By PAT WATSON
Some quarter of a million people of African descent make up nearly nine per cent of Toronto’s population, and we number close to 800,000 or around 2.5 per cent of Canada’s total population. These are the numbers going into this country’s 14th annual Black History Month.
It is thanks to Jean Augustine who, in 1995, as the then Member of Parliament for Etobicoke-Lakeshore, introduced a motion to recognize Black History Month across Canada. The House of Commons passed the motion unanimously and the first Black History Month was nationally celebrated in February 1996. The action by Augustine, now retired, which was also bolstered by the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), is by itself a testament to why more Black people are needed in Parliament.
Before Canada recognized Black History Month, with ample advocacy by the OBHS, Toronto led the way beginning in 1979, with the official recognition of the historical contributions of people of African descent.
We should not forget that the recorded presence of Africans here dates back to 1604. Furthermore, we as a people did not wait for official recognition to recognize our own. At the same time that the Civil Rights Movement was building momentum in the United States during the 1950s, the Canadian Negro Women’s Association was organizing events to mark the historical contributions of Toronto’s Black community.
So that, in the same way that African American historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson set the initiative for Black History Month in motion in the U.S. with the first ‘Negro History Week’ in 1926, Canadians of African descent were making sure that the efforts of those who had gone before, and those who today pave the way for the Black community, and indeed all Canadians, are not forgotten.
Yet history has, as is often said, a way of repeating itself. For, one of the countervailing aspects against Woodson’s crusade, which we hear even today, is that Black history should not be seen as something specific but should be blended into the over all history of the West or, more specifically, Canada and the United States.
While this notion could be considered to be ideologically agreeable as it speaks of an integrated Western history, the reality is that until people like Woodson made it their mission to articulate Black history it was not recognized in its full dimensions.
The ubiquitous American film industry, for example, gave us the western movie genre with its ‘cowboys’ making big stars of actors like John Wayne, but never made it clear that the term ‘cowboy’ was originally used in reference to Black cattle wranglers. So much, therefore, for recognizing Black contributions.
Instead of John Wayne, what about John Ware, a skilled ‘cowboy’ who eventually set up his own cattle ranch in Alberta in the late 19th Century. Ware moved north as part of the group of free Black families who migrated from the U.S. and settled in central Canada.
One of the ways that we commonly look at Black achievement in the West is to recognize the ‘firsts’. Even now, into this 21st Century, we are still racking up these firsts. Last year, Barack Obama became the first Black president of the United States. Here in Canada, we have a long list of similar firsts.
Michaëlle Jean is the first Black Governor General of Canada. Back in 1604 Mattieu da Costa, a free man, was the first Black person on record to have set foot on Canadian soil. Henry Bibb was the first Black person to publish a newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive, in Windsor in 1851. And Anderson Ruffin Abbott, born in Toronto in 1837, was the first Black Canadian-born doctor. At the age of 20 Abbott received his medical degree from the University of Toronto. These are but a few.
Beginning in September last year, another noteworthy achievement made the list of firsts with the opening of the Toronto District School Board’s first Africentric Alternative School. One can expect that for the children who currently attend, and for those who will follow them, all this information and more will guide them in taking their rightful place in Canadian society.
On a note of possibilities…
The Hollywood set has given Oscar nominations to director Lee Daniels, Gabourey Sidibe (best actress), Mo’Nique (supporting actress) and the film Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (best picture). What are the odds each will win in their respective categories?