Blacks have had a long and distinguished presence in Canada for over 400 years, yet their presence and contributions have been minimized and in some instances subjected to erasure.
“There is only one thing worse than being forgotten and it’s to be erased, expunged and obliterated,” said former Governor General Michaëlle Jean in her keynote address at the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA) third conference last weekend. “Ours is a struggle against the forces that would erase our presence, that would wipe out how much African-Canadians contribute to building this nation and that would paint Black Canada as a historical problem rather than a living contribution.”
The conference theme was “Where are you from? Reclaiming the Black Presence in Canada”.
Jean addressed the question of identity while paying tribute to the two most important women in her life.
“I am from an experience, I am from a condition and struggle and tonight I think of my grandmother and I am reminded also of my mother – both of whom raised their children alone,” she said. “My grandmother found herself a widow in Haiti with five children to feed. As for my mother, after a difficult divorce and under the stress of exile in Canada, nevertheless but with courage and dignity, she had to be the sole provider of her two young daughters. But both my grandmother and mother shared one ambition. Whatever the sacrifices, they were going to provide their children with the best education possible.”
Born into poverty in Haiti, Jean and her family moved to Montreal in 1968 to flee the Duvalier regime. She studied Comparative Literature at the University de Montreal, taught Italian in that university’s Department of Modern Languages and Literatures and worked in shelters for female victims of domestic violence.
She noted that education, more than success, is the key to freedom.
“In Haiti, education goes hand in hand with emancipation and liberation,” said Jean, who has been the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO) special envoy for Haiti since October 2010. “So the words that my grandmother and mother kept repeating about the importance of education were handed down to us from our ancestors, generations of men and women and their descendants who, over 300 years, were transported as beasts of burden and forced into slavery. They were dispossessed in that everything was taken away from them, including their names, their history, their culture, their land, their languages and their own sense of self.
“They knew in their flesh that oppression, rejection and marginalization died on some of the most difficult chains to break, the shackles of oppression. And they knew that with education came the possibility of lifting yourself above your condition.”
Jean established a network of emergency shelters in Quebec and across Canada before enjoying an outstanding career as a television journalist, anchor and host of news programs on Radio-Canada and CBC Newsworld (now CBC News Network). She was appointed Canada’s first Black vice-regal in 2005.
“I rejoice in the fact that we are having this conversation and that it is happening here tonight in this university, touching upon the relationships between where we come from, where we are and where we are going,” said Jean. “I come from a history spanning continents and I come from a country that had to take the powerlessness of fear and turn it into the power of fearlessness. I come from Haiti, the first Black-led republic on the globe.”
The three-day conference took place at Brock University in St. Catharines where African-American abolitionist and humanitarian, Harriet Tubman, lived for a few years in the 1850s before moving to Auburn, New York.
Tubman, who played a pivotal role in the function of the Underground Railroad that was the pipeline for freeing hundreds and slaves and leading them to freedom in Canada, is one of nine Blacks designated Persons of National Significance in Canada with plaques erected to celebrate their landmark achievements.
Jean paid homage to Tubman, who died 100 years ago at age 93.
“We need to honour her work, saving and liberating lives through the Underground Railroad and her relentless dedication to abolishing slavery,” said Jean, who is the University of Ottawa chancellor. “We need to honour her memory with pride.”
Four years ago, the Michaëlle Jean Canadian Chair in Caribbean and African Diasporic Studies was launched at the University of Alberta. The chair aims to conduct research into the Caribbean and African Diaspora’s historical and contemporary experiences in Canada, offer study-abroad opportunities in Africa and the Caribbean and recruit world-class scholars, top undergraduate and graduate students.
The BCSA was launched in Vancouver in 2009 when Cooper was the Ruth Wynn Woodward Endowed Chair in Simon Fraser University’s Women’s Studies Department.
“A total of 22 people attended and they presented papers and ideas,” said Cooper, who is the James Johnston Endowed Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University. “It was just wonderful because I wanted to examine and explore the state of Black Studies in Canada.”
A second conference took place three years ago at the University of Alberta.
“Our experience here is uniquely Canadian,” said Cooper, whose interest in slavery, abolition and women studies led to her doctoral dissertation on anti-slavery crusader Henry Bibb and the publishing of The Hanging of Angélique: The Untold Story of Canadian Slavery and the Burning of Old Montreal, a national bestseller that was nominated for the 2006 Governor General’s Award. “As Black people, we come from different parts of the Diaspora.
“We came with the French explorers as free people, we came as enslaved people, we came as immigrants, migrants, refugees, adventurers, discoverers and explorers into this land space that’s called Canada and within this land space, we created a vibrant, new, different and unique culture and history that’s different from African-American or British or whatever else. So Black studies, with a focus on Canada, has come of age. This conference reveals that Black studies has moved from margin to centre as a multidisciplinary field of study that’s worthy of intellectual inquiry.”
In addition to Cooper, the other conference organizers were Tamari Kitossa of Brock University, David Austin of Abbot College, Charmaine Nelson of McGill University and Jennifer Kelly of the University of Alberta.