the efforts of Jean Augustine, the first black woman elected as a member of
parliament, Canada observed its first Black History Month in 1996.
to the Government of Canada website, Canadians are “invited to participate in
Black History Month festivities and events that honour the legacy of Black
Canadians, past and present.” The theme for this year’s “Black History Month is
Canadians of African Descent: Going forward, guided by the past.”
what the government says, we do not see much effort put into actually creating
these events and festivities to celebrate black Canadians, especially in
lack of effort could be attributed to people not knowing where to look for
other people who would be interested in organizing events. They may have the
drive to create something meaningful but not much community support to actually
go through with it.
likely reason and something every person of colour experiences throughout their
life is racism. Maybe they are trying to assimilate to the environment they are
in, or anticipate some pushback if they did try to express their pride in
their heritage. These fears can also be attributed to microaggressions.
are often thought to be smaller, more subtle, almost unconsciously racist
things that people say or do towards minorities or marginalized people.
this is a part of it, microaggressions do not refer to ‘smaller’ occurrences of
discrimination but rather everyday racial prejudice. This racism differs from
institutional racism, where people of colour are systemically targeted and
oppressed by political and economic power structures.
I sat down with slam poet and activist Peace Akintade-Oluwagbeye, who is a member of the Youth in Service Speaker Bureau for the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, to discuss her experience with microaggressions.
someone who is extremely proud of her African heritage and shows it in how she
dresses, Akintade-Oluwagbeye has a lot of people approaching her and asking
about it on a daily basis.
are strange people that come up and they like to start with, ‘Where are you
from?’… I usually just say Nigeria and then they’re done with it,”
Akintade-Oluwagbeye said. “But then there’s the ones that really want to get
under your skin and are like, ‘If you’re from Nigeria then why are you here?’”
Whatever the intentions of the speaker, the connotation of the question, “Why are you here?” is clear: what business do you have here because you don’t look like you belong.
These kinds of questions can
make you feel as though you need to justify your presence to a complete
stranger, convince them why you belong. It feels like an attempt to push you
into the category of ‘other’ — an admonition that your place in this country
belongs in the margins. Do not be too loud or take up too much space because
why are you here in the first place?
Dealing with this question is
difficult. For some people, brushing it off is enough. Others may feel the need
to conform or make themselves smaller.
dealing with this issue is a matter of focusing on the positive.
“I like to really focus on the people that come up to me and compliment me. There are still people out there that come up to you and actually really want to know about your culture, they want to know how you’re so colourful,” Akintade-Oluwagbeye said.
On the bad days where she gets
upwards of 10 people approaching her, Akintade-Oluwagbeye says she tries to
Others, like fourth-year
business student, Lola Adebogun, approach it differently. To her, it’s more
about preemptive action — don’t give people the space to come at you with that
kind of energy.
“When you walk into a room,
you just create that ambience that whatever notion [other people] have of what
black women are supposed to be, you go in there and you destroy it,” Adebogun
said. “Because you’re like, I don’t care what you guys think of what my people
can do, but I’m going to tell you I can do more than you think I can.”
While some people are
deliberately and explicitly discriminatory towards certain races, others might
not even realize that what they’re doing is microaggression. This does not
excuse their actions, but it does highlight the need for education.
This is where the importance
of Black History Month comes in. Despite the connotation of the name, this
month-long event isn’t just about learning about black history — it’s also
about celebrating the achievements and cultural diversity of black people. It’s
about getting educated on issues faced by black people so we can all stand in
solidarity. When fighting racism, a community is essential.
that she has met people in the community who were interested in celebrating
Black History Month, but they feel like there would be no interest if they
were to host an event. She also finds that she is almost always the only black
person in the room advocating for black issues, so she doesn’t always feel the
support needed to create something meaningful.
“[I feel like] I can’t talk
about [black issues] because I’m the only one there, so I feel like I’ll be the
only one that will relate,” Akintade-Oluwagbeye said. “That’s why it’s
important to have a community.”
Though we’re starting to see
small steps in the right direction, Black History Month isn’t as recognized in
Canada, and Saskatchewan especially, as it should be.
Due to a lack of education on
the matter, people might believe that Canada doesn’t have an abundance of black
history to celebrate. Much like with Indigenous history, black history in
Canada tends to be pushed to the fringes.
Though it often goes untold,
black Canadians have a long and rich history in Canada. From the black labour
union Order of Sleeping Car Porters to the original Book of Negroes document,
detailing the names and descriptions of 3,000 black loyalists who escaped to
Canada, our country has an abundance of black history. One such history is
that of Africville.
Africville was a primarily black settlement in Nova Scotia that dated back to 1848 — though black people have been living in Nova Scotia as enslaved people since they built Halifax in 1749.
The people of Africville were
mostly formerly enslaved people who had been promised land and freedom in
Canada. It was a home for people to call their own, build their heritage and
practice their beliefs — a microcosm of black culture in a predominantly white
Canada. Africville even had its own hockey team, the Africville Brown Bombers.
However, as much as we might
try to hide it or push it down, the fact is that Canada has a serious
anti-black racism problem and this was reflected in Africville.
Africville was destroyed by
systemic racism. Though the residents paid taxes to the city of Halifax, they
received no amenities. No paved roads, no running water and no sewers.
A prison, slaughterhouse,
human waste disposal pit, an Infectious Disease Hospital and dump were built
in and around Africville. The city council had ruled against building these
institutions near the nearby white neighbourhood, Fairview, and council minutes
show that they paid no mind to the health concerns of Africville residents in
After these undesirable
institutions solidified the perception of Africville as a slum, it was easy for
the government to justify the community’s destruction. In 1969, Africville’s
last property was taken from its owner by the state and demolished.
Only Eddie Carvery, 24 years
old at the time, remained. He pitched a tent in protest, demanding compensation
and a public inquiry that stayed up for 50 years. His protest camp was taken
down just last year, in November 2019. What started out with one man and a tent
grew into one of the longest civil rights protests in Canadian history.
Africville is just one of the
many stories in the rich cultural tapestry that is black history in Canada.
From fighting in both wars despite being segregated even in combat, to famed abolitionist
Harriet Tubman’s hand in bringing black people to Canada, there is still so
much to learn about.
Black people in Canada have a
long way to go, and Black History Month is only the beginning of it. When
speaking of racism in Canada, however, it would be a gross injustice to leave
Indigenous people out of the discussion.
Since the days when the first
colonizers and settlers came to Indigenous land, they have been cheated,
killed, incarcerated and assimilated.
The tale of Africville is not
the first or last one of its kind. We still see Indigenous communities being
denied basic amenities by the government, only to have people dismiss the
ensuing community issues as the fault of the people. Centuries of being
systemically discriminated against and killed has also created issues of
After educating myself on what
Indigenous people go through — because the school system sure does an abysmal
job at it — speaking up about black issues almost feels audacious. Despite the
discrimination we face, we are still settlers living on Treaty 6 Territory, the
homeland of the Cree and Métis Nations.
While I am an African-Canadian
and this is my home and I do belong here, I am still a settler on Indigenous
land and a witness to their persecution on their home. How do I reconcile these
two opposing sides?
Being mindful of the space she
is taking from the Indigenous community is something Akintade-Oluwagbeye also
struggles with. In fact, she remarked that it is one of her biggest sources of
turmoil as an activist. When asked how she deals with this issue,
Akintade-Oluwagbeye had some insightful words of wisdom.
“It feels almost guilty that
I’m making such an effort to bring out the word of Black History Month when the
Aboriginal people have to struggle every day,” Akintade-Oluwagbeye said. “But I
like to think of it like if I can get the voice out about the issues that are
happening with us, I can make way for a conversation about what is happening
believes that there is a lot of overlap with colonization with both Indigenous
and black people.
“There’s a lot of differences
but there’s still a lot of similarities. Like with settlers coming to our
country and taking our resources and leaving us with nothing,”
She believes that by fighting
for justice for one community, we can fight for justice for the other as well.
She however noted that no one is perfect and we all have growing to do.
“We also have to agree that racism
can happen even in our community towards them, and they can be racist in their
community towards us,” she continued.
“Even though we’re all being
accused of so many things, we’re all being pushed down so much but we’re also
pushing each other down. It should be more of something where we put our heads
together like, okay, let’s go fight the common goal.”
Black History Month and
justice for black people in Canada is important, but it is nothing if we are
not working alongside Indigenous people to achieve it. At the end of the day,
we are living on Indigenous land, and if we cannot use the little gains we have
in society to help pull each other up, how will we ever break out of this
This Black History Month we
all need to make an effort to look inwards and pull out our misconceptions
about marginalized people. This discussion does not need to be confined to
February’s short 29 days.
Reforming our education systems to include a broader view of Canadian history, being more socially conscious when it comes to racialized communities and putting pressure on the government to act on reconciliation are a few places we can start. To dismantle Canada’s long history of colonial violence, we need to work in solidarity with the other groups that have also faced it.