Black History Month

Time to expose Canada’s history of anti-black violence to the mainstream     

KEVIN KAPENDA // Contributor

It’s February again, but this Black History Month feels different than past ones.

Just last fall in September, the UN Human Rights Council urged the government of Canada to address historic and contemporary anti-Black racism in a series of recommendations. Formally acknowledging the presence of African slavery in Canada and considering reparations for many historical injustices grounded in exploitation, segregation and state violence were just some of the recommendations levelled by the UN. What was perhaps most damning in the report was the working group’s assessment of how this historical violence has shaped Canada’s anti-Black present.

The report outlined the many obstacles that prevent Black progress in this country, and the ways in which anti- Black sentiment is “deeply entrenched in institutions, policies and practices, that its institutional and systemic forms are either normalized or rendered invisible, especially to the dominant group.” For the UN, contemporary anti-Black racism “replicates the historical de jure and de facto substantive conditions and effects of spatial segregation, economic disadvantage and social exclusion.” While Canada has a long history of de jure, or legal, anti-blackness, the legacy of such policies continues to plague our society through informal, or de facto, racism. It is this unspoken yet loudly heard racism that makes the experience of Black Canadians distinct in the eyes of the UN, “because of the particular history of anti-Black racism in Canada, which is traceable to slavery and its legacy, through specific laws and practices enforcing segregation in education, residential accommodation, employment and other economic opportunities.”

Of course, the UN’s report was not all doom and gloom. It welcomed many actions being undertaken by provincial governments, particularly those of Ontario and Québec, who have named anti- Blackness in recently released anti-racism strategies, and moved to abolish programs such as police carding. Carding, a term used to describe the arbitrary stopping and identification of suspicious-looking people, disproportionately impacts Black individuals, adding to the violent history that exists between Black and Indigenous communities, and law enforcement in Canada. While Ontario abolished the practice in early 2017, police still have thousands of records of individuals who were unconstitutionally carded, and in many cases, because they were Black.

In addition to provinces, cities are also independently committing themselves to addressing anti-Black racism and with due reason. Municipalities are at the forefront of education, housing and policing, three institutions that have negatively impacted Black quality of life in Canada. In 2017, in response to the UN’s report, the City of Toronto released an Interim Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism. This included acknowledging the ways in which the city’s school board (TDSB) and police force (TPS) have failed the community through low graduation rates and streamlining black youth to low-skill courses, as well as subjecting Black Torontonians to disproportionately high rates of carding, excessive force, in-school policing and incarceration. In his letter of support for the report, Mayor John Tory reflected on the stories of discrimination and dehumanization he had heard from Black Torontonians by acknowledging his own privilege and experiences he will probably never have as an culturally and economically privileged white male, such as being followed in a store.

While the acknowledgement and historical overview of anti-Black racism from Canadian governments and the UN has been eye-opening, no account of systemic anti-Blackness in Canada has been more insightful than that of Robyn Maynard’s in her 2017 best-seller Policing Black Lives. In the book, Maynard traces the evolution of anti-black violence in Canada from 18th and 19th century slavery, to 20th and 21st century economic exclusion, mass incarceration and segregation.

One recurring criticism of Black History Month in Canada is the belief that it is unnecessary because our country is not racist nor anti-Black, and that it is more relevant to the US or other countries with African slavery. However, after centuries of both material and symbolic anti-Black violence, which in the UN’s words was systemically kept low-key, it appears as if that criticism no longer holds weight. Therefore, my hope for this Black History Month and all those to come is not only for it to serve as a celebration of Black contributions to the cultural, economic and social development of Canada. My hope is that it can also serve as a reminder of Canada’s historic dehumanization and enslavement of Black bodies, and the contemporary violence, both physical and symbolic, Black Canadians continue to suffer.

A Violent Past

When I was in high school, Black history in Canada was not something that was talked about. The only slavery discussed in my history and social studies courses was that that had happened in the US In fact, the only Canadian Black history I remember from elementary and high school are stories about the Underground Railroad, which depicted the US as a violently anti-Black country and Canada as a welcoming safe haven for runaway slaves. Of course, these stories were not told or written from the perspective of Black people. They were written to support a false narrative that Canada is not as anti-Black as the US, and that the country has always been welcoming of difference – except for the countless times our country has proven to be anything but.

Illustration by Annie Chang

Indeed, throughout my 24 years, I’ve been constantly told that anti-Black racism is far worse in the US and that I should be thankful I’m here. The problem with this widely-held belief is that it erases past and present anti-Blackness in Canada by confounding the cultural, demographic and historic differences that exist between Canada and the US. According to Maynard, early settlers deemed Canada’s climate too cold and unsuitable for large-scale plantations that produced large black populations in the US, Caribbean and Latin America. The British Empire and France were both slave trading nations that stole millions of Africans and transported them to their other colonies in the Americas. The main reason why Canadians believe we aren’t as anti-Black as Americans is not because our history or record suggests so, but because Black bodies are erased from the Canadian identity, as a highly invisible minority group. Whereas in the US, African-Americans remain the largest and most visible minority group. In the eyes of Canadians, the number of African-Americans magnifies the racism perpetrated against them, even though our past and present has been just as violent towards Black bodies.

In her book, Maynard traces African slavery in pre-Confederation Canada back to the late 18th Century. The first Africans held in Canada were enslaved by French settlers in what is today Québec, and Atlantic Canada. As the British increased their presence and control of Canada, they too enslaved Africans in those provinces as well as in what is today Ontario. While the French settlers in Canada enslaved both Africans and Indigenous peoples, the British, as well as other European colonizers generally believed that Indigenous peoples were ill-suited for slavery while Africans were born for it. When France signed over full control of Canada to the British in 1763, Maynard writes that ownership of slaves was fully endorsed by the British Empire and all slaveholders, English and French, could continue to the violent practice. One common misconception about slavery that Maynard’s book shatters is the belief that slave owners were only the political elites or ultra-wealthy, like today’s top one percent. In actuality, slaves were owned by settlers with varying economic and social capital, from all walks of life.

African slavery in the Americas was inherently murderous, from first encounter and theft, to bondage. Canada was no exception to this violence. Maynard’s reading of Québécois historian Marcel Trudel reveals that slaves in New France were beaten with chains and rods as a form of punishment. Due to the immediate (beating and killing) and latent (denial of food) violence perpetrated against slaves in pre-Confederation Canada, few slaves lived past the age of 20. In addition to these acts of physical violence, female slaves were also subjected to abhorrent reproductive and sexual violence, subjecting Africans to both EuroAmerican racial hierarchies and patriarchy. Another form of violence African slaves in Canada were subjected to was isolation. Because Canada did not have plantation slavery, Maynard’s book explained that most slave owners were smallholders, needing only a few for specific domestic and agricultural duties. This lead to increased surveillance and intimate violence that most plantation slaves were not subjected to.

Slavery in British Canada was abolished in 1834, but that did not mean the country’s opposition to bondage equalled acceptance of Black bodies as full human beings, deserving of all the rights afforded to “Canadians”. When British Loyalists from the United States were resettled in Nova Scotia in the late 1800s, they were promised land from the Crown. However, most were not given land and those who were only received a quarter of the land given to British settlers arriving from the UK, an amount that Maynard cites as too small to live off. Therefore, most freed Blacks in Canada had to become cheap farm and domestic workers for whites who were paid virtually nothing, due to the systematic economic exclusion of Blacks. To this day, property continues to be the most common generator of wealth, as demonstrated in Vancouver’s housing prices. 

Illustration by Annie Chang

Throughout the 19th century and first-half of the 20th, Blacks in Canada continued to face various systemic economic, political and social barriers that impacted quality of life and sense of place. These barriers, some written into laws and others carried out informally, have been named by Maynard and scholars like Barrington Walker as Canadian Jim Crow, in reference to the US term for this same form of discrimination.

Like the United States, Canada also has a violent history of exclusion, epitomized in curfews and segregation. Maynard explains that “sundown” laws and other bylaws existed in many Canadian cities which required blacks to be in their homes or out of town altogether by a certain time of day, effectively criminalizing their existence outside of providing exploitable labour. While segregation was often written into law or into deeds that stated a property could only be owned by whites, it didn’t always have to be due to the structural impoverishment Blacks were subjected to on both sides of the border.

Through suburbanization and redlining, the practice of refusing to loan money to certain people based on their race, settler society was able to use their economic power to segregate blacks and other undesirable people from certain neighbourhoods.

A racist present

Acknowledging and understanding Canada’s history of anti-Black sentiment and violence is the only way we can attribute present inequalities to racism. From a young age, I’ve been told by society that things are the way they are because Black people are innately devious and unable to escape poverty. That it is our fault we are disproportionately incarcerated, policed and victimized by extra-judicial killings. That the ghetto is a place we created and accept, rather than places we were forced to live in through economic impoverishment and spatial segregation. While the work of activists, scholars and writers like Maynard, Desmond Cole, and Britney Andrew-Amofah is increasing awareness about anti-Blackness in Canada, past and present, the challenge facing Black Canadians is to get 97 per cent of Canadians to understand the embodied experiences of three per cent of the population. As the recent acquittal of the Saskatchewan man who executed Colten Boushie demonstrated, talking about reconciliation in legislatures and universities, and addressing racial violence in everyday communities are two very different things. However, by continuing to expose historic and contemporary anti-Black violence in Canada during and outside of Black History Month, I am optimistic that I will look back on this year’s February decades from now as a turning point in the struggle for Black emancipation in Canada.

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