This is the second in a series of posts I am writing in my annual commemoration of Black History Month. My inspiration, and source of historical material, is a book by Joseph Mensah called Black Canadians: history, experiences, social conditions. As I work my way through the book, I will be blogging my reactions and things that stand out. You can read the first post here, and its follow-up here.
Mensah spends some time reviewing the causes of emigration from countries, and immigration to Canada. The relevant factors are the usual suspects: political instability, economic strife, security concerns – nothing particularly surprising. Considering the post-colonial disaster that is much of the African continent and the Caribbean (another major source of black immigration to Canada), it should also surprise nobody that black immigration into Canada has been happening at a steady pace as a main source of skilled and unskilled labour.
And it that case it should surprise you that black immigration into Canada has been a feeble trickle throughout its history. In fact, of the ~400,000 black people who have immigrated to Canada since such records were collected, more than half have entered since 1991. You remember 1991, right? First Iraq war, Sonic the Hedgehog, Rodney King, Smells Like Teen Spirit? That’s also the year that Canada passed the ‘halfway’ point for black immigration.
Understanding why this startling (to me, at least) fact exists is contingent upon accepting the reality that Canada has been, since its beginnings, an institution steeped deeply in the attitudes of white supremacy. Even after the era of slavery, Canada did not simply shuck its attitudes about the inferiority of black people. We continued to be a country with racism woven into our very fabric.
Mensah highlights the following from Prime Minister Robert Borden, in which he affirms that the “Conservative Party stands for a white Canada.” But of course, a crazy right-wing radical with open and notorious racism in his record gets consigned to the dustbin of history, right?
It was in the throes of this warm flood of Canadian tolerance to other cultures and peoples that the government (led by Liberal Wilfred Laurier) drafted the now-notorious Immigration Act of 1910. Many people rightly decry the grave injustice and disgusting immorality of the overtly racist policies of the Jim Crow southern United States or of apartheid South Africa. Any time legislation is passed to specifically hold back or otherwise disadvantage a group based on race, we recoil and condemn it as destructive and unethical.
It may surprise some of you* to learn that Canada’s immigration policy from 1910 forward was just as explicitly racist as any other example we could conjure. The government had the authority to restrict immigration to those races deemed ‘acceptable’, and keep out any ‘undesirable’ groups. It does not take a great deal of imagination or skills of deduction to work out that this meant, essentially, ‘whites good, blacks bad’.
Canada did not begin using a form of its contemporary immigration policy – based on a ‘points’ system and ‘blind’ to race – until 1967. That means, for those of you keeping track, that black people were more or less barred from entry into Canada during the building of the middle class, the establishment of a great number of our social programs, and a seminal portion of our national history. Even since then, the vast majority of immigrants have come from South and East Asia rather than Africa or the Caribbean.
It would be a mistake to characterize Canada’s shift in immigration policy as a reflection of progressive racial attitudes. While this may be true in part – Canada was certainly not immune from the influence of the Civil Rights struggle in the United States – it is important to note that Canada’s immigration policy had always been fuelled by a need for labour. Shifting socioeconomic realities both in Canada and abroad necessitated the importation of groups that had been, heretofore, purposefully excluded from the country. This is no less true today than it was then.
Knowing how recent black arrivals are to Canada, it follows logically that black Canadians are concentrated in major urban centres. After all, it beggars belief that recent arrivals would move into the suburbs and interior unless they were particularly well-off. It usually takes at least one generation of success to see group migration away from major cities and into more remote locations where the reliance on community support is lesser. This fact is no less true for black Canadians, nearly 80% of whom live in one of five Canadian cities (Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary and Vancouver).
What is somewhat peculiar about black Canadians is that they (we) seem less prone to ‘enclave’ than our South Asian and East Asian brethren. Mensah calculates an “Index of Separation” – a measure of how much of the population would have to move to be uniformly spread across a geographic area – for Canada’s three largest cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver). Compared to Filipinos, Chinese and South Asian populations within these same cities, black Canadians are more evenly distributed.
There are two implications that jump out from this fact – first, it may simply be a reflection of the reality of a number of ‘black communities’ that are less historically and culturally homogeneous than other groups. This lack of cohesiveness may make blacks in Canada more willing to spread out among different groups rather than hanging together. Second, it means that blacks in Canada are less likely to be able to generate meaningful political momentum because of their (our) lack of shared geography. No public figure will pay a significant penalty for actions that disadvantage black people in hir riding – there simply aren’t enough of us to raise a sufficient stink.
Once again, we see that understanding the contemporary experience of black Canadians requires more than the shallow understanding of black history that we are taught in schools. Failing to understand that we had an official policy for half a century that restricted black immigration leaves us vulnerable to making erroneous conclusions about the contribution of blacks to the Canadian story. Failing to recognize how recent most black Canadians are to the country leaves us susceptible to crafting false myths about black attitudes toward integration into Canadian society.
Failing to understand that black history is and continues to be the story of a group of people colliding with the (slowly, too slowly) crumbling edifice of white supremacy allows us to make the repeated mistake of failing to learn that black history is our history, regardless of where our parents were born.
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*I need to be as clear as possible in these posts – most of this is information that is new to me. I do not wish to convey the impression that I am passing judgment on you for not knowing these details – I’m getting them all out of a book that I bought 2 weeks ago. I find it surprising, so I assume you do too.