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Black History in Canada: some interesting stories

It is easy for me to stand up and insist that you all go learn about black history. The fact is, however, that I am mostly chiding myself for my own ignorance. After all, it wasn’t until relatively recently that I took an active interest in black history beyond whatever tidbits I could glean from organizations with a mandate for education. As a result, reading through Mensah’s book, I’m learning quite a number of surprising and fascinating things.

Canada has a hundred-year history of black slavery

“It was towards the end of the seventeenth century that acute labour shortages prompted the importation of Blacks in significant numbers. And, as Walker (1980: 19) points out, ‘from then until the early nineteenth century, throughout the founding of the present Quebec, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ontario, there was never a time when Blacks were not held as slaves in Canada.” (p. 46)

The narrative we pick up from the little black history we learn in school is that Canada was the promised land at the end of the Underground Railroad. The truth is that Canada, like most of the colonies (and, by extension, Europe), was built using slave labour. Much of this labour was carried out by African slaves. This was happening during the same point when the original provinces were coming into existence, and yet even the existence of these slaves is omitted from the account.

Apparently slavery in Canada did not cease following abolition by the British Empire. The territory of Quebec signed specific articles during capitulation to England (ceding control of the territory of New France to the British empire) specifically carved out an exemption to allow people to keep their slaves.

Divide and conquer fails in Sierra Leone

With the reinforcement of the Maroons, the British were able to subdue the political uprisings for some time. However, as time went on, these two Black groups coalesced with the common objective of total liberation from White domination. (p. 50)

The establishment of Sierra Leone is a good lesson in understanding the current political reality within Africa. It is perhaps the first example of a corporate interest establishing de-facto colonial control, which it accomplished through the use of political destabilization and military might. Blacks from Canada were sent from one form of slavery to another, with the blessing of so-called abolitionists.

What I didn’t know was the story of the Maroons. A military unit from Jamaica (sent to Nova Scotia for fear that they could not be controlled), was dispatched to Sierra Leone to quell the attempts by black settlers to exert political power over their corporate masters. Evidently it didn’t work so well, since the Sierra Leone company had to cede control of their territory to Britain, having lost control. Since then, corporations have found more effective ways to enslave Africans.

Canada had Jim Crow segregation laws

The massive immigration of Black fugitives put a tremendous stress on the Ontario economy, and the level of discrimination against Blacks increased … Blacks faced segregated schools, restaurants, theatres, and hotels in Canada, as in the United States. (p. 52)

While I am more focussed on the mindless marginalization of black people that is a product of unexamined white supremacy, it is interesting to note that Canada has its own history of overtly racist laws. The purpose of these laws was to curtail any chance of economic and political actualization by black Canadians.

The most egregious example that I found was the description of an apparently notorious piece of legislation passed by the city of Edmonton, banning black people from living there. Yes, you read that correctly – being black was outlawed in Edmonton. But that was a million years ago, right? Nope – the law came into effect in 1911.

Canada had poll taxes

Major railroad companies supported the movement to restrict Blacks from the Prairies by either charging full fares for Black families or refusing to carry any Blacks at a time when the fares for White families settling the Prairies were routinely reduced or waived entirely. (p. 55)

One interesting argument that often pops up when talking to Americans about the merits of affirmative action programs and race-based scholarships is the assertion that soandso’s father worked his whole life to get ahead as an immigrant from (insert European country here). He certainly never got a handout or needed an affirmative action program! Blacks should just locate their bootstraps and start tugging!

What this argument neglects, aside from the monumental difference in the quantity and quality of anti-immigrant discrimination that whites received compared to blacks, is the many programs of the United States’ federal government to give large tracts of land to white immigrants but not to freed black slaves. Canada, it seems, has a similar history with which we must contend: the program of race-based preference when settling not only the Prairies, but Atlantic Canada as well.

Interestingly, black would-be-settlers of the Prairie provinces were subjected to additional medical “testing” to disqualify them from being able to settle in the west. The stated rationale was that blacks couldn’t survive the harsh winters, whereas whites were properly suited for the tough months*. This strikes me as remarkably similar to the poll taxes and phony “intelligence tests” that were used to disenfranchise black voters in the American South.

These facts paint a very different picture of Canada than the haven from slavery that I was taught as a child. The experience of blacks in Canada differs from that of their American counterparts only in terms of degree, not of kind. Any discussion of the history of Canada really should include this kind of information – not to make people guilty, but to recognize that the relative tolerance and progressiveness of Canada is not inherent in its people, but the result of generations of struggle.

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* I swear, the first person to mention Vitamin D in the comments is getting put into moderation, if not outright banned. I’m serious.