In December 1995, the Parliament of Canada officially recognized February as Black History Month, in recognition of the sacrifices and contributions of African Canadians. This recognition is 400 years overdue.
Blacks in Canada are part of the founding peoples, who contributed to the development of the country. Historical records show that Mathieu Da Costa was the first person of African heritage to set foot in what would become Canada in 1604, arriving with the French explorers Pierre Du Gua De Monts and Samuel de Champlain. While Da Costa was a free man, who worked as an interpreter providing the link between the Europeans and the Mik’maq people, thousands of others of African descent who settled in the country became part of a Canadian dirty secret.
From 1628 until 1793 slavery existed, with Olivier LeJeune being the first known enslaved African. He was brought to Canada from Africa as a young child and given the name of one of his owners, a priest. It was not until 1793 when the Abolition Act was passed in Upper Canada, making it illegal to bring slaves into Upper Canada. By 1779, more Africans settled in Canada, winning their freedom by joining the ranks of the British against the War of American Independence (1775-1783). Almost 10 percent of the United Empire Loyalists who settled in the Maritimes were of African descent.
But why do we need a Black History Month? It is a month of awareness, empowerment and affirmation of African Canadian identity. The larger Canadian society needs to appreciate the history of Africans in Canada, and their contribution to Canadian society, values and institutions.
For example, it is important to acknowledge the contribution of Africans in the protection of Canada and Canadian democratic values. From the American Revolution (1775-1783) to the Korean War (1950-1953), Canadians of African descent sacrificed their lives for the protection of freedom. This contribution is partially captured in the documentary, Honour Before Glory, which presents the story of Canada’s all Black military battalion in the First World War—the No. 2 Construction Battalion, which was formed out of Pictou, Nova Scotia. It is based on the diary of Rev. William White, who was the Battalion’s chaplain and the only Black commissioned officer in the entire British Armed Forces at the time. It was not until 1987 that Pictou, Nova Scotia, recognized the role of this battalion in the making of Canadian history.
In spite of the many and great contributions African Canadians have made to Canadian society, many continue to confront discrimination and systemic racism. Two primary challenges confront Canadian society today. First, it is fundamental to view part of our history through the suffering of the victims of slavery and racism. We need to understand the contributions of African Canadians and to acknowledge their many sacrifices to the preservation of Canadian values and society.
Second, although Canada is internationally recognized for its commitment to human rights and for its fight against all forms of discrimination, including racism, we continue to lag behind in the elimination of all forms of discrimination. A number of key legislative and legal instruments such as the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the Official Languages Act, the Canadian Multiculturalism Act, the Employment Equity Act, and the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act exist, yet the barriers to employment, promotion and other forms of inclusion continue to persist.
As the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Racism indicated in the report on his country visit to Canada in 2004, it is not enough to have the laws on the books. There is a need to implement them properly and effectively. This would be a good year to start.