first Black woman to be elected in Canada, Rosemary Brown, did not take office until 1972, just 50 years ago.
Over the last 200 years, Black Canadians have continued to experience a series of political firsts in the face of continuous resistance rooted in anti-Black racism. This political inequity meant that Black voices often went unheard and the issues that most impacted Black communities went unrecognized and unaddressed in the arenas of law and politics.
Canada’s Black History Echoes into the Present
Some might dismiss the historical mistreatment of Black Canadians through slavery, discriminatory immigration laws, government negligence, and political exclusion as matters of the past. Many would argue that there are currently no laws that directly discriminate against Black Canadians, and Canada’s commitment to diversity and multiculturalism signals the absence of anti-Black racism. In fact, this is a common practice used to deny the very real ways that these issues continue to harm Black people today.
But there is more than enough data that reflects a through line from the anti-Black racism of the past to the inequities Black Canadians currently face. It is not coincidental that 18% of people living in poverty in Canada identify as Black when you consider how slavery and anti-Black racism limited educational, professional, and economic opportunities for Black people over the last two centuries. Higher rates of poverty also mean that Black communities are more likely to need philanthropic support, however, only 0.03 % of grants from Canada’s 10 biggest foundations went to Black-led organizations, and 0.13% went to organizations that specifically serve Black people.
Segregation continues to be an issue in more insidious ways as well. For example, academic streaming (which is still being phased out of Ontario schools) disproportionately pushed Black students into non-academic courses, limiting their educational and professional opportunities. In corporate and professional spaces, Black people are most likely to remain stuck in entry level positions, with the proverbial glass ceiling barring them from promotion into executive roles.
In the context of Canada’s untold history of anti-Black racism, these statistics make sense. Centuries of discrimination and inequitable treatment that continues into the present day have made wellness and success an uphill battle for Black people in Canada. However, the denial and erasure of this history has doubled that challenge. Without that important context, it is easy to attribute Black people’s disadvantages to some inherent inadequacy and dismiss their activism and advocacy against anti-Black racism and white supremacy in Canada as unfounded, irrational, and unnecessary.
This is why it is important for Black History Month observances to go beyond mere celebrations of Black excellence and accomplishment. It is essential that Canadian society begins to reckon with our nation’s history of mistreating Black people, so that we can begin to pave a path towards a truly equitable society. This month, and always, we encourage you to take the first step in confronting Canada’s problem with anti-Black racism by going beyond the history books and learning the truth of the history of Black people, anti-Black racism, and white supremacy in Canada.
Stay tuned for our next blog post, where we’ll further support your learning by examining the ways that the erasure of Black Canadian history has affected our ability to confront anti-Black racism and engage in meaningful equity work.
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I think we need to mention the reparations demanded by owners before allowing slavery to end.