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How is Canada's Black History Record?

Sometimes, on hearing of more race riots in the US, Canadians can become smug. After all, the British Empire ended slavery in 1834 and it wasn't abolished in America until 1865. Freedom-seekers escaped to Canada in the 1820s. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman lived in St. Catharines for ten years, helping formerly enslaved people adjust to their new life.

Underground Railroad plaque in Canfield Ontario

Historically, Black Canadians were primarily either British Loyalists or Americans escaping slavery. William Hamilton Merritt, another abolitionist, helped the new citizens purchase land to build the British Methodist Episcopal Church, Salem Chapel and later the Zion Baptist Church. Through the 1800s, a small Black community developed in Haldimand county, near where I grew up.

How were Blacks treated in Canada?

After the American colonists won the Revolutionary War (also called the United States War of Independence), which finished in 1791, the British Loyalists had to leave the United States. Britain rewarded Black soldiers who had fought with the loyalists by offering them freedom from slavery and moving them to British territory in Nova Scotia. This movement is described in Lawrence Hill's Canadian novel The Book of Negroes, which is now a mini-series. While they were not slaves, racism meant few employment options, low wages, and living on infertile land. Many Black Loyalists ended up as indentured servants, exchanging their freedom for food and shelter for the length of the contract.

Prejudice Against Blacks

Black Loyalists were denied the right to vote or be tried by a jury and were subject to arbitrary judgments and discriminatory laws against social gatherings. Well into the 1900s, Black people faced discrimination in Canada in housing, employment and access to public services. Many restaurants, hotels, and theatres refused to admit or serve Black Canadians. In 1910, Canada passed immigration legislation that reduced Black immigration, claiming Blacks were “unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.” It was not until 1960 that race was removed from immigration policies.

Africville plaque in Nova Scotia, Canada

Africville was a primarily Black community located in a suburb of Halifax. The City of Halifax refused to provide sewage, clean water and garbage disposal, then placed a dump, a prison, and an infectious disease hospital near Africville. In the 1960s Halifax voted to relocate Africville residents, sometimes by paying for their homes and sometimes by expropriation. All Africville homes were destroyed by 1970. Halifax apologized in 2010.

The text on the Africville plaque reads, "For over a century African Canadians settled here, developing an independent community centred around church and family. As part of the urban renewal projects of the 1960s, officials introduced a plan to level the community and relocate its residents. The community mobilized and even though no buildings were saved, Africville became a symbol of the ongoing struggle by African Canadians to defend their culture and their rights. Seaview Park, created on the site as a memorial to Africville, speaks to the enduring significance of community."

Fighting for Civil Rights

In the 1940s, Viola Desmond inspired Nova Scotia’s civil rights movement when she was arrested for refusing to leave the whites-only section of a movie theatre in Nova Scotia. Viola Desmond was born to a white mother and a black father and became a teacher and business owner. After attending schools in Montreal and New York, Viola Desmond opened her own beauty parlour, called Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax. With its success, she created a line of beauty products and opened a beauty school, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, training women and expanding her business. Desmond was on her way to a business meeting in Sydney and was one hundred miles from her home in Halifax when the car broke down in New Glasgow in 1946. Since the repair would take several hours, she decided to see a movie. She requested a ticket for a seat on the main floor and proceeded to sit down. The usher told her the ticket was for a balcony seat, and when Desmond returned to the cashier for the main floor ticket, the cashier said she could not purchase it. The business owner argued the theatre had a right to refuse admission. Back in 1941, a black woman named Carrie Best was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of the same theatre and lost her civil suit because the law honoured the business owner’s right to exclude anyone from service. Desmond pointed out she had purchased a ticket and refused to leave her seat. Police dragged her out of the theatre, arrested her, jailed her overnight, and convicted her without legal representation.

Viola Desmond
Viola Desmond: biracial face for black equality in Canada

There was no law that required Black persons to sit in the balcony, it was customary and locals knew the theatre was racially segregated. Since Desmond had not broken any law, she was charged with defrauding the provincial government of a one-cent amusement tax (the difference in price between the main floor and balcony seats) and fined $26. The civil rights movement strengthened and segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia in 1954. Viola Desmond left Nova Scotia and died in 1965. Her sister, Wanda Robson, campaigned for greater awareness of her sister's story and published Sister to Courage. Finally, in 2010, Nova Scotia Governor granted a free pardon to Viola Desmond and in 2018 the Canadian government named her a National Historic Person. The Bank of Canada released a new ten-dollar bill featuring Viola Desmond in 2018.

Fighting against Segregated Schools

Ontario had school segregation since the 1850s, authorizing the establishment of separate schools based on family requests. After Confederation, only Ontario and Nova Scotia legislated Black segregated schools. Black schools had less funding, smaller space, poorly maintained property, few libraries, and unclean outhouses. However, where a segregated school was open, courts denied Black students access to white schools. Where schools were not segregated, Black students sat on separate benches, and teachers could be fired if they spoke out in favour of integration. Most of the Black communities had been established in Essex and Kent counties, near Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan. Some of these communities had segregated restaurants and movie theatres as well as sundown laws, stating Blacks had to be off the streets by sundown.

student holding a rat
1964 Globe and Mail photo of black studen holding a rat

In 1964, Leonard Braithwaite, Canada's first Black provincial legislator, was able to pass a bill removing segregated schools from the law, but local trustees were not making any changes. Activists and parents continued to lobby to close the local segregated school, and in 1964, the Globe and Mail printed a photo of a young Black student holding a giant rat that had been caught on school grounds. The 1965 closure of the last segregated school in Ontario represents black activism in Canada.

Fewer Black Race Riots

I have written separate posts about Canadian racial discrimination and Canada's record on racism. One reason we hear less about black civil rights movements in Canada is that we had fewer Blacks. In 1900, the population of the US was 11.6% Black while the 1901 Canadian Census of Population reported 0.3% Black. Even in 2022, the US is 12.4% Black while Canada is 3.5% Black.

Since 1960, Canada has continued to move towards multiculturalism. Lincoln Alexander, was the first Black Canadian Member of Parliament in 1968, and he became the Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario in 1985. In 1993 Jean Augustine became the first woman Black Canadian elected as a federal Member of Parliament.

Christians have a mixed history with slavery. For a time, Christians supported it, rationalizing it by pointing out biblical figures who owned slaves and that they were benevolent masters providing religious instruction for their slaves. Christians provided a special Slave Bible, titled Parts of the Holy Bible, selected for the use of the Negro Slaves. It was heavily redacted. It included portions that could teach enslaved people to accept and reinforce their enslaved status, and it did not include passages that could be used to argue against slavery. It included Joseph being enslaved in Egypt but did not include Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery.

Since many slave owners were Christians, abolitionists needed to appeal to them as Christians. To argue persuasively against slavery, abolitionists had to make the case that freedom from slavery was biblical. It meant re-interpreting the passages that inferred acceptance of the slavery that was prevalent in the Roman world, and associating slavery with sinfulness. A Protestant revival known as the Second Great Awakening inspired the beginning of the abolition movement. This movement encouraged renewed morals and the biblical idea that all are created equal in the eyes of God. While Christians played a large role in working towards abolishing slavery, the past support of slavery has hurt and divided believers and been a poor witness to the love that Jesus brings.

In my novel Forgotten Followers: from Broken to Bold, I am re-interpreting the passages that infer acceptance of women as property, inferior to men, as was prevalent in the Roman world, and I associate prejudice against women as being sinful and unbiblical. The Slave Bible included “Servants, be obedient to them that are your masters” (Ephesians 6:5), which was used as a weapon in the same way as those who want to subjugate women quote, "Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord (Ephesians 5:22). The Slave Bible excluded verses about how all are created equal: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28). I hope that showing how Jesus accepted and loved people of all races and genders will provide healing and hope to those who have been hurt by the church.

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