By Yvonne Sam
Social and Political Commentator
Regardless of how new and unique something may seem to be, it carries with it a legacy of the past, for everything that exists in the present has come out of the past. Therefore, the more we understand about the past, the more we will know about the present.
For one month each year, Canadians deign to pay attention to Black history in the most perfunctory manner possible. For many, it is all about the Underground Railroad, and how progressive Canada, the savior is.
Currently, the Black history that is taught in public schools is what has been colonized and edited to make it palatable. At its best, Black History Month (BHM) is casually thrown into the curriculum and not intended as part of yearlong learning.
At its worst, it is used to brush aside, or outright erase, the past — historical omission in civic remission.
An incontrovertible fact is that many adult Canadians are not even aware that slavery was legal in Canada, and that the first purchased Black slave, Oliver LeJeune, was brought to Canada in 1628.
When Canadians speak about slavery, it is always about the Underground Railroad, as it allows Canada to position itself as being morally superior to America, due to the fact that African-Americans escaped slavery in the U.S. by moving to Canada.
No one wants to talk about slavery in Canada, or everything that happened before or everything that happened after. As long as Canada defines itself discursively as “Other” in relation to the United States, it will never have to deal with its own bad acts.
People of African descent are often absent from Canadian history books, despite a presence in Canada that dates back farther than Samuel de Champlain’s first voyage down the St. Lawrence River.
In addition, not many Canadians are aware of the many sacrifices made, in wartime, by Black Canadian soldiers (Black Corps or Runchey’s Company of Colored Men) as far back as the War of 1812.
Black history is not so much about Negro history as it is of history influenced by Negroes. Nor is it a time to promote propaganda, but to counteract it by popularizing the truth; not a tendency to eulogize the Negroes or to abuse his enemies, but with the sole intent to emphasize important facts, clinging steadfastly to the belief that facts, properly set forth, will speak for themselves.
Background to Black History
By 1950, the idea of Black History Month was first celebrated in Toronto, by railroad porters, after having cognizance of it during their travels in the U.SA. A few celebrations were also hosted by The Canadian Negro Women’s Association.
During the early 1970s, the celebration became known as Black History Week. It was expanded into Black History Month in 1976.
Thereafter, the Ontario Black History Society, founded in 1978, petitioned the city of Toronto to have February proclaimed as Black History Month.
In December 1995, the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month, following a motion introduced by the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament.
The motion was carried, unanimously, by the House of Commons, causing Black History Month to become a national, recognised celebration.
At the time, the chief aim was to raise awareness of Black history in Canada, which, up until then, had been virtually ignored in school curriculum and in the media.
According to the Canadian government’s website, in the Canadian heritage section, “In February 2008, Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Senate, introduced the Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and February as Black History Month.
“It received unanimous approval and was adopted on March 4, 2008. The adoption of this motion completed Canada’s parliamentary position on Black History Month.”
Anyone familiar with Black history knows that we are extremely fond of our legends and heroes; names like Marcus Garvey, Harriet Tubman, Nelson Mandela, Rosa Parks, Sojourner Truth, and George Washington Carver, spring easily to our lips when we talk about leadership, courage and innovation.
But what about the many other names and stories we should know and take pride in? Names and stories that perhaps spring less quickly to mind.
We owe it to ourselves and those who will follow in our footsteps to learn about those Black Canadians who made history, who fought against the odds and who laid the foundation for some benefits that we enjoy today.
The greater Canadian community needs to know a history of Canada that includes all of the founding and pioneering experiences in order to work from reality, rather than from perception alone.
Speaking to the point, Canada (putting aside its safe haven status) could not have become what it is today without the vital contributions of Black communities, whose history spans over four centuries and flourishes in pivotal moments.
Their determination in the fight for freedom, perseverance throughout World Wars 1 and 2, the victories achieved during the Civil Rights Movement are some examples that should serve as an inspiration for us all.
There still remains much more history to be examined, relative to Blacks in Canada, but viewing it only through the spectrum or prism of Black History is a perplexing part of the problem, as it should really be seen as part of the larger Canadian context.
Black history provides the binary opposite to all traditional histories. One needs traditional history to engender a common culture; one needs Black history to engender a clearer and more complete culture. The focus on the past should ultimately be a way of looking for a better future.
Future generations should look in the history books, to ensure that the omissions are no longer in remission. Black history should no longer be a mystery, for each and every contribution by Blacks must be kept on track.
Yvonne Sam, a retired Head Nurse and Secondary School Teacher, is Vice-president of the Guyana Cultural Association of Montreal. A regular columnist for over two decades with the Montreal Community Contact, her insightful and incursive articles on topics ranging from politics, human rights and immigration, to education and parenting have also appeared in the Huffington Post, Montreal Gazette, XPressbogg and Guyanese OnLine. She is also the recipient of the Governor General of Canada Caring Canadian Citizen Award.