In December 1995, the Parliament of Canada officially recognized February as Black History Month. The recognition followed a motion introduced by an African-Canadian woman member of Parliament, the Honourable Jean Augustine, M.P. for Etobicoke-Lakeshore. At the time Ms. Augustine was Parliamentary Secretary to the Canadian Prime Minister, The Right Honourable Jean Chretien. By this action, the Parliament of Canada was responding to the fact that the rich history of Canadians of African descent, including their contributions to the development of Canada as a vibrant country, is virtually absent in our history books and in the classroom.
As far back as 2 500 BC, thousands of years before the ugly slave trade, Africans had developed magnificent empires, intricate artifacts, and great wealth. Black history, therefore, is intended to bring some of this history to the Canadian public in the month of February. For all Londoners, and in particular for the educators, the Black History month is an opportunity to look at the backgrounds of all the African-Canadians in Canada and in our classrooms.
Arrival of African-Canadians in Canada
The first recorded person of African heritage to set foot in what would become Canada arrived on our shores some 400 years ago. It is believed that, in 1604, Mathieu Da Costa arrived with the French explorers Pierre Du Gua De Monts and Samuel de Champlain. Da Costa, a free man, worked as an interpreter, providing an invaluable link with the Mik’maq people encountered by the Europeans.
It was the shortage of labour in the Americas that spurred the growth of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. The first of those enslaved by European colonizers were Indigenous peoples of the Americas. Next to be enslaved were West and Central Africans in order to meet the massive demand for labour. These slaves provided free labour in the mining, harvesting and processing of goods for the building of the Americas.
In 1779, in an effort to win the War of American Independence (1775-1783), the British invited all Black men, women and children to join the British cause and win their freedom for doing so. Many accepted the invitation, and as a result 10 percent of the United Empire Loyalists coming into the Maritimes were Black.
Slavery existed in Canada from 1628 until it was abolished in Upper Canada in 1793 and throughout the entire British Empire in 1833. The first known slave, Olivier LeJeune, was recorded in 1628. He was brought to Canada from Africa as a young child and given the name of one of his owners, a priest.
In Upper Canada, now known as Ontario, the Abolition Act was passed in 1793. This law gave freedom to slaves who were 25 years and older. The act also made it illegal to bring slaves into Upper Canada. In effect, Upper Canada became a safe haven for runaway slaves. The Abolition Act also made Canada the first jurisdiction in the British Empire to move toward the abolition of slavery.
Modern/Contemporary African-Canadians in Canada
Free Peoples of African descent have been arriving in Canada since the early 1900.The 60’s in particular saw the migration of Blacks of Caribbean descent from the Islands as well as from Europe to Canada. Many are women who came alone, often under the government domestic labour scheme, and once settled, to send for both children and partners. Many took jobs as domestic help so they can get needed document to bring in their loved ones. Others worked as skilled nurses and nurses aids in hospitals and clinics. Others came as students to pursue studies or careers in various fields. Later, in the 70’s, Canada saw an influx of Blacks from the continent of Africa. Some came as refugees, mostly from East, Central and Southern Africa. Others arrived as students or as independent immigrants.
Many of these latter immigrants were professionals – lawyers, doctors, teachers, scientists – and they all helped to shape the future of Canada. These recent immigrants are free people of African descent from the Diaspora.
Contributions of peoples of African descent in Canada
This process of colonial empire building meant that literally tens of millions of Africans were taken from their homes and families, enslaved, sold, bartered and subjected to the most inhumane conditions and brought to America, Europe, Canada, and the Caribbean. This Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade is sometimes called the “Maafa” by African scholars, meaning holocaust or great disaster in Kiswahili.
Notwithstanding the horrific beginnings of their arrival in Canada, the contributions of peoples of African descent to Canada is legion and on-going. From the contributions of early arrivals to the farming communities of South-Western Ontario and Nova Scotia, to the modern day contributions to commerce, industry, academia and even our classrooms. In spite of these contributions, and despite a presence in Canada that dates back farther than Samuel de Champlain’s first voyage down the St. Lawrence River, people of African descent are often absent from Canadian history books.
In spite of the great contributions that Black Canadians have made to the country, many still face challenges in our society. According to the Ethnic Diversity Survey that was released in September 2003, almost half of the Black Canadians surveyed said they have experienced some form of discrimination or unfair treatment in the previous five years.
February History Month provides an opportunity for all of us to learn more about one another in the hope of building a stronger and more cohesive society.
Ancient Africa – from the beginnings BC/BCE