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Though less discussed than in the United States, anti-Black racism is present in Canada. While we are quick to pride ourselves on being the final destination of the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to freedom, we often forget that slavery existed in Canada, too.
Ottawa (31 Jan. 2022) ― Every February, Canada celebrates Black History Month to honour the legacies of Black Canadians and Black people living in Canada. The theme for Black History Month 2022 is February and Forever: Celebrating Black History today and every day.
American in origin, it’s believed the idea of celebrating Black history was brought to Canada by Black sleeping car porters who frequently travelled back and forth between Canada and the United States. Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society, introduced the idea of having Black History Month celebrated across Canada to Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament. Augustine’s motion passed unanimously in 1995, making February 1996 the first national declaration of Black History Month in Canada.
Black people in Canadian history
Despite their exclusion from many history books and curriculums, Black people have been in Canada and contributing to Canadian society for hundreds of years. The following is a list of just a few Black Canadians of note.
Lucille Hunter: one of the first Black women in the Yukon. Hunter was 19 years old and pregnant when she and her husband Charles joined the goldrush. Hunter continued working as a miner well into her sixties, later moving to Whitehorse to open a laundry tent.
Willie O’Ree: the first Black player in the National Hockey League (NHL). With a professional career spanning 21 seasons, O’Ree was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2018. O’Ree currently serves as the NHL’s Diversity Ambassador for the Hockey is for Everyone initiative, a role he originated and has held since January 1998.
Dr. Pearleen (Borden) Oliver: a prominent religious and human rights leader in Nova Scotia. Dr. Oliver fought against racist laws and policies that prevented education and employment opportunities for Black and other racialized people. One of her most notable accomplishments is successfully campaigning to allow Black women into nursing schools in Canada. She was also a noted author, youth leader, choir director, historian, and public speaker.
Fred Upshaw: the first Black person to lead a major Canadian trade union, serving as President of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) from 1990 to 1995. Upshaw mentored hundreds of OPSEU activists and lead the fightback against Premier Bob Rae's Social Contract Act. Always a human rights activist, Upshaw championed employment equity during his term in office.
Lawrence Ytzhak Braithwaite: a novelist, spoken-word artist, and dub poet who was called one of the outstanding Canadian prose writers alive. His works have been described as original, gorgeous, propulsive, subversive, and for having sublime impenetrability. His friends stated that Lawrence felt his career was intentionally being kept down because of his race, his disability, or because he was gay. He was an outspoken critic of racism within the LGBT community. The police officially ruled his death as suicide, but some friends believe he was murdered by a violent ex-boyfriend or drug dealer.
Join Black History Month celebrations with the CLC
All month long, the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) will be highlighting both the historical and ongoing contributions of Black workers to the labour movement, drawing attention to the challenges and barriers Black workers face, discussing what unions need to do to address these, and talking about how we can truly build an anti-racist labour movement—one that supports Black workers during Black History Month and beyond.
Their Black History Month statement focuses on addressing economic and systemic racism and discrimination faced by Black workers. NUPGE encourages its members to share the statement when it is posted on CLC social media channels on February 1.
On February 23 at 1:00 pm EST, the CLC will be holding an online text rally, where they will be texting Canadians across the country and urging them to take action to combat systemic anti-Black racism and send a letter to their MPs. Simultaneous interpretation is available for this event. You can register for the event online.
Anti-Black racism in Canadian history
Though less discussed than in the United States, anti-Black racism is present in Canada. While we are quick to pride ourselves on being the final destination of the Underground Railroad that helped slaves escape to freedom, we often forget that slavery existed in Canada, too. In Canada, both Black and Indigenous people were used as slaves by British and French settlers, as well as by other Indigenous people.
In their paper, Race and Incarceration: The Representation and Characteristics of Black People in Provincial Correctional Facilities in Ontario, Canada, Akwasi Owusu-Bempah, Maria Jung, Firdaous Sbaï, Andrew S. Wilton, and Fiona Kouyoumdjian breakdown the myth of Canadian history being free of anti-Black racism:
Common sentiment suggests that the violence, segregation and oppression experienced by Black people in America have not been a feature of the Canadian experience. In contrast with this rosy view, slavery was practiced in the colonies that would become Canada for over 200 years, and the subjugated status of Black people persisted long after its abolition. Canada’s first prime minister, John A. Macdonald, rationalized keeping the death penalty based on the supposed threat that Black men posed to White women. In 1911, prime minister Wilfred Laurier signed an Order in Council prohibiting Black immigration to Canada. As successive Canadian governments sought to restrict Black immigration, the small population of Black people in Canada experienced discrimination, including segregation (both legal and de facto) in education, employment, and housing. This history has set the stage for the experience of more recent Black immigrants by creating a pervasive framework of anti-Black Racism (Race and Justice).
Anti-Black racism in present day Canada
Anti-Black racism persists into the present day in Canada. Statistics Canada’s newest report on police-reported hate crime in Canada states in 2020 police-reported hate crimes targeting race or ethnicity almost doubled (+80%). Hate crimes targeting Black people saw the biggest increase, at 663 incidents, and they remain the most common kind of police-reported hate crime, at 26% of all hate crimes. 663 is nearly double the 345 police-reported hate crimes targeting Black people in 2019 (Statistics Canada).
A recent study conducted by the Institute for Social Research, York University, in partnership with the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, found that 70% of Black Canadians face racism regularly or from time to time (Black Canadian National Survey Interim Report). That number is far too high for a country that claims to celebrate diversity and inclusion. As we celebrate Black History Month, we must also work to eradicate anti-Black racism in our society. The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) encourages all members to participate in Black History Month events online or in their communities and learn how they can contribute to making our society actively anti-racist.