February 25, 2019
On February 13, I attended an event entitled, Still Standing: 400 Years of Black Excellence in Canada. This event was hosted by Carleton University’s Black History Month Committee and organized by a number of students and faculty across the university. Through various step, poetry, and music performances, an engaging panel discussion, and a keynote presentation by former NFL player, Christo Bilukidi, this event aimed to demonstrate the ways in which black folks have contributed to the culture and history of Canada.
Keynote presentation by former NFL player, Christo Bilukidi.
Black History Month was started by African American, Carter G. Woodson in the 1920s, and was called Negro History Week in the United States, until it transitioned to a month-long celebration in 1976. It was first recognized in Canada by a small group of black Canadians in 1950, before it expanded to the rest of Ontario by the Ontario Black History Society in 1979. The Canadian government officially recognized Black History Month in 1995.
Panel discussion on what it means to be black in Canada.
However, akin to every country that celebrates Black History Month, there still exists issues of racism and discrimination. Racism may be more overt elsewhere, but Canada remains guilty of microaggressions, racial slurs, and questions of “no, where are you really from?”, because people of colour’s declaration of Canadian citizenship is rarely accepted without further probe.
As panelist, Dr. Melissa Redmond stated, “400 years of black presence in Canada is missing from the Canadian imaginary”. Contrary to popular belief, people of African descent have been contributing to Canadian cultural heritage since Mathieu da Costa set foot on the Indigenous land that would later be called Canada in the early 1600s. Since then, black Canadians have enriched the country’s culture in countless ways and within numerous industries, including the military, government, sports, literature, film, music, education, and much more. They have also played a huge role in advancing civil rights, social advocacy, and black awareness in Canada.
That said, it is true that black people have contributed to Canadian culture by sharing and continuing to express the cultures of their original homelands. For example, Jamaicans,the earliest and largest immigrant group from the Caribbean, have been influencing Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) culture since the mid-90s. GTA residents have had the opportunity to be immersed in Jamaican culture and Jamaican-Canadian culture for decades through first-, second-, and even third-generation Jamaican descendants, festivals such as Caribana, Jerk restaurants; and Reggae and Dancehall’s influence on artists such as Drake and PartyNextDoor.
Toronto Caribana Festival / (photo: Jason Pinaster via Pixabay (CC))
This close relationship between Jamaicans and Canadians also asserts itself through language. Patois, the unofficial language of Jamaica, was born out of colonialism and slavery, and draws from both West African and imperial languages, such as English, Spanish, and Portuguese. Through migration and diaspora, Patois has also greatly informed the slang used in the GTA: some terms have been directly adopted into the Toronto dialect, while others have transformed and assumed new meanings to fit into the Canadian context. My graduate research therefore looks at the ways in which Jamaicans have contributed immensely to the language and culture of Toronto and the GTA. In my work, I aim to present Toronto as a unique diasporic site for Jamaicans. Additionally, I demonstrate the ways in which Jamaicans and other immigrants have contributed to a unique black culture and a unique culture within Canada.
Hence, there are several ways in which 400 years of black excellence may be celebrated, as well as several important requirements. First, it must be celebrated year-round to truly understand and appreciate the numerous contributions made by black Canadians.
Next, we must not simply say that Canada is diverse—this declaration should be reflected in our policies, in our institutions, and in our cultural diplomacy efforts, not simply as tokens, but as critical voices in Canadian narratives. Canadian culture is not a single,unified, or static entity, and we must accept all of the productive iterations of national culture.
Finally, stories of black excellence need to be discussed outside of black spaces. It is true that black people deserve spaces in our cities and throughout the country in which to discuss issues facing the black community, connect with other people of colour, and heal from personal and communal traumas.
However, when it comes to Black History, is not just for me. And it is not just for people who look like me.
Black History is human history. It is shared history. It is Canadian history.
By: Raven Wilkinson