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What it means to be black in Canada
by Don Oliver
Senator and temporary Speaker, Senate of Canada; champion for visible minorities; member, Conservative Party of Canada.
Canada's self-image as a tolerant nation perversely allows racism to flourish.
If you are a Black Canadian, studies continue to show that you are less likely than a member of any other ethnic group to get a job or a promotion. You are more likely to get pulled over for "driving while Black," or to be discriminated against in the courts. What is more, you know that there are very few Blacks occupying the corner offices of Canadian companies, or in key roles in the academic world. And, over the past two decades, you have seen the representation of Blacks in federal, provincial, and municipal governments drop significantly. Why does this systemic racism persist? What is holding Blacks back? I believe there are three things that continue to impede our progress.
First, there's the fact that, unlike that of Blacks in the United States, the black experience in Canada has been largely ignored. For example, in Canadian history books, there is little mention of the fact that slavery once existed in the territory that is now Canada. Most Canadians don’t know that segregation was accepted in many parts of this country well into the 1960s. They believe the myth of a Canadian tradition of tolerance because most history books gloss over the overt racism that has afflicted Blacks in Canada throughout our country’s existence.
Equally significant is the fact that few Canadians are aware of the many contributions that Blacks have made to Canadian history, beginning with Mathieu da Costa, a Portuguese navigator and explorer, who arrived here in 1605 in the company of Samuel de Champlain. They have never heard of William Hall, who became the first Canadian, and the first person of African ancestry, to receive the Victoria Cross.
They don't know that the "The Real McCoy" was a Black Canadian engineer named Elijah McCoy, whose inventions for lubricating the engines of ships, trains, and factories were patented worldwide. And they're unaware of the achievements of Portia White, who broke the colour barrier in Canadian classical music, performing in more than 100 concerts around the globe. These Afro-Canadians, and many more, made their mark on Canada, all during times characterized by pervasive racism. And these great Canadians not only endured, they succeeded.
The second factor holding Blacks back is the existence of old and tired stereotypes stemming from our legacy of slavery and segregation. For instance, segregation meant there were white schools and Black schools; white churches and Black churches; barbers for white people and barbers for Blacks. In other words, segregation forced people to look at our differences, not the things we shared in common. It led some people to conclude that Black was not as good, as worthy, or as able as white – that Black was inferior to white.
Still today, we watch television and see Blacks portrayed as poor, with no chance for success, or as criminals or inmates in prison. What is the impact of this constant stream of demeaning images on young Black people? It's not pretty. I have seen the lack of self-esteem, the shame in our culture, and the humiliation at the place we have been assigned in our own country.
The third thing that holds Blacks back is ourselves. As human beings, we are defined by our circumstances. I was born of a poor Black family in Nova Scotia shortly before the Second World War. My father was a janitor at a university. He swept floors and cleaned washrooms to make a mere $25 a week. He had a wife and five children to support. My poverty has helped to define me. Ours was also the only Afro-Canadian family in an all-white university town. That defined me too. It gave me a powerful drive to achieve. And, combined with my family tradition, it underscored the importance of books, learning, and education – all of which saved me from the monotony of poverty.
In the same way that circumstances shape individuals, I believe that circumstances have a tremendous influence on a group of people. Our history of slavery and segregation continues to erect barriers that stand in our way of being accepted as equals. To break down those barriers once and for all, Blacks must become more powerful agents for change. We must come together to leverage the power of our collective voice.
I remember a time, not so long ago, when Afro-Canadians did just that. In fact, we felt compelled to make change happen. As the acclaimed Canadian author Lawrence Hill wrote:
For people like me, being Black and having access to a good education carried certain obligations. It wasn't good enough to get A's in school – you also had to ball up your fists and charge into battle if anybody used the word "nigger." In the workplace, it wasn't good enough to merely succeed professionally. You had to change the world, too.
I have witnessed this powerful force for social change first hand. All the members of my family, on both my father’s and my mother’s side, have devoted more than three generations to working for the uplifting of mankind, and, in particular, Blacks. I have seen what hope can do, most recently, with the election of U.S. President Barack Obama. I believe we urgently need to renew that sense of hope for Afro-Canadians today.
That's because Blacks in Canada still have a long way to go. We must embrace our proud heritage, our true potential, and our hope for the future. We must work together to put an end to racism now. It's clear to me that no one else is going to do it for us.