Last updated: February 17, 2012 4:14 pm
Canada needs to learn its black history
Pointing to the Underground Railway and Rosa Parks isn't enough
FREDERICTON (CUP) — Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Malcom X are historical figures well known to many university students as leaders who fought against inequality and racism.
Names like Marie-Joseph Angélique or Olivier Le Jeune, however, will likely not ring a bell. These two people were slaves in Canada and are part of Canada's multi-faceted black history. Marie-Joseph Angelique was a female black slave who burned half of what was known as Old Montreal, and Olivier Le Jeune was a boy younger than eight years old who came into Canada from Madagascar as a slave but died a free man.
Award-winning author Lawrence Hill recently told the Montreal Gazette that he believes Canadian knowledge of black history in Canada is incomprehensively focused on the Underground Railroad because of Canadians' “unconscious resistance” towards examining their own history.
“It’s convenient to know about that, and if a Canadian does know a tiny bit about black history in Canada, they’re likely to trumpet the Underground Railroad,” Hill said in the interview.
Many are unaware that Canada also bears the shame of participating in slave trade. Both slaves and free blacks had to continuously fight against extreme discrimination and racism while living in Canada. Some were lynched for suspected theft, and others were deceived into a life of domestic work that was little more than slavery.
The Maritime provinces have particular significance to Black History Month in Canada. The first major influx of blacks to Canada occurred in Halifax after the American Revolutionary war in 1783. Black Loyalists came with other Loyalists to the Maritimes, but ultimately left to create the city Freetown in Sierra Leone due to the extent of racial discrimination they faced in Canada.
Very few attempts have been made to provide an impartial account of Loyalists in Canada. The approach taken is often patriotic or genealogical; thus, there is little information on the maltreatment they meted out to blacks, both slave and free.
As opposed to focusing on the history of African-Americans, which is important, educators and students in the Maritimes should be aware of the history of their own country and province. Many are unaware of major events in Canada, including the major exodus to Sierra Leone in 1792 and the creation of a small community in the city of Halifax called Africville, which was populated almost entirely by African Nova Scotians and subsequently destroyed by the Halifax government in the 1960s. Africville inhabitants continued to protest the demolition of their community in the 1980s and 1990s.
The municipal government of Halifax has since apologized for the destruction of Africville, and the government of Canada established a $250,000 Africville Heritage Trust in 2010 to preserve the history of the community. Now, the rest of the country just needs to get on board and learn about black history in Canada.