A #CdnBlackHistoryMonth Roundup (And Why We Should Learn Black History All Year Long!)

As Black History Month wraps up, we at COCo thought we would make a little roundup of some of the great things we have seen being posted this past month about #CanadianBlackHistory—to encourage people to learn all year round! Before we jump in, though, a couple of remarks on #BlackHistoryMonth and why non-profits should care.

Black History Month has a peculiar place in Canada, a nation that seems particularly unwilling to investigate it’s own history of anti-black racism. As someone who regularly trains organizations in anti-oppression, I constantly hear comparisons between American anti-Black racism and Canada’s treatment of indigenous peoples, as if they were mirror images of each other. They are not. If there is a comparison to be made between American anti-Black racism, it is to Canadian anti-Black racism. The same goes for Canadian treatment of indigenous peoples: America’s treatment of indigenous peoples is the relevant comparison. Pretending otherwise erases both histories, places Canada as innocent of anti-Black racism and pretends America has no First Peoples.

In addition to Canadians’ interest in erasing our own history of anti-Black racism, though, is also an interest in placing Canada as the saviour to Black people. If we know any Canadian-specific Black history, it is a story about how welcoming Canada has been; the land of the free, the welcoming home at the end of the Underground Railroad. Although this is a part of the story, the full history is much more troubling, and the way this conversation tends to be framed makes it extremely difficult to have real conversations about Canadian racism in the present.

For organizations confronting issues of marginalization, poverty and violence, a real reckoning with history is necessary to basic service provision as well as social change oriented work. Importantly, it is also a necessary stepping stone to changing the anti-Black racism present in the non-profit sector itself. Though Canada is notoriously bad at tracking race-related data, studies like this one make it clear that there is a pretty big problem in the non profit sector. 

With that in mind, here is a roundup of some starting points to learning Canadian— and Québecois, especially— Black history. We’d love to hear about other writings and research you know about— feel free to post them in the comments. We’ve also included a list of some of our favourite scholars and writers on the topic at the bottom, and very much encourage you to follow their work.

Rachel Décoste is a brilliant policy analyst, media critic, speaker and somehow, also a software engineer, whose #CanadianBlackHistory Month posts have been so numerous and amazing that we can’t list just one. Every day, her Facebook and Twitter have been filled with archival images of newspaper articles relating to Black life in Canada. Here are three of them.

Montreal has often been a hotbed of Black radicalism in Canada. In this article, Paul Hébert dives into the story of Montreal students who reacted to the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically-elected prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The articles touches on Canadian neo-imperialism in Africa as well as the racist Canadian attitudes towards the DRC. Paul Hébert also writes about the history of radical Black newspapers in Montreal, which you can read here.

The Hanging of Angelique, by Afua Cooper (accomplished Canadian poet and academic), describes the story of the enslaved woman, Marie-Joseph Angélique, who is often blamed for the fire that burned down a significant part of Old Montreal in 1734. For those of you who don’t have the book on hand, this review gives an overview of the story and Cooper’s analysis of this important trial and execution, and this movie tells a similar story.

Of course, understanding Marie-Joseph Angélique’s story demands some understanding of slavery in Canada, which, somehow, most of us don’t. For a start, check out Dr. Charmaine Nelson’s videos on Slavery in Canada here and here… Or, better yet, read her anthology, Racism, Eh? Dr. Nelson is the only Black art historian in the country, and we can’t recommend her work enough. 

Earlier this year, scholar and activist Rachel Zellars (who, for full disclosure, is a friend of the author of this piece) started a petition calling for the word “nigger” to be removed from 11 places names in Quebec. The media frenzy and responses that followed highlighted a number of things about Québecois racism, including the lack of archival research or general understanding on the topic, leading one mayor to claim that “Nigger Rapids” was named to honour a Black couple who had drowned there in 1912. This article— in French— by Zellars and Dr. Bruno Cornellier, highlights the need for Black Studies in Québec, while this article by Zellars links the issue of the place names to a long history of racism in the province.

Quebec, as some of our readers may be familiar with, both has a history of using blackface, plus a history of denying that it’s racist and then going in on the people who called it racist in the first place. That history is laid out here, and here, by the extraordinary Nydia Dauphin.

Dresden, Ontario is known for it’s particular, if not unique, history of segregation— one intensified by it being a point of arrival for Black folks coming from the US. This radio documentary (in French) and this short film (in English) lay out some of that history.

The Sir George Williams affair— otherwise known as the Concordia Computer Riot— is an incredibly important mark in Montreal’s history. A new documentary, out this year, uses new archival footage and interviews with the participants.

This series by CBC Canada, Being Black In Canada, covers a lot of ground— including a history of someone of Canada’s police killings of young Black people.

And lastly, though we haven’t read it yet, this new book, Viola Desmond’s Canada: A history of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land, by Graham Reynolds, promises to be an important contribution.