The reality is most of the history we learn in school or see retold through media is the European, white story of history. It leaves out much older Indigenous history, it leaves out Asian history, and it leaves out Black history. Black history is Canadian history. It is an essential piece of the Canadian “story.” It is important that we all have some basic knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the richness of our human diversity, our roots, and the stories of the people who live here. Equally important, it is important to know and understand how issues of contemporary racism and inequality are rooted in our history.
Living next door to the USA we often learn their history of racial inequality, but Canada shares more in common than we tend to admit. There is a reason the Black Lives Matter movement is happening and needed here too. So here are a few things about Canada’s history you maybe didn’t learn in school. Much of the following info is adapted from Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives.
- The myth of slavery only being an American thing is simply not true. We hear lots about Canada’s role in the Underground Railroad, but we don’t do a enough to acknowledge Canada’s history, as formal British and French colonies, includes over 200 years of slavery.
- Segregation thrived here too. You’ve maybe seen the Canadian Heritage moment that shares the story Viola Desmond, who’s now on our $10 bill, but it went much deeper than just movie theaters. We also had segregated schools and the last one only closed in 1983.
- Black folks were often excluded from jobs. One of the jobs black men could access was on the railways as porters. They essentially did all the same tasks as conductors, plus additional, more unpleasant duties, but were not allowed the job title. They were denied basic things like sleeping cars too. In fact, some railway companies kept totally different job descriptions and pay scales until the mid-1970s.
- Cities were also segregated, including Winnipeg. Black folks were only allowed to live in specific areas.
- Canada has always had white nationalist groups including the Klu Klux Klan who once sponsored a hospital wing in Moosejaw. In their honor, the hospital put up a plaque that read ‘Law, Order, Separation of Church and State, Freedom of Speech and Press. White Supremacy.’
- For a long time, Canada’s immigration laws made it very hard for Black and Asian folks to come to this land through head taxes, continuous journey regulations, and outright banning Black people. Our immigration rules are still biased against non-white countries with things like who’s the education we recognize.
These are just a few examples of overt, systemic racism in Canada. Systemic racism is when racism is built into the very laws and governance system that make up a country, province, city, or town. Systemic racism is still very much a thing of today. We see it crop up in health care, where Black, Indigenous, and other racialized folks don’t receive equal care. We see it in mental health services where black men are (mis)diagnosed with schizophrenia at significantly higher rates than white people even when presenting the same symptoms. We see it in child welfare with more contact with this system and more family separation. We see it in policing through violence, random stops, carding, and higher rates of arrests.
But Black History Month isn’t just about learning our shared history or connecting the dots of the past to our present. This month is also a celebration of Black resiliency, strength, and culture. There are events throughout the month that recognize and celebrate Black experiences in Canada. The month kicks off on January 31 with an online opening ceremony. Check out Black History Manitoba to learn more.