From as far back as the American Revolution in the late 1770s to the Korean War that ended in 1953, Black soldiers have bled and died for Canada. Yet their war service that helped create this country is diminished and sometimes totally ignored.
Educator, activist and retired politician, Zanana Akande, attempted to set the record straight in her keynote address at a Black History Month launch last Sunday.
Akande said that Black soldiers volunteered and valiantly contributed to Canadian victories in spite of racist treatment they faced in the Armed Forces and that their patriotism and heroism should be recognized in the same way as any other Canadian soldier.
“It’s through wars that this country was created and it’s through wars that Canada was recognized by international powers,” said the former Toronto public school principal. “In some writings and in speaking to those who should know better, there is a feeling that Blacks just reaped the benefits of a benevolent country and that we did not pay our dues.
“We paid our dues and we paid them and we paid them and we paid them and, even while we paid them, we continued to develop this country.
“I come here to tell you today that you should claim this country as your own. I come here to dispel and refute the notion that Blacks have asked for and expected something from this country.”
Akande also dismissed the prevailing myth that Canada’s only involvement in slavery was that it provided a safe haven for thousands of escaped slaves from the United States for nearly three decades up to 1860.
She said slavery widely existed in the colonies and territories now known as Canada, and the slaves – who in the minds of some still owe a debt – have been wrongly presented in literature as only the reapers of the generosity of a benevolent country.
“This is due to a determined and an effective effort to control the story and to hide the truth,” she said.
“I am here this afternoon to retell the story of Canada’s development without the lines of omission. It’s a story which should evoke much pride in our people and their commitment to and involvement in Canada’s growth in spite of the adversity that they faced. It’s a story which gives you answers to some too often asked questions.”
Akande, who next month will be presented with a University of the West Indies Luminary Award, cautioned those individuals who are working in isolation and taking credit for some advances that Blacks have made in Canada.
“Some of us believe that we have done it on our own,” she said. “We must work as a collective, we must recognize the buzz words and we must understand our environment and continue to contribute because, together, we really are much better.”
The Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), which hosted the event, presented awards to several community stalwarts, including Akande, the first Black woman elected to Ontario’s legislative assembly and Canada’s first Black cabinet minister. She received the Dr. Daniel Hill Award.
Hill and his wife Donna, along with some friends, co-founded the OBHS in 1978. He completed his doctorate in 1960 (his thesis was Negroes in Toronto: A Sociological Study of a Minority Group) and was the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s first full-time director and commissioner, a provincial Ombudsman, a prominent writer and community activist.
He was appointed to the Orders of Ontario and Canada before his death in June 2003.
Leonard Braithwaite, the first Black Canadian to be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and Canada’s first Black bencher, received the Rose Fortune Award while 92-year-old Herb Carnegie, Canada’ first Black hockey star who was denied the opportunity to play in the National Hockey League (NHL) because of his skin colour, was the recipient of the Mathieu da Costa Award.
Braithwaite and Carnegie were unable to attend the ceremony because of ill-health.
Penny Hodge and her brother Paul Anderson were the recipients of the Mary Matilda Winslow and Olivier Le Jeune Awards respectively.
Born in Digby, Nova Scotia in 1920, Hodge moved to Ottawa at age 22 to work for the National Research Council before coming to Toronto in 1945. She was employed briefly with the YMCA prior to spending 30 years with the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC).
Hodge is a former president, vice-president and treasurer of the now defunct Canadian Negro Women’s Association (CANEWA).
In 1956, Anderson became the first Black staff member with the Halton District School Board as a physical education teacher at Oakville Trafalgar School.
“In my time there, we had just about two or three Black students in the entire school,” he said.
Anderson was also physical education head at Richview Collegiate Institute for two decades and the OBHS’ second president.
Bermudan-born CANEWA members Millicent Burgess and Phyllis Brooks were recognized with the Rev. Addie Aylestock and Harriet Tubman Awards respectively.
Burgess came to Canada in 1950 on a government scholarship and returned home briefly before moving back here permanently in 1955. The octogenarian graduated from the University of Toronto in 1971 with a Bachelor of Arts degree and was employed with the Toronto public school board for 32 years up until her retirement in 1989.
Brooks graduated from U of T with an English degree and was a Children’s Aid Society social worker and a Toronto public school board teacher-librarian for 20 years. Her late husband, Wilson Brooks, returned from World War II as one of Canada’s first Black flying officers. He was also Toronto’s first Black school principal.
Juno award-winning artist and Gemini-nominated actor, Wes “Maestro” Williams, the first Canadian rapper to have a Top 40 hit with his signature single, Let Your Backbone Slide, and TV personality Tracy Moore, the host of Canada’s longest running lifestyle show, CityLine, were honoured with the Dr. Anderson Abbott and Mary Ann Shadd Awards.
Black History Month evolved from the work of American scholar, Dr. Carter G. Woodson who, in an attempt to spread the concept of African-American history, suggested its celebration during a week in the middle of February. He selected February because it was the chosen month of the birth of Frederick Douglass who was born a slave and therefore was unsure of his actual birth date.
By RON FANFAIR