Black History Month 2021

As we work on eradicating racism in the present, it’s also important to reshape the way we view the past. We must continue to uncover stories excluded from traditional narratives of history and support the work of Black academics who study and teach history and related fields.

Ottawa (01 Feb. 2021) ― Every February, Canada celebrates Black History Month to honour the legacies of black Canadians and Black people living in Canada. First celebrated as a week-long event in the United States in 1926, it’s believed the idea was brought to Canada by Black sleeping car porters who frequently travelled back and forth between Canada and the United States.

In 1993 Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society, introduced the idea of having Black History Month celebrated across Canada to Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament. Augustine’s motion passed unanimously in 1995, making February 1996 the first national declaration of Black History Month in Canada.

History full of Black persons of note

Despite the racism embedded in our society, institutions, and legal system, history is full of Black Canadians and Black people living in Canada who enriched their communities and the history of Canada. Here are just a few of those persons:

Pierre Bonga: a fur trader and translator who facilitated trade deals between French and Indigenous traders.

Edith Clayton: an entrepreneur and artisan whose hand-woven baskets are displayed in museums around the world.

Ray Lewis: the first Canadian born Black athlete to win an Olympic medal; the bronze medal in the 4 x 400 m relay in 1932.

Kay Livingstone: an activist, broadcaster, and actor who helped restructure the Canadian Negro Women’s Club and organized and chaired the first National Congress of Black Women of Canada.

Jackie Shane: a Grammy nominated, transgender, American singer who was a fixture in Toronto’s R&B scene in the 1960s.

Portia White: a teacher and classical singer who won international acclaim and has been called one of the best classical singers of the 20th century.

As we work on eradicating racism in the present, it’s also important to reshape the way we view the past. We must continue to uncover stories excluded from traditional narratives of history and support the work of Black academics who study and teach history and related fields.

History is made in the present

This year, Black History Month comes after the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, marking one of the most tumultuous periods of race relations in the United States in recent decades. Emboldened by his racist rhetoric and policies, and failure to condemn his supporters who engaged in terrorist activities, white supremacists have become comfortable in spewing hatred and believing conspiracy theories, to the point where they stormed the US Senate.

Canadians tend to have a false sense of security (and perhaps even superiority) when we indulge in thoughts like “thank God I live in Canada,” or “things are better in Canada,” or “that would never happen in Canada”. But thoughts like that cloud our judgement and don’t accurately reflect the lives of Black Canadians and Black people living in Canada. It can happen here, it is happening here, and it will get worse if we don’t actively push back against normalizing anti-Black racism in all forms.

In 2020, the Health Sciences Association of British Columbia (HSABC/NUPGE) completed their 2020 Workplace Racism Survey and wrote Confronting Racism with Solidarity. The survey, which encompassed studied racism against all ethnicities, found that racist remarks, comments, and behaviours at work are widespread and pervasive. According to Confronting Racism with Solidarity, “respondents identifying as Black or of African descent reported to have experienced higher rates of discrimination across all categories compared to non-Black counterparts, except ‘unfair disciplinary action,’ which was reported at approximately the same rate.”

The report also found that individual cases of institutionalize discrimination based on race are common, but difficult to prove. Formal reporting of workplace racism is very low, due to fear of backlash and because members don’t feel their representatives are equipped to deal with problems of racism in the workplace.

George Floyd and Black Lives Matter

After George Floyd was killed as a result of excessive force by police officers, a wave of Black Lives Matter protests swept the world, including Canada. The protests, vigils, and solidarity marches put the spotlight on the inequality Black people experience as a product of systemic racism. The summer was marked with calls to defund the police as dozens of videos of police using excessive violence, tear gas, and rubber bullets on unarmed protestors circulated online. The draconian tactics faced further scrutiny when videos of the white supremacists and other terrorists who stormed the US Senate showed that the treatment they received contrasted sharply with the treatment the Black Lives Matter protestors received.

The events of the summer of 2020 will be included in the history books for future generations as they study Black history. We have it in our power to make sure that the summer was not an anomaly and that real change is made to eradicate anti-Black racism in all forms from our society.


NUPGE

The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 390,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring our common wealth is used for the common good. — NUPGE