Black History Month is here, and millions of Canadians are partaking in celebrations. Teachers have tweaked their teaching plans to ensure they include Viola Desmond, while recreation centres, libraries, and public spaces advertise special events with Black artists, leaders, and community groups.
Black History Month has morphed into a somewhat tricky idea: it’s meant to highlight parts of our history that have long been neglected, but it also can have the effect of relegating them to a historical footnote. If we’re paying attention to Black history during this particular month, what are we doing during the rest of the year?
This problem is compounded this year, given Canada 150 celebrations. In the face of so much feel-good Canadian cheerleading, the risk is that Black History Month will focus on similarly feel-good stories at the expense of examining the history of racism in Canada, and the policies and legislation that continue to undermine the well-being of Black people every day.
In 1995, when then-MP Jean Augustine introduced a motion in the House of Commons that would lead to the creation of Black History Month, it was a monumental first step toward recognizing the history and experiences of Black people in Canada and around the world. But 22 years later, institutions and elected officials have done very little to expand awareness of Black history. As a result, Canadians have been socialized into thinking that recognizing Black history is a one-month exercise.
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We see this in the ways Black History Month is often celebrated in schools, for instance, where Black Canadian history has yet to become a permanent and fully integrated part of the Ontario curriculum. And aside from teachers and students who are willing to work to ensure that Black History Month is an educational experience, even Black History Month itself is often reduced to cultural food and costumes, talent shows, and a rerun of American history, rather than a more substantial and nuanced effort to explore the rich contributions of Blacks in Canada.
The result is that many Canadian students still have basic knowledge gaps: slavery is discussed primarily in the context of U.S. history, for instance. In Toronto, where discussions focus on Caribbean culture, and when religion enters the conversation, it's largely in the context of Christianity. Black folks who are from other parts of the world — and especially those who are are both Muslim and Black — are almost entirely left out.
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Last year, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued a statement about Black History Month which inadvertently revealed some of these problems: “As Canada prepares to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017,” the statement read, “we invite everyone to celebrate the bravery and strength that Black Canadians have shown over the course of our history.” This not only reduces Black History Month to a token by limiting the acknowledgement of our history to 28 days, but renders invisible the “bravery and strength” Black people in Canada still need to draw on, to combat barriers to full equality. Systemic anti-Black racism in Canada isn’t just a historical fact, but also an ongoing reality.
Canada 150 and Black History Month branding have this in common: they perpetuate the illusion many Canadians hold about the stability of Black people within Canadian society — as representations of an equality that for most Black Canadians can only be imagined.
Black History Month is not a demonstration of social and economic progress for Black individuals in Canada, but a temporary moment in which we are granted permission by the state and society to discuss anti-Black racism, acknowledge our ancestors, and celebrate the cultural, religious and ethnic diversity within Blackness. But it needs to be more than a token, and more than a gesture of goodwill. It must be used as a moment to jumpstart our individual and collective efforts to improve the lives of Black people living in Ontario and across Canada.
With Donald Trump in office, our political climate is set to position Canada as a post-racial utopia like never before. This conveniently allows us to evade our own problems with racism, both historical and current. But in Canada, Black people are still oppressively over-policed and dramatically overrepresented in prison populations, and Black children are disproportionately apprehended in Ontario's, Quebec's, and Nova Scotia’s child welfare systems. This needs to be part of Black History Month, and of year-long conversations about Canadian culture and politics.
None of this is to say that Black History Month should be eliminated — particularly during these times. It is and remains an important fixture of Canadian society. It connects young people to stories of strength and resilience, it instills empathy and understanding and reaffirms our existence and place in a part of the world where many of us were forced to come. But it must be the beginning of something, not an excuse to forget about Black history during the rest of the year.
Indeed, it must go deeper. Black history should not be treated as a moment in time that can be placed on a shelf and revisited and replayed once a year, like a stale home video. It should be woven into our daily lives, conversations, symbols, and educational resources, and embedded within the collective consciousness of Canadians. Only if this happens will we as a country be in a better place to be honest with ourselves about our often messy, often traumatic history, and best placed to actively address the fact that the exclusion and marginalization of people of African descent is not a Black problem but a Canadian problem. This recognition is what will allow us to truly attain the kinds of change celebrations such as Canada 150 can trick us into thinking we’ve already achieved.
Brittany Andrew-Amofah is a community advocate and public affairs commentator.