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Feb 20 2012

Black Canadians: who

This is the third 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. The second post is here.

While black Canadians come principally from the Caribbean and Africa (obviously), it is important to note that these areas are far from homogeneous. The Caribbean, made up of a fleet of island countries (and my father’s mainland home), enjoys a great deal of cultural diversity. While they share the distinction of being formerly (primarily English) colonies, each island has its own distinct flavour. This is even more true of the countries of Africa – with borders drawn by colonial powers and centuries of tribal development that is unparalleled anywhere else on the planet.

Consequently, it is nearly impossible to fully or even adequately describe the full cast of characters that comprise black Canada. Indeed, even describing them (us) as a group is fallacy layered upon fallacy. However, because we make up such a small population and face certain commonalities with respect to being seen as a unified group, it is useful and reasonable to speak in these terms. That being said, there is important information to be gleaned from understanding some of black Canada’s constituent groups.

Whereas a full accounting of all of these groups would take several books (and a much heftier number of thousand-word blog posts), Mensah focuses the lens on Canada’s “indigenous” black population (the oldest of which is in Nova Scotia), and four immigrant groups: Jamaicans, Haitians, Ghanaians and Somalians. A warning here: while I am skipping most of the historical descriptions of these groups and focusing instead on the ‘who’ rather than the ‘why’, this information is crucial to understanding the cultural dynamics at play. I cannot recommend Mensah’s book highly enough, because he is able to give a much better account than I will.

Blacks in Nova Scotia

So we’ve already had some discussion of black history in Eastern Canada, but since the underlying thesis of these posts is that our history informs our present, it is useful to provide some contemporary information. There are somewhere in the neighbourhood of 14,000* black people living in Nova Scotia (population ~900,000), 89.6% of whom were born in Canada (only 5% lower than the general population). As we might predict based on last week’s post, the vast majority (90%) live in the largest city, Halifax. It would also be fairly easy to predict, in the absence of evidence, that despite their longevity, blacks in Nova Scotia are disadvantaged in terms of education, employment, and income compared to the general population. Mensah does not speculate much on why this might be the case, so I will leave you to ponder why that might be.

It is perhaps a weakness of the book (and likely due to the lack of available data) that black Nova Scotians are used rather than, say, black Calgarians or black Montrealers. The Eastern provinces have been economically depressed for decades, and as a result it is difficult to extrapolate the experience of black Nova Scotians to black Canadians as a whole. Perhaps there is a message within a message here, since any attempt to generalize black Canadians is a fool’s errand for the reasons I described in this post’s opening paragraphs.

Jamaicans (231,100; Toronto, Montreal, Oshawa, Ottawa, Hamilton)**

Because of the shifts in immigration policy (described last week) over the past century, the Caribbean has been a fecund source of immigrants. Jamaicans represent the largest proportion of Caribbean immigrants (38%), and as a country that is predominantly black***, it represents a major contributor to Canada’s black population. Jamaican immigration enjoyed a boom in the mid-1980s, which petered out in 1995 when Canada’s economy slowed and immigration priorities shifted. You will notice that the vast majority of Jamaican immigrants live in Ontario (4 of the top 5 cities, representing 97% of the Jamaican population, are in Ontario).

Haitians (102,435; Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto, Quebec City,  -****)

It should surprise nobody that Canadians of Haitian descent live in largely bilingual Montreal and Ottawa-Gatineau, given that French is the official language of Haiti. There is a considerable advantage to speaking French in those cities, and obviously less of a language barrier than would be faced in Anglophone cities. Immigration from Haiti peaked in the 1970s and enjoyed another brief resurgence in 1981 (and again in 1993; it would not surprise me to learn that another one happened in the wake of the earthquake in 2010*). Quebec has a notorious and incongruously non-progressive reputation for anti-immigrant hostility, and Haitian influxes were marked by this typical backlash which continues today.

Ghanaians (23,230; Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Calgary)

Ghana is a useful sociopolitical proxy for black Africa in general, as it is made up of a large variety of peoples speaking a similar diversity of languages, grouped together out of colonial convenience. Immigration from Ghana peaked in 1993 (for the same reasons that this happened for Jamaicans), settling down over the next decade. There was a nearly-negligible number of Ghanaian immigrants prior to this period, owing to both restrictive Canadian immigration policies and domestic issues. Interestingly, Mensah notes that many Ghanaian immigrants wish to return home at some point, which is somewhat of an outlier from the narrative that people migrate to Canada to build new lives as Canadians.

Somalians (37,775; Toronto, Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver, Calgary)

In stark contrast to Ghana’s heterogeneity, Somalia is homogenous in a way that is not characteristic of the rest of black Africa. Of course, as it has been torn apart by an inexorable civil war, most Somali immigrants to Canada are, in fact, refugees. Also unlike the other three countries profiled by Mensah, neither of Canada’s official languages are widely spoken in Somalia. These and other factors have made life particularly difficult for Somalians trying to cope in Canada. They are held in a regard that is somewhat parallel to how Roma are viewed in Europe by much of the black community (particularly in Toronto with its well-established Caribbean enclaves).

Concluding thoughts

As I will discuss in greater depth this afternoon, talking about “black Canadians” is a far trickier feat than discussing African Americans. They (we) are a diverse group with important cultural and historical differences that set us apart from our southern cousins. It is no less important, therefore (and perhaps more important), to place our contemporary challenges in their proper historical context. Neglecting this information robs us of critical perspective that we need to make informed, constructive decisions about how black Canadians will fit into the larger Canadian landscape.

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*Mensah’s data come from the 2006 census. As data from last year’s census becomes available, these numbers will likely have changed, albeit probably not dramatically.

**Number living in Canada; 5 most populated cities (by this group) in descending order.

***It is important to note that, as a general rule, while blacks may comprise the statistical majority in Caribbean countries, political and economic power tends to be held disproportionately by whites.

****Canadians of Haitian descent live predominantly (84%) in Montreal, and the numbers trail off rapidly such that it does not make sense to list a 5th city. There are more Haitians living in ‘other places in Canada’ (2,565) than in the 5th-largest city (405; Vancouver).

6 comments

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  1. 1
    Aquaeri

    Nitpick: Haiti has two official languages, French and Kreyol. I don’t know if Haitian immigrants to Canada come from the more educated, affluent part of the population that speaks French. If not, part of the problem Haitian immigrants experience would no doubt be bigotry against Kreyol as “corrupted French”.

  2. 2
    Crommunist

    It’s actually spelled Creole (at least I’ve never seen it spelled Kreyol before). I am sure that language issues are a problem, particularly in Quebec (although they do have their own pidgin French called Joual), but I find it difficult to believe that bias against Creole is a major motivating factor in the discriminatory clash between white Quebecois and Haitian immigrants.

  3. 3
    Aquaeri

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haitian_Creole_language
    There you go, it’s spelled Kreyòl in Kreyòl ayisyen. (I wasn’t on as accent-friendly a keyboard before.)

    I didn’t suggest it was a “major motivating factor”, it’s just been my experience that when there’s bigotry, it often comes up with justifications like “obviously, they’re not very smart, they can’t speak properly” for itself.

  4. 4
    Ace of Sevens

    Are descendants of escaped or freed American slaves a significant part of the black population?

  5. 5
    Crommunist

    In Canada? You might want to look at the rest of the posts in this series for the answer to that.

  6. 6
    audiolight

    Indeed, even describing them (us) as a group is fallacy layered upon fallacy. However, because we make up such a small population and face certain commonalities with respect to being seen as a unified group, it is useful and reasonable to speak in these terms.

    talking about “black Canadians” is a far trickier feat than discussing African Americans.

    I think this post pinpointed the exact reason I (and likely other Canadians) have a hard time providing a justification for using the term “black Canadians” – because it’s too much of a subjective label for where/when you use it, most would rather avoid using it at all than confuse the issue of which specific group you’re referring to (e.g. the rest of your post). I agree though that this labeling issue makes it hard to create a “black community identity” in Canada.

    On the other hand, “African Americans” (particularly from the American south) has a more distinctive group identity/shared heritage in Canadian minds, so the label can be used in conversation with understanding – I’m not sure how you would overcome this differing history gap for social group labeling purposes in Canada.

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