I sit here reflecting on what I should write about Black History Month and think why not my own journey in understanding this significant event. 

I knew very little about the struggles faced by Black Canadians when I came to Canada, as it was not a topic covered in too much detail during history classes at school.  We were taught the very basic and nothing more.  Looking back, it seems that it was a topic people were uncomfortable with discussing.

Black History Month?  What is the significance?  Why was it recognized?  I decided to read up and ask questions. 

My first step in this journey was speaking with a colleague, who invited me to attend a meeting of the PSAC’s racial equity group way back in the 90’s.  At this meeting I met a couple of very strong, and dedicated Advocates for the cause and they became my mentors, guides and friends.

It made me realize that it takes only a few incredibly strong and vocal advocates, fighting not only for their own dignity and rights but also for their brothers and sisters suffering the injustices and biases, to make a change for the better.  It also saddens me to realize that in spite of all the advocacy and all that has been achieved there still exists Anti-Black Racism.  When I sit and reflect on what I have learned I recall a black colleague’s statement “We don’t want to take over your place at the Table, we want to share the space equitably with you”.  Let us all work towards that goal.

The Canadian Encyclopedia proved to be a great resource for me, and I am sharing some facts found there, I would encourage all of you to read the timelines.

1608 – The first Black person thought to have set foot on Canadian soil was Mathieu Da Costa, a free man who was hired by Europeans to act as a translator.

1776 – Many Blacks actively participated in the American Revolutionary War, serving as boatmen, woodsmen, general labourers, buglers and musicians. General Henry Clinton formed a corps of free Blacks, called the Black Pioneers.

1784 – After the Revolutionary War, the “Black Pioneers” were among the first settlers in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, and they helped build the new settlement. On its fringes they established their own community, “Birchtown.” When hundreds of White, disbanded soldiers were forced to accept work at rates competitive with their Black neighbours the ensuing hostility caused a riot.

1812 – Thousands of Black volunteers fought for the British during the War of 1812. Fearing American conquest (and the return to slavery), many Blacks in Upper Canada served heroically in coloured and regular regiments. The British promise of freedom and land united many escaped slaves under the British flag.

1944Ontario was the first province to respond to social change when it passed the Racial Discrimination Act of 1944. This landmark legislation effectively prohibited the publication and display of any symbol, sign, or notice that expressed ethnic, racial, or religious discrimination. It was followed by other sweeping legislation.

1962 – During her term as Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, Ellen Fairclough oversaw improvements to the Canadian Immigration Service, and her most significant accomplishment was the radical reform of the government’s “White Canada” immigration policy. Regulations tabled in 1962 helped to eliminate racial discrimination in Canada’s immigration policy.

1991 A fight between one Black and one White student at Cole Harbour District High School escalated into a brawl involving 50 youths of both races. The event mobilized provincial Black activists around the issue of unequal educational opportunities. Nova Scotia’s Ministry of Education established a fund in 1995 to improve education and support anti-racist initiatives.

We cannot forget the many accomplishments by our black brothers and sisters in the field of music, art, sports and many more.  Just to name a few:  Harry Jerome, Donovan Bailey, Willie O’Ree, Angela James, Andre De Grasse, Austin Clarke, Viola Desmond, Mary Ann Shadd, Portia White, Elijah McCoy June Clark, and Buseje Bailey.

Despite the improvements and accomplishments over the last 20 years, much work still needs to be done. We need to have difficult and uncomfortable conversations to learn and reflect on the impact systemic racism contributes to inequity and injustice.

Brothers and Sisters let’s stand proud and celebrate our rich history.  Look for and participate in the many virtual activities ongoing during this month.  Become Advocates!

Zarina Khan, HR Committee – UVAE