By TOM GODFREY
A move by the Ontario government to introduce laws that will officially declare February as Black History Month in the province is being well received.
Michael Couteau, the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, said legislation will be introduced in the “near future” to recognize Black History Month annually.
“Ontario is celebrating the uniqueness, vitality and continuing contributions of the Black community in Ontario,” Couteau said in a release last week. “Honouring the province’s heritage and diverse communities is part of the government’s plan to build Ontario.”
He said Ontario first proclaimed February as Black History Month in 1993 to mark the 200th anniversary of a law banning the importation of slaves into Upper Canada.
“Since then, Black History Month has continued to be celebrated but has not had official status,” said Couteau.
The Act Against Slavery was passed on July 9, 1793 which ended the slave trade in Ontario.
The law, titled an Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Terms of Contacts for Servitude, stated all slaves in Ontario would remain enslaved until death, no new slaves could be brought into Upper Canada and children born to slaves would be freed at age 25.
Ontario would become the third province to officially recognize Black History Month, following British Columbia and Quebec, as well as the federal government, which has officially recognized the event since 1995.
“Black Ontarians have made vital contributions to Ontario’s economic, social and cultural landscape and our province is fortunate to benefit from this legacy,” said Couteau. “Black History Month is an important celebration of the accomplishments of Black people.”
The month was recognized by the Canadian government after a bill was introduced by former MP Jean Augustine in December 1995. It passed unanimously in the House of Commons and the first Black History Month in Canada took effect in 1996.
The celebrations had been taking place in Toronto since February 1950, when former Citizenship Court Judge Stanley G. Grizzle organized the first celebration at Toronto’s Shaw Street British Methodist Episcopal Church.
Dozens of valiant volunteers of the Canadian Negro Women’s Association helped to keep it alive over the years.
Author Dr. Daniel G. Hill and educator Wilson Brooks of the Ontario Black History Society took the event further by presenting a petition to have February declared Black History Month in the City of Toronto, which it was in 1979.
Before we had Black History Month in Canada, there was a movement to recognize North Americans of African descent, according to Black History Canada.
African-American historian Carter Woodson conceived the idea and introduced Negro History Week in 1926 as a time for Blacks to reflect and learn about their own history.
That later turned into a month to coincide with the birth month of President Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass, who are credited for helping to bring an end to slavery.
Sleeping car porters picked up the practice during their travels and brought the idea north across the border to Canada, where it began to be celebrated in the 1950s.
Ontario has previously passed legislation to recognize Dutch Heritage Month, Hispanic Heritage Month, Italian Heritage Month, Jewish Heritage Month, Sikh Heritage Month, Tamil Heritage Month, Asian Heritage Month and South Asian Heritage Month.
As well, the province has officially recognized Portugal Day, German Pioneers Day, Irish Heritage Day, Major-General Sir Isaac Brock Day, Ukrainian Heritage Day and United Empire Loyalists’ Day.