“Black Like Who?”: The earasure of Blackness in Canada

Canada has long been a land of conflict on the basis of race and racism. From the historical mistreatment of our First Nations to Quebec nationalism and the invisible existence of the Canadian “Other,”1 racial conflict has been an unfortunate part of our nation’s history.

According to census 2011, Black Canadians were the third largest visible minority group, or the “Other,” making up 15.1% of the visible minority population. Currently, there are about  1.1 million individuals identifying themselves as Blacks in Canada, 3.5% of the total population.Blacks are defined here per census Canada’s definition of Black Canadians that include people of Black African and Caribbean descent who are citizens or permanent residents of Canada. It is important to note that skin color alone does not produce shared identities and this applies to black Canadians that are made up of diverse groups of people.

In his book, Black Like Who? (a must read!), Rinaldo Walcott provides us with a critical assessment of the existence of Black people in Canada, specifically, the means by which Blackness is conceived and lived out, to bring light to the invisibility of Black Canadians within the literature of social inequality.  Walcott contends that Canada continues to ignore the unique historical contribution of Black Canadians in building and defining our nation. He quite disquietingly contends that Black people and Blackness have been rendered “an absented presence in Canada that has been made literally and symbolically clear.”1 The discourse on Blackness in Canada erases, not only the varied Black migrant cultures, but it also makes invisible the reality of Black people’s existence throughout our history.

The history of Black people in Canada 

The history of Black people in Canada often remains unexamined and overlooked. The historian Marcel Trudel was one of the very few who attempted to expose the shocking details of slavery in Canada’s history. Trudel’s assessment of Black existence in Canada revealed that slavery lasted in Canada for about two hundred years and was widely practiced in New France and in Lower Canada under British rule. According to his analysis, there were approximately 4,092 slaves throughout the nation, of which 2,692 were Indians and 1,400 Blacks owned by approximately 1,400 masters. In comparison to the horrific accounts of slavery in the U.S., Canada’s history of slavery might seem less worthy of outrage and most often gets swiped under the rug. 

However, despite the magnitude, the discourse on slaves, considered a status symbol, is comparable to that of slavery in the U.S. Black slaves were advertised in newspapers and sold at auctions for the highest bidder to work as a domestic servant.More disturbingly, slavery only ceased to exist at a scale that it did in the U.S.  only because Canada failed to convince big-time slave traders that it was worth sending African slaves on the longer shipping route to Montreal or Quebec City. 3  

Canada has long been popularly depicted as a safe haven for slaves escaping from the U.S. Despite our recognized role in the history of slavery in North America, the contemporary conditions of Blacks living in Canada could only be explained with the genealogy of Black people in Canada that include the enslavement and disfrenchisment of this group. Such genealogical assessment makes it evident that slavery in Canada has shaped the discourse on Blackness, but most importantly the invisibility of Black Canadians in our nation. 

Canada’s continued forgetfulness concerning slavery here, and the nation-state’s attempts to record only Canada’s role as a place of sanctuary for escaping African-Americans, is part of the story of absenting blackness from its history.1

Furthermore, erasing all evidence of the presence of First Nations and Blacks from the history of Canada is crucial to the construction of the myth of two founding peoples, the British and the French.1

The fact remains that slavery was part of Canada’s history that, undoubtedly, continues to mark the existence of Black Canadians in our society. The racialized discourse on the Black body, which emerged out of slavery, is continually being implied through institutionalized practices that suggest Black bodies can and must be regulated, disciplined and over-policed. Institutional racism impacts Black Canadians greatly. Anti-black racism is embedded in Canada’s institutions and systems, including educational institutions, the healthcare sector, and the criminal justice system. Stereotypes and microaggressions shape the experience and daily lives of Black Canadians. For instance, Black male youth are four times more likely to be admitted to prison, and 2.5 times more likely to be stopped by police, compared to their white peers.4  Furthermore, in Toronto, Black youth make up 12% of the student body while accounting for 31% of all suspensions. The region also has witnessed a growth in the rate of incarceration of Black women and girls.4 However, erasing the existence of slavery in Canada is crucial to maintaining “the friendly, welcoming and multicultural narrative on which Canada’s national identity relies.” 

Conclusion

  • The existence of slavery in Canada is often erased from our history, which helps maintain the notion that Canada is a neutral and accepting place when it comes to race and racism.
  • Slavery in Canada lasted for about 200 years, and there were approximately 1,400 Black slaves that were considered a status symbol.
  • The discourse on Black Canadians and anti-black racism are embedded in Canada’s institutions and systems that, in part, emerged out of our nation’s past with slavery.

References

    1. Walcott, Rinaldo. 1997. Black Like Who?: Writing black Canada. Toronto, ON: Insomniac Press.

    2. Census Profile, 2016 Census
    3. Everett-Green, Robert. (2014). “200 years a slave: the dark history of captivity in Canada.” The Globe and Mail. 

    4. Anucha, U., Srikanthan, S., Siad-Togane, R. & Galabuzi, G.E. (2017). Doing Right Together for Black Youth: What We Learned from the Community Engagement Sessions for the Ontario Black Youth Action Plan. Youth Research and Evaluation eXchange (YouthREX). Toronto, ON.

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