Why the Black struggle in Canada has all but been erased. Two historians explain our blind spot
|Toronto Star 06 Jun 2020 at 10:47|
When discussions about slavery or systemic racism arise, many Canadians, by default, connect their understanding of that sordid legacy to the American experience.
Two prominent Canadian Black historians say that’s not by accident, but part of an orchestrated coverup and institutional denial by the country that slavery and systemic racism existed by minimizing the Canadian experience and leaving it to be drowned out by a flood of American narratives in media and literature.
“Canadians have been able to write a history of Canada that has rendered Black people very absent,” said Rinaldo Walcott, a black studies professor at the University of Toronto. “Canada has been skilled at suppressing its own relationship with the enslavement of Black people. They seem to even forget that Canada was a part of the British Empire and therefore would mean that Canada participated in slavery.”
Walcott says the gatekeepers of Canadian media and history have long downplayed the Black experience.
“It’s not as attractive to reproduce,” says Walcott, “because the people who hold the power to decide what’s attractive to make are also people who don’t understand and are not willing to learn about the facts of slavery of Black lives in Canada for 200 years.”
The Canadian story is further discounted “because the goliath to the south of us eats up all of that space.”
Afua Cooper, a professor at Dalhousie University, says Canada’s legacy of atrocities against Blacks is deliberately buried and not allowed the same limelight as America’s history which is proliferated online and through popular media.
“They’re saying, if we create the story that we do not have a Black historical presence in this country, then there is no slavery and no colonization,” she says. “They covered it up.”
Cooper says that skewing of the facts has left Canadian media and people looking to the south for answers about the legacy of a story that we have had in our own backyard.
“A big part of it is caused by white guilt,” she said. “They know how it robbed Black people of their lives.”
She said stories of Canadian trail-blazing entrepreneur and civil rights activist Viola Desmond (now on the Canadian $10 bill after a long struggle to have her recognized) has been historically overshadowed by similar American civil rights stalwarts such as Rosa Parks.
“When the civil rights movement was happening in the United States, very few people knew that Desmond was thrown out of a (Nova Scotia) cinema 10 years before and that she had to take it to court,” she said. “Some of it never made it into international news, because there is a good Canadian cover up.”
Afua, Halifax’s poet laureate, has worked tireless to resurrect some of that hidden history through her many books, poetry and civil rights work. In 2018 Cooper unearthed the problematic past of Dalhousie University’s founder, Lord Dalhousie, who had ties to slavery and racism.
She said the dark side of that history was tucked away, when Canada reinvented itself as a confederation in 1867.
“What they did was reinvented Canada as a white man’s country and Blacks were legally banned from entering Canada,” she said.
It’s worth mentioning that America has more Black people than Canada’s total population. Slavery in the United States lasted longer and was more widespread.
“Slavery up here wasn’t as long or as intense as the United States,” said columnist and radio show host Royson James. “So, you’re not going to have that volume of stories. And, we don’t have Hollywood.”
Walcott said the Canadian story has been left to appear almost alien, like enslavement “didn’t happen here.”
“It is definitely under-represented in every institutional venue in this country,” he said. “When it does rise to the top, it’s singled-out as special, an aberration, but not as a part of what actually is the foundation of what Canada is.”
He said the Canadian story has been overshadowed by that of the U.S, which produces much of the media we consume, leaving most channels Canadians tune into, like Netflix, flooded with American content.
At the same time, “there are places In Canada where we can go and see the history of ongoing racial segregation,” Walcott, said. “Go to North Preston, Halifax, and the evidence is right there in our faces.”
He said there is an undeniable interconnectedness of Canada’s Black story to that of the U.S and other places like the Caribbean.
“We have to never forget that Black people were enslaved in New France (now Quebec), they were enslaved in Upper Canada (now Ontario),” he said. “A lot of the commodities produced in the Caribbean were shipped to the east coast of Canada, but also that the east coast of Canada was a place where slave ships were also built.”
In unpacking Canada’s fragmented and troubled acknowledgment of its own history of slavery and injustices against Blacks, Walcott pointed to the United Nations declaring 2015-2024 to be the International Decade for People of African Descent, calling for a global recognition, justice, and development for people of African descent.
“The Liberal government recognized, province of Ontario and Toronto recognized it, but across this country, many others have been silent on it,” he said. “They’re in denial of slavery in this place.”
Walcott, 55, says it’s all “starting to feel like a treadmill,” where racial eruptions like what we’re seeing today “results in tiny little investments in Black communities before things wane. That calls for a serious reckoning.”
Walcott says ignorance was on full display recently when the premiers of Quebec and Ontario made comments downplaying the degree of systematic racism and discrimination in Canada.
“Premier François Legault can say that even though there is a place in Quebec called ‘N- - - - r Rock’ which is a slave cemetery,” Walcott said. “For 150 years, they have perpetuated that Canada was different, through school books and public discourse. That’s why they can say there’s no systemic racism.”
“What is profound to us, is the way this understanding of Canada is so deeply hidden and buried,” Walcott says. “What has really triumphed is this notion of the multicultural Canada.”
“Alongside that comes the idea that Black people are recent here,” Walcott said. “When you do that, you can forget that Africville, Nova Scotia, existed, you can forget that Grey County , Ontario and all these other places that have had long continuous Black communities existed.
“Then, therefore, you don’t have to account for us,” Walcott said. “Canada as a nation has been able to convince both Canadians and people across the Globe that Canada is fundamentally different from the United States, and that Canada is a benevolent place and that the political and social issues associated with Black people in the U.S., simply do not exist here.”
Here are some resources that may help, especially non-Black people, increase their knowledge and feel empowered to be part of the collective effort to fight anti-Black racism: