Economic Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/African Canadians/Ames W. St. G. Walker

African-Canadian economic life has been warped both by the historical experience of slavery and, more significantly, by the mentality that slavery produced in the dominant society. From 1628 until 1783 almost all Canadian blacks were slaves whose economic function, by definition, was to serve others; later, between 1783 and 1865, the African Americans who migrated to Canada were mostly fugitive former slaves, without wealth or power or social rank. Over time, slavery spawned many of the stereotypical characteristics applied to black people, particularly the notions of dependence, lack of initiative, and suitability only for service and unskilled employment. And, even when slavery died out in Canada, these images were nourished by the continued enslavement of blacks in the British Empire until 1834 and the United States until 1865. Not surprisingly, therefore, black migrants to Canada until recent times were generally consigned a labouring and service role. Moreover, since social privilege was closely related to economic status, the distinctions affecting blacks in the workplace were almost automatically extended to other areas of life. When racist doctrine was later imported into Canada, it confirmed and explained a situation that already existed, and justified its intensification. African Canadians had been identified as a subordinate class.

It is one of the ironies of history that Africans were initially enslaved because of physical and cultural characteristics that were the direct opposite of the later stereotypes: their strength, their skills, and their adaptability to new circumstances. Africa’s contribution to the New World economy went beyond brute labour. The West African civilizations where most slaves had originated were sophisticated agricultural societies with farming and herding techniques, craft production, and commercial expertise which would become features of the plantation system. Rice cultivation, for example, was a direct transfer; more pervasive were the work rhythms of African agriculture, gender specializations that included field labour for both men and women, tools such as the hoe and the adze, iron technology, woodworking, weaving, and basketry. The plantation was an almost self-sufficient and highly diversified world where slaves produced the necessities of life. Skilled slaves built their own cabins and also the master’s house, and the furniture that went in it, using tools crafted from African models; slaves were the blacksmiths, the bricklayers, the carpenters, the dyers, the engineers, the stock-keepers; they brought new land into productivity, designed irrigation systems, and tended the sick, both black and white. Slaves picked cotton, washed clothes, and waited at table, but they also did virtually everything else that plantation production required. In response to the challenge of abolitionism, slavery’s defenders claimed that blacks were incapable of self-support, yet throughout the slave era slaves raised all their own food, made their own clothes, supplied their own wants, all in moments snatched from labour performed to support their masters.

A background of agricultural self-sufficiency and craft technology suggested that former American slaves would be ideal pioneers in the Canadian wilderness; indeed, this was the confident vision of the black migrants themselves. Loyalists, refugees, and fugitives arrived with an urgent desire for land and independence. As noted, however, their experience in acquiring farms was disappointing. In the Maritimes, even those who did receive land were granted amounts that were not sufficient for the achievement of independence. In Upper Canada, where there was no government program to grant land to blacks, those fugitives who became landowners did so through purchase, but most blacks were too poor to follow their lead. Instead, many entered into tenancy agreements with white landowners, cultivating the land in exchange for a share of the crop. Intended as a route to eventual farm ownership, sharecropping tended to be self-perpetuating because half a crop did not supply enough surplus to repay the owner’s loan for seed and implements. Thwarted in the quest for agricultural independence, most former slaves – including those whose farms were neither large nor fertile enough to support a family – turned to wage labour.

In the Loyalist era, and in Upper Canada right into the 1840s, an expanding frontier economy welcomed labourers. Land had to be cleared, roads cut through the forest, public buildings constructed. Employers, conditioned by limited expectations of people who had recently been enslaved and recognizing that the blacks were desperate, usually paid black employees lower wages than whites, even for the same work. Black families were able to survive on lower incomes because both partners participated in the labour market, driven by African tradition, slave experience, and necessity. Of course, wage labour at marginal rates, even with two incomes, usually prevented the accumulation of savings which might have permitted the purchase of land or investment in a business. Most black families therefore remained dependent on the white-dominated economy for their subsistence. Construction, especially on roads and later on canals and railways, supplied many jobs, and often blacks were employed as skilled workers. In Birchtown, Nova Scotia, in the 1780s there were more skilled black men employed – as carpenters, caulkers, masons, blacksmiths – than common labourers. The service category offered opportunities, too, as house servants, waiters, cooks, shoeshiners, cleaners, and launderers.

There was also a minority of the skilled self-employed: watchmakers, blacksmiths, dressmakers, apothecaries, butchers, barbers, gunsmiths, milliners, and some shopowners, tavernkeepers, and contractors. Particularly on the west coast, where a booming gold-rush economy met the African-American migrants, blacks turned skills into entrepreneurial enterprises when conditions were favourable. Lester and Gibbs, the general store opened by Peter Lester and Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, offered serious competition to the Hudson’s Bay Company. The most successful black entrepreneur in Victoria, Gibbs, who later was to return to the Reconstruction South, won a government contract to build the railroad to the Queen Charlotte coalfields. Two other prominent Victoria blacks were Charles Alexander, who ran the town’s largest transport and cartage company, and tinsmith John Sullivan Deas, who expanded his stove and hardware business into a salmon-canning enterprise that pioneered the techniques adopted by the entire industry.

As long as there were enough jobs there was no reason for black workers to attract resentment. But occasionally there were whites who wanted the same jobs, and then the white workers’ hostility was directed against the blacks. The first dramatic example of such a confrontation occurred in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, in 1784, when white Loyalists who had not yet received their land grants were forced into the labour market. The low wages paid to black Loyalists, however, depressed the rate the white workers could demand, provoking white mobs to attack Shelburne blacks, tear down their houses and their Baptist church, and attempt to force them out of town. Once the whites were placed on lands the violence ceased, and black workers were again regarded as an economic asset. Then, in 1815, difficult economic conditions drove blacks out of all but the most menial categories of employment, for at comparable wages employers preferred to hire whites.

A similar pattern was visible in Upper Canada. During the 1840s a multitude of working-class immigrants, mostly Irish fleeing the potato famine, entered into direct competition with the black fugitives. The ensuing friction occasionally produced violent incidents; more typically, blacks were simply displaced into less desirable employment. By confederation, economic circumstances and the precedent set by slavery had relegated most African Canadians to a service and labouring role; a “place” had been allotted for blacks consistent with prevailing social considerations and with American practice. Other immigrants, especially the Irish, often shared a similar economic position, but they or their descendants were able to move upwards as their skills and ambition permitted. This kind of mobility was denied to most blacks, for their subordinate economic role was increasingly regarded as natural by the white majority.

One result of economic restriction of this kind was that white prejudices were confirmed by experience: black people were primarily encountered in service or labouring occupations, according to stereotype. Another result was that the black population became fixed in relative poverty, without access to more remunerative occupations. This fact had consequences for the quality of their health, their housing, and their education. Sometimes it was the occasion for outpourings of white charity. In the Maritimes, where poverty was built into the fabric of the remote and segregated black settlements, government and private assistance was often necessary to keep black people from absolute starvation. In Ontario, which was both more affluent and less segregated, it was more often the newly arrived runaways whose destitution required emergency aid. In both regions black leaders were conscious of the liability of receiving outside assistance, for it suggested that black people were incapable of supporting themselves. Self-reliance became the motto and the urgent ambition of the mid-nineteenth- century black community. For the most part, blacks believed that they would be accepted by whites, that they would “prove” their equality as human beings if they were able to stand on their own and contradict the stereotype of dependent inferiority.

One apparent way to obtain equality was through the acquisition of specialized skills. In Chatham, for example, despite the attractions of the Reconstruction South, the number of skilled workers – such as carpenters, plasterers, blacksmiths – actually increased in the years immediately after the Civil War. In Halifax, though the proportion of skilled to unskilled was not so great, there were black shipwrights and barbers, masons and carpenters, tinsmiths and tailors, along with the truckers, waiters, and general labourers during the 1870s and 1880s. The census, designed by and for the majority culture, did not always list the occupations of married women, but general observations are possible. Schoolteaching seems virtually to have been feminized by the later decades of the nineteenth century, and there were black dressmakers and milliners in most areas of African-Canadian concentration in the Maritimes, Ontario, and on the west coast. Still, the overwhelming number of black women with identifiable occupations in the late nineteenth century were servants, cleaners, and launderers.

There was a limited amount of mobility. Undoubtedly the most celebrated case of middle-class success was the Abbott family of Toronto. Wilson Abbott arrived in Toronto in 1835 and began a tobacco shop. Soon, however, he switched his attention to real estate, eventually creating an empire consisting of forty-six houses as well as commercial buildings. In the 1850s Wilson and Ellen Abbott moved to Buxton so that their children could benefit from the superior education offered at William King’s school. Their son Anderson afterwards attended Trinity College, Toronto, where he graduated as a medical doctor. During the Civil War Dr Abbott served as a surgeon in the Union Army and was decorated by President Abraham Lincoln; returning to Canada, he practised medicine in Chatham and became Kent County coroner in 1874. His speeches and articles and his public stature made him the best-known spokesperson on behalf of black ability and equal opportunity in the late nineteenth century. His good friend William Hubbard also amassed a fortune in Toronto real estate and used his wealth and expertise to launch a successful career as a municipal politician from 1894 to 1914, serving as alderman, controller, and acting mayor of the city. Hubbard’s son Frederick married Dr Abbott’s daughter Grace, and as heir to these two dynamic family traditions Frederick Hubbard would preside over black Toronto in the early years of the twentieth century and hold the posts of commissioner and first chair of the Toronto Transit Commission in the 1930s.

Yet such stories did not characterize black Canada as the twentieth century began. On the contrary, black businesses dwindled and qualified trades were abandoned for the labouring jobs that were more generally available in an era of “scientific” racism. The result was that, despite the prosperity of the Canadian economy as a whole, African Canadians found their incomes declining and their economic position deteriorating. Similarly, new black migrants entered an economic environment of restriction. Those who went as skilled workers to Sydney, Nova Scotia, were an exception to some extent, but when they re-migrated to Montreal or Toronto, as many did, they found that skilled employment was closed to them. They and other immigrants from the West Indies and the United States, along with the Canadian-born, became dishwashers, shoeshiners, janitors, and bell-hops; a few gained unskilled or semi-skilled jobs in construction or manufacturing.

On the prairies there were jobs in construction and the meat-packing plants. Women could find poorly paid work in the textile industry, though in urban areas the most typical female employment was domestic service. As the number of white servants declined the proportion of black women in domestic service increased, giving the impression of a natural affinity. In Montreal in 1928 almost 100 percent of employed black women were domestics; it was still 80 percent in 1941. Clerical and sales positions, coming to be regarded as suitable for females in the twentieth century, were denied almost absolutely to black women unless there was some family connection; black women could be elevator operators, black men could stock the shelves, but neither could serve the public in the shops and department stores. Government jobs, in the Post Office or Customs Department, also became increasingly rare for black men after World War I. Small entrepreneurs such as hairdressers and barbers survived, with a largely black clientele, but the grocery stores, butcher shops, and tobacconists of an earlier era, depending on non-black customers to be viable, largely disappeared. Hospitals across the country refused to accept black women for nurses’s training; banks and telephone companies were for whites only. Even with education or training black people could not find the work for which they were qualified. The onset of the Depression only made things worse. Whites were driven downward into black employment preserves; blacks were displaced farther down or into unemployment.

The position of railway porter was the epitome of black employment in the first half of this century. The connection between black men and portering was imported into Canada in the 1880s with the appearance of the Pullman car. In the United States, as in Canada, blacks were associated with personal service, of the kind expected from a sleeping-car porter: efficient, discreet, and unassuming. Wages were low, deliberately so, for the porter’s main income was to come from tips volunteered by satisfied customers. Porters learned to give good service or their family income would suffer. The black communities in the chief rail centres, such as Montreal, Winnipeg, and Calgary, were dominated by the porters either as residents or as visitors on layover. In 1928, 90 percent of employed black males in Montreal worked for the railroad. Many were highly educated: there were university graduates among them, unable to get any other kind of work.

Portering demonstrates both the service orientation of African-Canadian employment and the rigid segregation in the Canadian labour market before World War II. On the Canadian Pacific Railway, blacks, many of them recruited in the United States, were hired only as sleeping-car porters; however experienced he became, the porter could not be promoted to conductor or any higher post. The Grand Trunk employed blacks as cooks and waiters on the dining cars, as well as sleeping-car porters, but this practice ceased in 1926 when the company was taken over by Canadian National Railways and the blacks were all shifted to the sleeping cars. Meanwhile, organized labour shared the prejudices of the broader society of which it was a part. When the CNR porters unionized in 1918 they were at first denied affiliation with the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees and then offered associate status before being admitted finally as distinct locals. According to the union agreement with the company, there were two groups for seniority purposes. Group I contained dining-car employees and sleeping-car conductors; Group II was exclusively for sleeping-car porters. Since an employee could advance only within his own group, blacks were slotted forever as porters and could not be promoted to conductor. Thus, in both the unionized CNR and the non-unionized CPR, black men were isolated in the lowest paid and most physically strenuous service position. Even so, they were better off than any other group of black workers in Canada.

During World War II mainstream Canada at last began paying attention to black demands for economic justice. Instructive in this regard was the case of the National Selective Service (NSS), established to regulate labour for wartime industry. The NSS recruited blacks only into certain stereotypical positions and respected the request of private employers that they not be required to hire blacks at all. Mass meetings in Montreal, Toronto, and Windsor protested this state of affairs, and the blacks’ arguments were reported in the national press. In November 1942 the NSS reversed its policy, and, although private industry retained the right to discriminate on grounds of race for another ten years, the government agency itself vowed not to do so. Equally significant was the army’s decision in 1941 not to establish a separate black battalion, as had happened in World War I, and to permit black volunteers to enlist in any unit with the commanding officer’s approval. The Royal Canadian Air Force’s restrictions against recruits of non-European descent were dropped in 1943, and the navy’s similar rule was eliminated in 1944. Black men entered every branch of the armed services, many serving with distinction overseas and determined, after the war, to gain full respect as veterans. Black women, for their part, entered the munitions plants, often working alongside white women; other opportunities, including office work, also came their way, for labour was in short supply.

World War II also had an impact on Canadian labour policy. The right to unionize was legislated, empowering the CPR porters to invite A. Philip Randolph of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) to help them organize. In 1943 the BSCP was certified to represent CPR porters, and it launched a campaign to remove the restrictions against promotion to other positions. With the assistance of more legislative reforms, specifically the federal Fair Employment Practices Act (FEP) of 1953, the CPR porters won the right to promotion to sleeping-car conductor in 1955 and to other supervisory positions in 1957. The CNR porters, meanwhile, were still fixed in Group II for promotion purposes, as approved by their union. Prodded by black complaints under the FEP, the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees held a referendum on the question in 1964 and, following membership approval, the groups were amalgamated and porters were at last eligible for employment at all levels. Because so many porters had built up considerable seniority, advancement was quite common and the most famous employment ghetto in Canada was shattered. At the same time, of course, blacks lost their monopoly over the porter position, but the barrier had been more restrictive than protective and few mourned its removal.

Other areas of the post-war economy similarly felt the winds of change. For example, in 1946 the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) targeted employment restrictions, successfully convincing a Halifax hospital to admit two young black women for nurses’ training in 1946, and in 1952 the city of Halifax itself employed its first black schoolteacher in modern times, again under pressure from the NSAACP. Other provinces would follow the Nova Scotian example in the next two or three years. In 1951 Ontario implemented Canada’s first FEP, followed, as we have seen, by the federal government in 1953 and by other provinces before the end of the decade. With the legislative weapon achieved, African Canadians were able to engage in direct confrontation with overt barriers against them.

Systemic barriers remained. A post-war survey of Windsor-area blacks showed that more than 90 percent were engaged in labouring jobs, though many were qualified for better positions. Into the 1960s Halifax blacks were the most poorly educated and paid element in the population, and qualified plumbers and carpenters reported in 1969 that they could find work only as unskilled labourers. In Hamilton, where educational levels of blacks and whites were comparable, a 1965 survey showed that blacks were paid considerably less than whites. But there were also signs of improvement. In 1954 Violet King of Calgary became the first black woman in Canada to qualify as a lawyer. Black police constables, letter carriers, and fire fighters appeared in places such as Halifax and Windsor and Chatham where they had been excluded before and, in the professional ranks, black dentists, engineers, librarians, and lawyers began to appear.

This trend was accentuated dramatically with the arrival of highly qualified immigrant blacks beginning in the 1960s. The 1971 census was indicative: 27 percent of immigrant black males had attended university compared to 19 percent among non-black immigrants, 14 percent among Canadian-born non-blacks, and 6 percent among native-born African Canadians. Since the inauguration of the points system, all immigrants have tended to be more highly educated than the Canadian-born, but the contrast was greatest between the old and new black populations. And yet this impressive level of qualifications was not being translated into high-status jobs and incomes, leading to suggestions that the Canadian heritage of racial disadvantage and occupational stereotyping was being imposed directly upon the newcomers as they arrived. From the 1970s on, a variety of studies monitored the apparent gap between ability and economic reward for African Canadians. While these studies suggested that there was no absolute colour barrier in Canada and that considerable variation occurred in local practices, they also yielded a distinct set of impressions concerning the blacks’ perceived experience with discrimination, the attitudes of whites toward blacks, and some more objective information indicative of a black “place” in Canada. A majority of the black people sampled, both immigrant and Canadian-born – sometimes as high as 80 percent – believed that they had suffered in finding a job, gaining promotion, or working at a level appropriate to their skills. Complaints to human rights commissions of racially motivated employment discrimination reflected comparable patterns. Samples of white opinion revealed that substantial numbers of people saw blacks as lazy, unmotivated, lacking in intelligence and discipline, primarily of the lower class, and a drain on unemployment and welfare funds. Despite the variety of backgrounds and skills possessed by African Canadians, there remained a tendency to ignore actual experience and to simplify the complexities in terms of traditional images.

To the impressionistic evidence from survey samples were added statistical data illustrating the same general situation. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s black employees consistently earned lower average wages than their white counterparts, even when figures were adjusted for education, gender, age, region, and industrial sector. Also, although there was no rigid occupational segregation, there was a tendency toward ethnic concentration in Canada which often disadvantaged blacks. In general terms, figures from the 1980s showed blacks over-represented in the service sector by about 40 percent and in manual labour by about 30 percent, and under-represented in management by more than 60 percent. Areas of concentration included, for women, the garment trade, domestic work, nursing and other hospital work, and, for men, private security service, taxi-driving, and hospital work. In the professional category, blacks were about average or slightly over-represented, yet they had not achieved commensurate jobs at the decision-making level in either the public or the private sector. Employment-participation rates were higher for blacks than for the population as a whole, especially for black females compared to non-black females, yet black unemployment rates were higher as well.

These figures seemed to support the impressionistic evidence that historic patterns were being perpetuated despite profound changes in the make-up of the African-Canadian population. A high participation rate for women, employment in the service and labouring categories, lower pay even for comparable qualifications: these characteristics had prevailed for two hundred years.

Although the promise of the 1960s had not been fulfilled, there were indications in the 1990s that deliberate intervention guided by new directions in public policy were having some effect. The 1984 Royal Commission on Equality in Employment, commonly called the Abella Report (after judge Rosalie Abella), and the parliamentary committee reports Equality Now! and Equality for All, produced in 1984 and 1985 respectively, were indicative of government and public readiness to use legislative authority to correct a situation that had become too blatant to ignore. The legislative instrument that resulted – the Employment Equity Act of 1986 – was a signal that the government recognized a responsibility not just to prevent acts of discrimination but to reverse a syndrome of systemic discrimination. Provincial governments, particularly Ontario’s, undertook programs within their own jurisdictions. For generations, racial disadvantage in Canada had been obscured by euphemisms, excuses, and coincidences: blacks were immigrants, uneducated, tainted by slavery. By the 1990s some realities had been laid bare and the Canadian public was being challenged to confront them.