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Reflecting on Canada's relationship with Black History Month

Originally published 19 March 2021

February 2021 is now behind us, and with it, Black History Month.

In 1979, the City of Toronto issued the first Canadian proclamation of Black History Month, but it wouldn’t be until 1995 that the House of Commons recognized February as Black History Month.

Instead of addressing the question that you are probably thinking about right now – “why did it take almost 20 years for this to be adopted federally?” – let us ask another question.

Why, in such a culturally diverse country as Canada, do we need to celebrate Black history?

I am a first-generation Canadian immigrant and a person of colour. In my country of birth, the predominant races were of East Indian and African descent.

Decades of divisive propaganda fashioned a rift between these two races, based on economics, political power and yes, you guessed it, colour. If your family came from a mixed heritage, like mine, then you were placed in another category altogether.

Moving to Canada in the 1980s, it was immediately apparent to me, as someone already accustomed to living on societal fringes, that I had moved to a place where, if you were not white, you were Black.

This is an important detail to remember. Not just because it was the reality of life for many Black people and people of colour, but because within that reality lies the malicious roots of systemic racism.

From the 1960s to mid-70s, almost all Canadians, except for Indigenous peoples, could trace their roots to Europe. Black Canadians, who had escaped the horrors of American slavery, were still a minority. With the success of Black activists south-of-the-border, the idea of bringing attention to Black history slowly moved north.

In the meantime, thousands of people were emigrating to Canada as a direct result of significant immigration policy changes by the Canadian government, who removed the preference of white English-speaking migrants.

We celebrate Black History Month because we can – and we must – recognize the struggle for equity that Black people and people of colour have historically faced in Canada. It is because we know that they continue to face these struggles even now.

It is one small step in the right direction of communication, engagement and understanding and because Black History Month stands as a lighthouse to Canadians reminding us although we have done a lot of anti-racism work, much more needs to be done.

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