Okay folks, this is the deal.
We're vaguely aware that black people have been around in Canada for a while, and that they've been through a thing or two, and that we should know more about it even though we can't be bothered. Let's take the shortest month of the year and call it Black History Month.
Schools, libraries, arts organizations, the media and bookstores are all asking people to talk about black history, this month, as they did last year, and as they will next. Excuse me while I roll my eyes. Actually, I'm not bored. I'm ticked. Does it make any difference? Do we know much at all about the history of black people in Canada? Do we care?
It's quintessentially Canadian to define ourselves in terms of what we're not (Americans). Well, even that is tenuous, when it comes to understanding the black faces in this country, where they've been, and where they came from. On the streets, in the subways, in the workout rooms, in the malls, when I hear talk about black people at all -- talk that isn't being conducted by black people themselves -- this is what I hear.
"Did you see The Green Mile?"
"Yes, didn't that just kill you? I sobbed through the whole movie."
I'm not knocking the film's dramatic intensity. But there are two things wrong with this picture.
First, like Driving Miss Daisy, Fried Green Tomatoes and To Sir With Love, it's one more reassuring depiction of the strong, silent, reserved, thoroughly unthreatening black male. He won't sleep with your daughter, or lift your wallet, or "knock you upside your head" (one of my father's favourite expressions) in a back alley. He's the noble savage, personified. In The Green Mile, the towering but tame black male is not only gracious, but he's vaguely dull-witted. All the better. This is a black man we can feel safe around. More God fearing than average, and dumber to boot.
The second problem with The Green Mile, the thing that makes me want to shout when I overhear those conversations about how sad and touching it was, is that it has nothing to do with Canada. That would be fine, were it not that Canadians often develop a second-hand, borrowed impression about what it means to be black in Canada from the American experience.
Canada is not nearly as integrated as we like to think. As a novelist and as a writer about black history in Canada, I've been invited into schools countless times. And when I have spoken in schools with a substantial black student body -- in Toronto's Jane-Finch corridor, or Scarborough, for example, or in Dartmouth, N.S. -- I have noticed that black and white students are often apart. They sit apart, in school assemblies. They walk down the halls, apart. The black students don't have any choice but to learn about Canadian (read "white") history.
But how many opportunities do other young people have to learn what it means to be black in this country, or what black people have gone through? They can always watch The Green Mile or Driving Miss Daisy.
Many Canadians can tell you that Martin Luther King Jr. led a glorious, dignified, love-thy-brother struggle for civil rights in the United States, until he was assassinated in 1968. They can tell you that Malcolm X led a more smouldering fight for black nationalism, or that American slavery finally crumbled during the Civil War. If they're younger Canadians, they'll salivate over Denzel Washington or Will Smith, or groove to the rap music of Queen Latifah. But where, oh where, does Canada fit in all this?
I have my parents to thank for teaching me, plenty young, that Canadian history encompasses more than the two "founding nations" (an attitude, I suppose, that equates the First Nations to chopped liver). They arrived here as American immigrants in the 1950s, and adopted Canada and its history with the passion of religious converts.
An opinion piece in The Globe and Mail is hardly the place to begin a lecture about black history in Canada. But the next time you or your children actually feel like learning something about your country, try talking to that person next to you on the bus, or who works in your office, or who is renting an apartment from you, or is teaching your child. I'm talking about the one who is invisible, but black.
Canada is literally teeming with black history. But let's get one thing straight. We all love to point fingers at those nasty Americans, but slavery existed in this country, too, until it was finally abolished in 1834. John Graves Simcoe, Upper Canada's first Lieutenant-General, tried to eradicate it entirely in 1793, but he failed. Some of the leaders of the government of the day were slave owners themselves, and they weren't having any part of it. However, Simcoe did manage to introduce a legal compromise that slowly began to phase out slavery, and for that he remains esteemed among black Canadians.
You think Quebec is devoid of black history? Think again. Canada's first known black slave, Olivier LeJeune, was a six-year-old boy sold into bondage in Quebec City in 1628. And in 1734, a Montreal woman named Marie-Joseph Angelique set fire to her owner's house when she learned that she was about to be sold elsewhere. She was caught, publicly tortured, and hanged.
Thousands of black Loyalists -- some as slaves and others free -- came to Nova Scotia after the American Revolutionary War. (Some were so disgruntled by Canada's broken promises and the hard living here that about 1,200 of them turned around in 1791 and set sail for Sierra Leone in Africa.) Some 600 blacks sailed up from California and landed on Vancouver Island in 1858. Some were in the Gold Rush. Others became police officers and in 1860 formed an all-black militia unit, the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company.
Still others settled in Prairies in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We're talking about black cowboys here -- men like John Ware, a Texan and former slave who settled in Alberta in 1882, where he wrestled steers, won prizes in roping competitions, and died when the horse he was riding stepped into a hole, fell heavily and landed on him.
Thanks in part to the courage of Underground Railroad "conductors" such as Harriet Tubman and the Belleville physician Alexander Ross who helped slaves escape to Ontario, black communities grew up in St. Catharines, Windsor, Amherstburg, Toronto and Collingwood. Anderson Abbott, born in 1837, became the first Canadian-born black doctor in this country, and served as a Union Army surgeon in the American Civil War. Returning to Canada after the war, he became coroner for Kent county.
Even in wealthy, sheltered Oakville -- where the morning buses are jammed full of men and women in suits en route to work in Toronto -- black people can trace their families back to fugitive slaves who began arriving around 1850 (some hidden in schooner hulls and ferried across Lake Ontario). Eight decades later, a group of 75 Ku Klux Klansmen led by a Hamilton chiropactor named William Phillips turned up in that same sedate Oakville. They burned a cross outside the front door of Ira Johnson, a black man who planned to marry Isabella Jones, a white woman. Mr. Phillips was eventually convicted and jailed for three months.
When I was a boy, growing up in Don Mills in the 1960s, there was virtually nothing in the schools or in the public libraries about black history in Canada. We no longer have that excuse. In recent years, there has been an explosion of books about the history of blacks in Canada, and of works of literature by gifted black Canadian writers such as Dionne Brand, Andre Alexis and Austin Clarke, to name just a few.
Skip The Green Mile, if you've got half a mind to learn something new about Canada. Hit the library, instead, or call up one of the countless educators and artists across the country who speak with authority and passion about black history in Canada. If you really care, you don't have to limit yourself to the shortest, coldest month of the year. Lawrence Hill's most recent book, Any Known Blood , is a historical novel about five generations of a black family in Canada.Report Typo/Error
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