Black Canadians: where, when and why

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.


  1. Brian Lynchehaun says

    Given the ‘head tax’ that the Chinese had to pay to enter Canada, this is not altogether surprising to me, though I am surprised that blacks were just refused entry. Of course, it may well be that they simply couldn’t afford the fees.

  2. says

    Whilst listening to a CBC show the other morning I heard an interesting piece of black history in Canada. In the run up to your civil war there was a request made from a group of blacks in San Francisco to Sir James Douglas, then Governor of the Colony of Vancouver Island to emigrate to Victoria. Douglas was part Creole and he welcomed them. During the war some left to go back and fight for the Union however some stayed and one was elected to city council.

  3. P Smith says

    I remember on tax forms, and from courses on business and tax, that Quebec offered financial incentives for any French speakers who settled in the province, regardless of origin or ethnicity. IIRC, a number of immigrants who settled in Quebec were from African and Carribean countries. I wonder how much that played a role in changing demographics in Quebec’s cities since around 1990.

  4. bogaurd says

    Why history month don’t teach that the very first soil that the British ships touched in west Africa as part of the assault and takeover was a Muslim country eg Tanzania in 14 century,

    so how is it the sun worship or church people that is pushed on behalf of most African race’s history in Canada? is this scheme by the white man to continue his legacy as the roman name Zeus continues? because before the colonialism were the crusades and colonialism came due to the weak crusades that couldn’t conquer the east so they came up with imperialism and democracy since their crusades had no power over colored territories.

    The fact they took Muslims and placed them in island for over 100 years so they can forget who they are or who they were, that is messed up you should be teaching 500 years of oppression not 400 years the missing hundred years is the link to the truth.

    Yes taking people to island of the Atlantic is same as bring them to America, it was against the will of the people, now you cant stick them in catholic schools make them eat pork and forget themselves? they still our long last brothers despite how brain washing or white washed they may have become.

  5. ambassadorfromverdammt says

    Recent immigrants that I’ve met from the Congo, and Somalia don’t really have much in common with each other beyond the civil violence in their homelands.

    I am also cognisant that not long ago 800k people were murdered in Rwanda because of tribal hatreds. Africa is not homogenous.

    I’m not surprised that Black immigrants are not forming enclaves.

  6. Mclean says

    I find it surprising that even for Commonwealth countries Canada was restrictive based on skin. I should have known better though, racism is racism precisely because it doesn’t take into account such things.

    I think we have a reputation of being tolerant, at least in the commonwealth, by sticking with more merit-based immigration laws when we finally had them rather than behave like British politicians in pandering to its racist citizens in the 70s, although having Trudeau liberals in office probably had more to do with that than anything else.

  7. Broggly says

    I didn’t know the details, but I’m not surprised. Here in Australia the first law passed by parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act, which first barred anyone not White and British, and was slowly relaxed as Western Europeans, Southern Europeans, Slavs, Indians, East Asians and other people became acceptable.

  8. ischemgeek says

    This is the sort of stuff that should be taught in History but is left aside in favor of talking about how Old White Guys forged confederation for four months of every school year (yes, four months of history class in my schooling was spent on Confederation. Every. Single. Year. How many times can you go over the events leading up to and following July 1, 1867? There are other periods in Canadian history, damn it!).

    My school paid lip service to Black History Month with a day of coverage of the Underground Railway and half a period of coverage of Africville… and then about a week of “Here’s stuff that Black people invented, here’s some traditional African foods (yes, because all of Africa has one fucking culture *eyeroll*), here’s traditional African clothes (see previous), here’s…” etc. Then back to talking about Old White Guys before the month is even over because we’ve got a curriculum to follow and there’s only room for Old White Guys in it.

    Even in high school before I became aware of how big a problem racial issues are in Canada, I knew it was bullshit (mainly because I felt a strong parallel between that and how they treated women in the history curriculum… which, yeah. Women did stuff in Canadian history? I mean… there was, uh, Nellie McClung, and, uh… Nellie McClung… and she’s pretty much the only woman that was even mentioned in all 12 years of my public schooling as having an active role in anything, and even then, her story was heavily expurgated).

  9. says

    Thanks for this post, that was pretty fascinating. Certainly not covered in my history classes. I agree with #8 ischemgeek.

    Does it mention if some countries or races are specifically excluded from immigration before ’67? Or is it more of a “here are the desirable countries” list (U.K, France etc)? I imagine a lot of institutional racism could thrive longer by the latter.

  10. audiolight says

    Even since then, the vast majority of immigrants have come from South and East Asia rather than Africa or the Caribbean.

    I’m curious – what do you think this sentence implies? If you were implying something specifically, I’m interested to know which way you were going with it.

    Great article.

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