Saturday, January 28, 2012
Canadian black history neglected: author
MONTREAL - Pop quiz: What unfortunate distinction does Olivier Le Jeune hold in Canadian history?
Le Jeune was the first recorded black slave in New France, brought to Canada from Africa in the 17th century when he was a child.
If you didn’t know the answer, you aren’t alone.
The story of blacks in Canada doesn’t form part of the national narrative and is outside the mainstream of what most people learn, says Lawrence Hill, author of the acclaimed historical novel The Book of Negroes.
Hill told students on Thursday at École secondaire Antoine-de-Saint-Exupéry in St. Léonard that he finds most Canadians and Quebecers know more about the history of blacks in the United States than they do about the topic in their own country and province.
As a teenager, Hill said he was never taught about the history of blacks in Canada. If it wasn’t for his parents, who had written books on the subject, “I wouldn’t have even known that slavery existed in Canada.”
Hill’s appearance marked the launch of Black History Month at the high school and also the launch of a French-language Black History in Canada Education Guide, a teaching tool that draws on The Book of Negroes.
The guide was developed by the Historica-Dominion Institute, a charitable organization dedicated to Canadian history and citizenship. It contains discussion questions related to Hill’s novel as well as a black history in Canada timeline, that notes key milestones such as the abolishment of slavery in the British colonies that took effect in 1834 and the election in 1866 of Mifflin Gibbs to the Victoria Town Council, making him the first black politician in Canada.
The English guide was sent to more than 3,000 schools across Canada last year. The new French guide has gone to 1500 French and bilingual schools in the country.
“It’s an honour for the novel but more importantly it’s a tool that hopefully teachers or students can use if they want to learn more,” Hill said in an interview.
Many teachers and educators have so little information about black history, Hill said. “Dozens of times in my life teachers have come to me and said ‘I’d love to do something about black history or talk about black literature but where can I find anything?’”
“As Mr. Hill said, it seems that Canadians know a lot about (American) black history but we don’t know enough about our own black history,” said Brigitte D’Auzac, senior manager of programming for the Historica-Dominion Institute. “So it was important for the institute to make sure that we talk about it,” D’Auzac said. “Let’s get every kid in school aware of this. And let’s talk about our history. It’s important and we need to know about it.”
Hill told students how he was born and raised in Toronto, the son of a black father and white mother who had emigrated from the U.S. Fluent in French, and a graduate of Université Laval, Hill talked to students about his novel, weaving in historical information like the first big wave of black immigration in 1783 to Nova Scotia at the end of American Revolutionary War—and how, faced with racial discrimination, slavery and segregation in their new location, one-third of the Black loyalists ultimately left Halifax in 15 boats to create the colony of Freetown in Sierra Leone. “The first big exodus of blacks from the Americas to return to live in Africa came from Halifax,” in 1792, Hill said.
He also read an excerpt from The Book of Negroes, which has been translated into French with the title Aminata.
Hill said it’s great to see more and more people in Quebec have learned about Marie-Joseph Angélique, a black slave who was accused in 1734 of setting fire to her master’s house, which also destroyed half of what was then Montreal. (Angélique was convicted and executed.) For the longest of times, people in Quebec seemed to know nothing about the history of slavery in Montreal or Quebec City, Hill said. “After all, the first slave in Canada is in Quebec City in 1628–a boy from Madagascar, Olivier Le Jeune.”
Hill said he believes there is often an “unconscious resistance” to looking at our own history. How is it that many Canadians, especially those who, say, live in Ontario, will know about the underground railroad, which sort of makes people feel good because we feel “we’re welcoming poor, fugitive American slaves and giving them their freedom here.
“So it’s convenient to know about that. And if a Canadian does know a tiny bit about black history in Canada they’re likely to trumpet the underground railroad,” Hill said. “But very few people can talk about, or know anything about the black Loyalists or them being so terribly mistreated in Nova Scotia that they left en masse 10 years later.”