Raising awareness

One of Toronto’s most well known historical sites, the St. Lawrence Market, was once a place where people of African descent were bought and sold. We need not travel to the United States, or the west coast of Africa to walk in the footsteps of ancestors who were held in bondage.

Were this 1811 instead of 2011, if we, as Black people, walked along such places as Front and Dundas Streets, or through Yorkville, we might not have been doing so as free men and women. Think about it.

This February marks Canada’s 15th annual official observation of Black History Month which had its origins in the U.S. in 1926 under the guidance of African American historian and scholar Carter G. Woodson.

Black people of various origins number close to one million among Canada’s population of some 34 million and close to nine per cent of Toronto’s population. We are a presence here, and have been for more than 400 years, yet it has only been in more recent years that the presence and contributions that Black people have made in building this country has been more accurately revealed. The diligent work of historians – among them Drs. Daniel G. Hill, Afua Cooper and Sheldon Taylor – has been, and continues to be, a great service in providing a better perspective on our lives here over the centuries.

In decades past, schools provided little or no information to students about this important part of Canada’s history, so one of the triumphs of having Black History Month instituted is that during the coming weeks children in public schools will receive focused information about how Black people historically came to be in this land we now know as Canada and how we have lived here over the centuries.

Adults, too, can take advantage of the many events taking place this month to get to know more about who we are and what we have given to this country.

Since the bulk of Black immigration to Canada began in the 1960s, with many arriving from the Caribbean, more recent arrivals may not know the extent of the Black presence here. In order to strengthen the relationship with the place we now know as home we ought to make ourselves aware of our history here so that Black History Month is not just about reminding the rest of Canada about the fullness of the Black presence in Canada, but also to raise our own awareness.

Our roots here run deep. Black people in their numbers found their way to Canada during the 18th Century, following the American Revolution, as they sought to escape the inhuman conditions of slavery in the United States. Their path to freedom was the Underground Railroad. Many early Black Canadians originated mainly from the U.S. So the spirit of fighting for freedom and equal rights has been a strong force within this community from the very beginning.

That same spirit was present in the bold efforts of 20th Century activists who fought to open the doors of Canadian immigration to many from the Caribbean – people like Stanley Grizzle who in 1954 organized the first delegation of Canadian Blacks to meet with members of the federal cabinet to discuss discrimination against West Indian applicants for Canadian immigration.

Earlier, Grizzle and A.R. Blanchette had led the fight for Black equity through union certification of the Order of Sleeping Car Porters. That same spirit of Black Canadian activism and persistence was behind the creation of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.

While a lot of what we are exposed to during Black History Month is based on the history of Blacks in the United States, we do have a wealth of Black history right here in Canada, a rich history that we need to explore as we continue to build our lives in this country.

We look forward to this month as a time of renewing in our consciousness the breadth and abundance of our involvement in Canada. In this way, we can rightfully take ownership of the value we add to Canadian life.


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