Another Year, Another Reflection on Black Canadian History

I really wanted to celebrate Black History Month this year--you know, #BlackFutures. I really wanted to write an informative blog and empower people to learn more about Black history in Canada. But I’ve been doing research. And in thinking about what I wanted to write about and trying to come up with something that would be relevant to the post-secondary sector and informative to readers, I kept coming across this saddening assertion:

Black people in Canada are a heterogenous, disparate group brought together by the shared experience of racism and discrimination.

So instead of following through on my original plan (of writing an uplifting blog), I implore you to pay attention to that statement. Internalize it. Be startled that, in a country where there ostensibly is no racism, shared adversity is what Canada’s Black communities use to overcome their cultural differences.

I’ve grown up being told Canada is a mosaic of multiculturalism, not a melting pot. But as I get older, I become increasingly frustrated with this notion. It makes it too easy to plaster buzzwords like “tolerance” and “diversity” over still bleeding wounds. And it makes it too easy to paint the actions of our British ancestors as the actions of saviours.

Perhaps we do this because our history classes give us good reasons to: they tell us that Black men, women, and children were offered freedom from slavery during the American revolution (skipping over the fact that this was in exchange for their loyalty to the British empire). Or that many African American slaves escaped to Ontario through the Underground Railroad. Ontario actually abolished slavery in 1793 using the Upper Canada Abolition Act and, via the British Imperial Act, Canada followed suit in 1863. If we want to look at more recent history, in 1944 Ontario was the first province to adopt a Racial Discrimination Act prohibiting discrimination along racial, ethnic, or religious lines.

Don’t get me wrong: these are accomplishments to be proud of, but don’t try to tell me that anti-Black racism was solved in the 18th century. Black people’s immigration to Canada--as refugees, mind you--was still restricted in the 1900s. They were still refused service in restaurants in the 1950s. There was still Klan activity in Ontario in the 1960s. And we still had the Common Schools Act (circa 1850), which permitted segregated schools until the 1960s.

Now, some might say that Black segregated schools were necessary in a Canadian context, but what is overlooked is that this necessity more than likely arose from exclusion rather than desire. On top of this, these segregated schools relied on charities to fund their operations. Together, the quality of this schooling was less than ideal. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia entry on Black Canadians, “when combined with residential isolation and economic deprivation, poor schooling helped to perpetuate a situation of limited opportunity and restricted mobility.” So while I struggled to find evidence of formal segregation at the university level, limited early schooling opportunities would certainly depress Black enrolment.

A trend that still continues to this day: there is significant overrepresentation of Black students in applied secondary school streams (which do not lead directly to university); Black students bear  the brunt of discipline, overrepresented among suspended students; and Black students have the highest secondary school dropout rates in the Toronto District School Board.

Segregation has allowed Canadians to (continue to) deny that this country has a “race problem.” Out of sight, out of mind as they say. I think this severe reluctance to acknowledge racism in Canada, as well as a lack of common historical education, does our Black communities a disservice.

So let’s acknowledge some things together:

York University was the centre of controversy in 1984 for its failure to appropriately reprimand Grant Austin (a student) for his racially motivated harassment of Janice Joseph (another student living in the same residence). Again, in 2008 York was criticized for its slow response to violent, racist graffiti that defaced the York University Black Student Association’s office and other parts of the campus. Just this past fall, Western University and the University Students’ Council strongly condemned the actions of students who belittled the #BlackLivesMatter slogan over a postponed homecoming weekend.

These more overt examples of discrimination punctuate everyday microaggressions. This all continues during a zeitgeist of leftist activism as more generic models of social justice and approaches to equity subsume the specific injustices of racism. Among lists of underrepresented or marginalized groups of students, I rarely see students of colour listed. I feel like “diversity” is just used as a euphemism for racial diversity, while the Ministries of Education and Advanced Education and Skills Development don’t even collect fulsome racial demographic data. Whenever race is asked about on surveys, more dog whistles sound listing a random array of racial/ethnic/cultural groups without just saying “not white.”

I bring up all of these things, not to dredge up the past, but to educate. To call racism by its name instead of dressing it up in niceties. For students on the receiving end, racism compounds and negatively impacts their educational experiences. This has to stop.

So another year passes. A year full of both empowering activism and ever-escalating racist attacks. Another year where we have to use this month to shout, “remember us!”


* Image taken from