Is Canada Being Open about Black History?
Globally, Canada is viewed as a place where multiculturalism is celebrated, but the reality is that the history and representation of minorities in Canada has not been as inclusive as it should be. Despite their rich contribution to Canadian culture and society as a whole, the history of Black Canadians is rarely taught or talked about in public discourse. As a Black Canadian, I experienced the stereotypes and missed opportunities that are a result of not celebrating Black Canadian culture and history.
The problem of contemporary Black Canadian representation stems from a disregard for the impact that Black Canadians have had throughout history. It seems that anything White is worth mentioning, while anything Black is ignored. A White French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, is known for founding Quebec. What is not typically mentioned is that he had assistance from a Black man, Mathieu da Costa, who facilitated communications with the Indigenous Peoples. Mathieu’s translation efforts were important, and contributed to Champlain being able to map and settle eastern Canada. Mathieu’s contribution literally helped to shape the Canadian landscape.1
There are many significant Black Canadians in modern history. Rosemary Brown was the first Black female member of a provincial legislature and the first Black woman to run for leadership of a federal NDP party in 1975. She fought against prejudicial policies in schools. She once said, “[t]o be Black and a woman in a society which is both racist and sexist is...having nowhere to go but up”. Arriving in Canada in 1951, Brown faced discrimination from immigration authorities and at university where no one wanted to be her roommate due to her skin color.2 In spite of her hardships, she found the courage to fight for coloured women’s equality and motivated many Black women, including myself, to face their difficulties and to persevere.
Another woman who endured discrimination was Viola Desmond, a business woman. In 1946, Ms. Desmond was forcibly removed from a cinema for sitting in an all-white section. She was taken to court and tried on fabricated tax evasion charges without the right to a lawyer. The government of Nova Scotia finally exonerated her 45 years after her death.3 Her act of refusing to accept racial discrimination has inspired many generations of marginalized people to fight for their rights. These stories of strong Black Canadians need to be kept alive to embolden and encourage future generations.
The danger of only portraying certain stories throughout history is that misconceptions will be created from those limited stories. In a Ted Talk on this topic, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie states, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story”.4 The misrepresentation of Black history within Canada may lead people to believe that Black people were merely a commodity, used for their labour. Accurately portraying Black history and culture can be used to combat racial divide.
Slowly, Canada is recognizing some of the contributions Black people have made historically. The Canadian government recently recognized Desmond’s legacy by placing her portrait on the $10 bill. It is significant for me to see the ways in which Black People have changed the world, not only because I am a Black woman, but also because I am Muslim in a predominantly Christian country. I sometimes fear discrimination as a result of my religious and cultural identity. I initially hesitated to include my identity in this essay, as in the past I have faced discrimination and was concerned that naming myself might limit my opportunities here. However, I recognize that doing so will hopefully enhance your understanding of my personal experience and connection to this topic. In learning about important figures like Brown and Desmond, and the struggles that they went through for equality, I have been inspired to aim high and push through any obstacles I may encounter, all while being true to who I am as a Black, Muslim woman.
Neglecting Black history can lead to repetition of past mistakes, not only within Black communities, but also within our multicultural society. We need to challenge the predominant whiteness of Canadian leaders. Our diverse Black community needs the inspiration from Black Canada’s past to remind us not only how far we have come, but where we need to go. We have to honor the struggles of Black people and remember their ancestors for the sake of our collective future.
1 Millette, Dominique and Maude-emmanuelle Lambert. “Mathieu Da Costa.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mathieu-da-costa. Accessed November 30. Web.
2 Snyder, Lorraine. “Rosemary Brown.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/rosemary-brown Accessed November 25. Web.
3 The Historica-Dominion Institute. “Viola Desmond.” History Canada. www.blackhistorycanada.ca/profiles.php?themeid=20&id=13. Accessed November 30. Web.
4 Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Youtube, uploaded by TED, 7 October 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg. Accessed November 30. Web.