The federal government is officially recognizing the significance of four Black historical events and figures in an effort to shed light on Black Canadians’ struggle for freedom, equality and justice.
Parks Canada said Friday that the National Program of Historical Commemoration will recognize the enslavement of African people in Canada from 1629 to 1834 and the West Indian Domestic Scheme, an immigration program that allowed about 3,000 Caribbean women to work in Canada as domestic servants with an eventual path to citizenship. Two individuals will also be recognized under the program: Black Loyalist Richard Pierpoint and heavyweight boxer Larry Gains.
Plaques will eventually be unveiled recognizing the historical designations. Parks Canada has already made more than 2,000 historical designations nationwide, largely driven by public nominations.
Nadine Williams, a Black poet, author and art educator based in Brampton, Ont., put forward nominations for the two historical events. She said the designations are important to Black Canadians.
“It’s a sense of pride, acknowledgement and recognition that we are here, and our contributions to the fabric of Canada, the fabric of our being, it matters.”
From 1629 to 1834, more than 4,000 people of African descent were enslaved in British and French colonies that later became Quebec, Ontario, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick. They were bought and sold, exploited for labour, and subjected to physical, sexual, psychological and reproductive violence. In a news release Friday, Parks Canada said the systemic racism faced by people of African descent can be traced back, in part, to the legacies of enslavement.
The West Indian Domestic Scheme ran from 1955 to 1967 and offered a route for Caribbean immigration at a time when discriminatory policies restricted non-white immigrants from settling in Canada.
Greg Fergus, a Liberal MP and chair of parliamentary Black caucus, said his mother, Althea, immigrated from Jamaica to Canada through the program. His mother worked as an au pair in Montreal.
“The family who she worked with was a Jewish family, who saw her struggle as their struggle. To me that mirrored the larger alliance that you saw between the Jewish community and the Black community in the struggle for recognition of equal rights,” Mr. Fergus said.
The government also recognized Mr. Pierpoint, who was born in present-day Senegal in 1744 and was forcibly transported to the Americas, where he was sold into slavery. Mr. Pierpoint regained his freedom after 20 years of enslavement by fighting for the British during the American Revolution. He eventually settled in Upper Canada and was involved in the creation of the “Coloured Corps,” a group of men of African descent who helped protect the region during the War of 1812.
Mr. Gains, born in Toronto in 1900, was one of the most talented boxers of the first half of the 20th century. He gained prominence in the 1920s and 1930s by winning the Canadian, British Empire and World Colored heavyweight titles. However, his career was limited because of racial discrimination, as non-white athletes were barred from competing for the English heavyweight title and faced an unofficial colour barrier for the world heavyweight title.
Environment Minister Jonathan Wilkinson, who oversees Parks Canada, said it is important to recognize all aspects of Canadian history, regardless of whether they reflect well on society.
“We often look at the United States and we say slavery was really bad. Many Canadians, I don’t think, even recognize that we had similar issues for a period of time here in Canada. I think it’s appropriate that Canadians are aware of that.”
Ms. Williams, the poet, said the designations come at an important time for Black Canadians, as the Black Lives Matter movement gains traction worldwide. Although the nomination process started in 2018, she said Ottawa’s decision to specifically recognize these aspects of Black history empowers the movement.
“It’s a great time for this to happen, especially with everything that’s going on out there in the world,” said Ms. Williams.
As the government recognizes the effect that more than 200 years of slavery has had on Black people, efforts to recognize and celebrate their freedom have been stymied on Parliament Hill. In 2018, Nova Scotia Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard introduced a bill to formally recognize Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day. On that day in 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act freed Black and Indigenous people in what is now modern-day Canada.
The bill did not get past first reading before the election was called last year.
Historian Natasha Henry said a failure to meaningfully acknowledge Canada’s history of slavery has contributed to a “dismissiveness of this very real reality of this aspect of Black life in colonial Canada.”
Almost two centuries after the last slaves were freed, Ms. Henry, who is also the president of the Ontario Black History Society and writing her PhD on slavery in Ontario, said there’s a lack of understanding of Canada’s history with slavery because of a failure to write it into our history books.
It “plays a role in the amnesia of where we are today,” she said. For example, she said prominent businessmen and politicians of that time have been written about without acknowledging that they were also enslavers.
Efforts to recognize Emancipation Day were made again on Parliament Hill in March. This time in the House of Commons, Liberal MP Majid Jowhari introduced a motion to designate Aug. 1 Emancipation Day. The COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the debate and vote on the proposal. The NDP, Greens and Liberals have all said they support his motion. The Conservatives said they will determine their position closer to the motion being debated in the House.
Mr. Jowhari said Canada should also apologize for its history of slavery and consider how it can reconcile it through government initiatives or reparations. In 2017, the United Nations made a similar recommendation to Canada. Almost three years later, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has not said publicly whether he will.
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