During the month of February, Canada will celebrate the contributions made to this country by Canadians of African descent. The story of our country cannot be told without knowing about and acknowledging the ways in which Black Canadians cleared, built and farmed, toiled in factories, served in the war efforts, and built communities alongside those of European descent.
There has been a presence in Canada by people of African descent since 1603 when some of the very first settlements were being established and quite often this fact of history has remained unknown. The history of our nation is inexorably tied with the history of Black Canadians, whose individual and communal stories quite often are not heard simply because of the basic inequities that still exist in our culture. Black History Month is a means of overcoming this lack of knowledge by informing Canadians of the deep history that is our heritage, and celebrating that history.
We celebrate stories like that of Anderson Abbott, who became the first Black Canadian medical doctor, having an illustrious career both here and in the United States, notably treating a dying Abraham Lincoln. He later returned to Canada where he moved to Chatham and became the coroner for Kent County. We remember Mary Ann Shadd, who published a newspaper in Toronto called the Provincial Freeman, where she wrote about anti-racism, human rights, and women’s equality long before it was a reality here in Canada. She later moved to the US where she became the first Black woman lawyer. We acknowledge the story of Viola Desmond, Canada’s own version of Rosa Parks, who sat in a seat in movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in 1946, unaware that it was designated for Whites only, and sparked a Supreme Court challenge to Nova Scotia’s segregation laws.
Africville in Nova Scotia has long been recognized as one of the first free Black settlements in Canada, but there were many established in Ontario and in other provinces long before the American emancipation. Towns like Buxton near Chatham, Ontario were thriving Black communities in 1849 and a stop on the Underground Railroad. There is also a history of forgotten settlements, such as Wintermute– along the Grand River near Kitchener, Ontario– which was a large extended family of freed Blacks that came north with the United Empire Loyalists in 1783. The group was admired by the Six Nations Iroquois, who gave them a parcel of land in order to build a large communal farm. It is worth remembering the history of solidarity among the peoples who have created this country: we need it now as much as ever!
Countless thousands of Black Canadians have toiled in obscurity, helping to make Canada the modern country it is today, where equity and human rights matter and where multiculturalism and a diverse society is enshrined as being inherently Canadian. As media workers, we document the history that is made every day and it’s important to remember the stories that sometimes get left behind.
Terri Monture is a CMG Staff Representative and is assigned to equity and human rights issues.