Donald H. Oliver served in the Senate of Canada from 1990 to 2003.
With Black History Month just behind us and fresh in our minds, it’s a good time to ask whether Canadians genuinely came out in large numbers to recognize and celebrate the contributions of Black Canadians and to search out creative ways of combatting systemic anti-Black racism.
We can also ask: Has the Black Lives Matter movement and the heinous knee-on-neck killing of George Floyd, witnessed in real time around the globe last year, aroused a desire to seek out the untold stories of almost forgotten Black communities, such as Amber Valley in northern Alberta and Willow Grove in New Brunswick? Amber Valley was once the largest Black community in Western Canada.
There are positive signs. Canada Post honoured them both with a new stamp this year. And the Royal Canadian Mint produced a one-ounce pure silver coin that honours the legacy of Black Loyalists in Canada.
There was also some encouraging evidence that books and articles by Black authors and scholars were sold out or all spoken for. Black videos, stories rich in Black history and Black art in all its forms were all hard to come by because the demand was so strong. There was a widespread and a heightened new interest and desire to learn more about the heart and soul of the Black man. This was great news and was commendable.
This new spirit moved the yardsticks forward and many, many Canadians finally understood that there was something substantial to celebrate. In Nova Scotia, we can trace our history back about 400 years so there’s certainly a lot to recognize and celebrate. Those same Canadians are anxious to visit and study in our Black museums.
But was it enough?
We have to pause, shake our heads and remember there is another side. Author W.E.B. Du Bois’s classic text The Souls of Black Folk from 1903 referred us to the word “veil” as a wall built to exclude Blacks from the white world of opportunity.
That world of opportunity is still lost in Canada because systemic anti-Black racism is still here in all its forms. We see it every day in our justice system, in our nursing homes, on our streets, in our hospitals and on TV. We read about it in our journals and newspapers. So that means to me that all Black men and women in Canada, in spite of gains in February’s Black History Month, must continue to live every day with the constant reminder that they are different from most other Canadians.
I believe the defining test of systemic racism in Canada is when I no longer have to somehow prove that I, as a Black Canadian, am worthy to participate in and enjoy all the fruits, benefits and perks of daily living that have been bestowed on the white majority by virtue of their privilege.
Black History Month 2021 did not engage enough people to blow away that ignominious cloud of “worthiness,” so it still lingers over us. Canadians did not virtually stand up en masse and choose to adopt a significant pledge like the one from the BlackNorth Initiative, a movement committed to ending systemic racism, and shout out that enough is enough. Deputy ministers in government and chief executive officers can speed up the internal cleansing and make meaningful change by committing to the BNI’s pledge:
- Ensuring that no barriers exist to prevent Black employees from advancing.
- Implementing or expanding unconscious bias and anti-racism education.
- Sharing best – and unsuccessful – practices.
- Creating and sharing strategic inclusion and diversity plans with boards of directors.
- Working with members of the Black community.
- Engaging Canada’s corporate governance framework.
- Creating the conditions for success.
More work has to be done, and we should commit to doing it before February, 2022. We need viable targets for appointing Black people to boards of directors and to fast-track brilliant Black junior executives to senior executive positions. We need more Black deputy ministers in the public service of Canada.
Real, lasting change must start at the top. So, when former MP Jean Augustine stood in the House of Commons and, later, I stood in the Senate of Canada on March 4, 2008, and had our motions passed unanimously to “recognize the contributions of Black Canadians” and that February be recognized as Black History Month, we knew that the Parliament of Canada had spoken.
It must now speak again through the voice of our Prime Minister, who has promised that he would do many powerful things to rid Canada of the scourge of systemic anti-Black racism, but he has failed to deliver on the Black agenda. With the support of all caucuses in Parliament whom I believe genuinely want change, I know that ways will be found to move the yardsticks even further forward.
Let’s commit today to making 2022 Black History Year – to provide the time necessary to make the institutional changes required.
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