All across this great nation, our vibrant and diverse African Canadian population is now reveling in a full roster of events for Black History Month. Locally, the City of Toronto is marking its 36th official observance. However, beginning decades before, since at least the 1950s, organizations such as the Canadian Negro Women’s Association and less formal groups of railway porters had been honouring the history and lives of people of African descent in this country.
It is well to recognize that persons whose roots are traced to Africa have been a part of the history of this land for more than 400 years.
A name familiar to those who pay attention to African Canadian history in the chronicles of first arrivals is Mathieu da Costa, who came here in the early 17th century as a free man and was occupied as a translator among the French settlers, and was himself an explorer.
Da Costa must have had a significant gift for learning languages to function as a translator between the Mi’kmaq people and early French settlers. He would have had language competency in Portuguese as well. The value of his participation in the early history of this nation speaks to the nature and quality of the contribution that people of African descent have made in building our national legacy.
That is why we should be thankful to those who have made it their mission to ensure that those contributions are not forgotten, overlooked or minimized. That includes the Ontario Black History Society and historians in academe who are focused on documenting African Canadian history.
Why Black History Month in Canada? It is all too easy for those who choose to attach negative stereotypes to African Canadians to want to push aside the significant contributions of those who hail from this community. Or, conversely, to paper over the unfriendly and at times unjust treatment meted out to people of colour in this country.
Canadians like to pat themselves on the back in recalling that the Underground Railroad, conducted in significant part by the estimable Harriet Tubman during the 1850s, terminated here in Canada. People who escaped slavery in the United States could live in freedom once they were on this side of the Canada/U.S. border.
Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that people of African descent were held here in chattel slavery as well. This may not be news to this community, but it would be to the wider Canadian society as that wider society seeks to mythologize our collective history and to view the treatment here of people of colour as being in contrast to the painful history of a parallel period in the United States. Yet, during the 19th century, Africans were sold into slavery right here in Toronto, at St. Lawrence Market.
But Black History Month, even as it was first conceived by African-American Dr. Carter G. Woodson as Negro History Week in 1926, has to be viewed not only in the context of the legacy of African peoples in North America, but even farther into the past.
Before Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. received the Nobel Peace Prize, before the U.S. civil rights movement, before Malcolm X and before Marcus Garvey, the ingenuity and wisdom of the peoples of the great continent of Africa had been influencing the known ancient world and, as is continually being uncovered, influencing even beyond the so-called known world.
The great utility of reserving this time each year to remember and celebrate the immense stream of African creativity in all fields of endeavour is that these truths stand in stark contrast to the habitually repeated news reports of a troubled community plagued by the worst aspects of society. For, we know that African Canadians are much more than those distressing reports.
This concerted acknowledgment of African legacy should serve to inform and educate. At the same time, it should serve to inspire those in this community who have lost sight of the true importance of the contribution of African Canadians to continue to strive for justice and fairness as active participants in Canadian society.
We therefore encourage everyone to take part in the many events of recognition taking place during the coming month.