Community and Family Traditions

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

Although African Canadians obviously have a wide variety of origins and histories, their experience in Canada has been characterized by a certain commonality in their relations with the non-black majority. The early pioneers learned that as individuals they were vulnerable, in the face of mainstream hostility, and they developed a tradition of communal response and mutual support. Community has therefore become a fundamental theme of black history in Canada, and it can be recognized in several pervading features of African-Canadian life: the insistence upon strengthening the group from within, through self-improvement; self-reliance not as individuals but as a group; assistance to less fortunate group members; and the advancement of community rights within Canadian society. Like most other elements in black culture, this theme derives both from Canadian experience and from traditions brought by migrants. In its Canadian evolution, the definition of community has been intricately connected to the concepts of family and kinship.

In traditional Africa, family and community were inseparable. Africans gained their identity from complex kinship links which included ancestors from the past and children yet unborn. The only way to be part of a community was to be born into it, to marry into it, or in certain cases to be adopted into it. A bride did not simply join her husband but her husband’s kin group (or vice versa in matrilineal systems); a child belonged not just to its parents but to a network of relatives, and all shared in its upbringing. In this kin-based social structure, wives and mothers had a distinguished role for it was they who enhanced the lineage. The institution of bridewealth, involving compensation for transferring the bride from one kin group to another, recognized the supreme value of procreation; it also recognized the economic contribution of a wife’s labour to the family welfare. Similarly, the division of agricultural and commercial tasks along gender lines created an interdependency that was reflected in political and social affairs. There were separate spheres for men and women, with rights and responsibilities delineated by seniority. Lines of authority were determined by the specifics of the relationship and the situation: if a wife deferred to her husband in some instances, in others he deferred to his maternal uncle and she received deference from a junior wife in a plastic hierarchy of familial ties.

In slavery it was not possible to sustain the African family model. And so people who had understood community in family terms developed their slave communities as if they were families, assigning kinship roles and relationships to persons who were not literally blood relatives. As sex ratios came into balance, marriages were established and new generations were born into slavery, but the need for a community network remained since family stability very much depended on the master. The circumstances of slavery also perpetuated a kind of interdependency between men and women. Masters expected both sexes to work, and thus there was no possibility that one or the other partner could become the economic provider. In addition, authority was lodged in the master or the master’s appointed overseer, limiting the authority that could be exercised within the family; indeed, except on the larger plantations, partners usually did not even live together. Finally, task assignment was often gender-specific, giving groups of women and of men an opportunity to continue separate traditions and skills brought from Africa. With mothers working, children would be raised and socialized by other community members in a fictive re-creation of the African pattern.

Although certain African features were preserved, the slave families that developed in the New World were as decidedly different from the original as they were from the European model, with its nuclear functionality, male economic responsibility and authority, and female dependency. Without legal recognition and subject to constant disruption, the slave family survived on the inherent value placed in it by the descendants of Africa. In the British Caribbean slavery ended just twenty-five years after the African trade was abolished, and so there was no extended period during which a locally born majority could adapt to conditions of gender balance. The post-emancipation black family continued a tendency toward monogamous but impermanent partnerships, in which children might stay with their mother and their mother’s kin while their father moved on to a new relationship. Even when they were together, economic circumstances required both partners to work, inhibiting the development of gender dependency. Those classes that gained a European education and consequent economic advantages were more likely to adopt the European family structure.

On the American mainland, gender balance was achieved a century before emancipation, and, though abolition of the African slave trade stimulated an internal trade from the Atlantic seaboard to the states of the deep south, there was already a well-established pattern of stable family formation supplemented by kin-like communal relationships. After emancipation, African-American marriages were formally legalized and sharecropping families worked as economic units to ensure their survival. The free black family was nuclear, but the tradition of interdependency survived.

In Canada, family and community blended as a result of specific historical conditions. The black Loyalists and refugees who fled to Canada most often arrived in family units, or quickly formed them upon arrival, though marriages were not always formalized in church. Furthermore, marriages made in slavery were obviously taken seriously, for the black churches in Canada upheld the sanctity of marriage even if one partner remained enslaved. Among the later fugitives, it was often the male partner who arrived first, and he would then try to assist family members to escape. Yet, wherever or whenever they landed in Canada, black men were unlikely to earn enough to provide for a family. And so, whether by pioneering in the wilderness or working in towns, black women had to participate in the family economy. Indeed, because of gender as well as racial divisions in the marketplace, there were sometimes more employment opportunities for black women than for men, making them the chief breadwinner for the family. As in Africa and as in American slavery, interdependency was maintained between partners and collaboration was required with other community members. Since African-Canadian mothers could not assume sole responsibility for child care, their children were raised communally and in the process developed an extended sense of family beyond actual kinship ties.

Beyond the family itself, for the black pioneers and for generations of their descendants, the core of the community was the church. Church membership defined community, provided opportunities to participate in community affairs, and created networks for cooperative endeavour. Often the local school reinforced community identity, particularly in the all-black settlements where the teachers shared with preachers the role of leader, spokesperson, and interpreter. Most of the black communities in Nova Scotia and Upper Canada had their own churches and schools by mid-nineteenth century, ensuring institutional support for community life. Since these were local institutions they were responsive to the needs of the immediate population being served by them. In the tenuous days of Loyalist settlement, it was through the fledgling Christian chapels that mutual assistance was organized. There are recorded instances where Loyalists actually sold their hard-won property in order to pay the debt of a fellow church member, for black indebtedness in the eighteenth century often led to indentured servitude. Similarly, when the opportunity to migrate to Sierra Leone was put to them in 1791, the Loyalists took the decision to go or stay not as individuals but as chapel communities, abiding by a majority vote.

The black Loyalists were not alone in their feelings of communal solidarity. The Nova Scotia refugees engaged in communal land-clearing and home-building even before their churches were formed, and when they too were offered a chance to relocate, to Trinidad or even within Nova Scotia, the prevailing feeling was that sacrifice of the community was too high a price to pay, and that in any case survival depended upon the continued existence of the community. The Upper Canadian fugitives demonstrated identical concerns in their vigilance committees against marauding kidnappers and above all in the organized communal settlements. Throughout Canada, distinct black settlements and districts created a physical proximity which encouraged community cooperation and identity.

The organizations formed by the fugitive-era black community reflected its priorities and concerns. Church-based associations came first – Sunday schools, bible study and other reading groups, debating clubs, temperance societies – and the leaders of these moved out in a web of interlocking directorships to found and run a variety of organizations. Some of the earliest displayed their continuing concern for those still enslaved in the United States. In 1846 Richard Preston, the leading black Baptist minister in Nova Scotia, founded the African Abolition Society. Its long-time president was Septimus Clarke, a prominent Baptist layman, but the presence of Methodists on the executive indicated that this particular cause was deliberately non-sectarian. The organization reproduced many activities already associated with church-related functions while lending them an antislavery theme and, significantly, carrying them out into the mainstream society. There were plays, evenings of music, debates, speeches, including some by visiting fugitives fresh from slavery, and an annual parade and picnic celebrating British emancipation day on 1 August. Black committees in Saint John, Hamilton, Windsor, and later Victoria also used emancipation day as an opportunity to celebrate British freedom and at the same time to create an antislavery event involving white citizens. Another organization with these objectives was the Antislavery Society of Canada, formed in Toronto following passage of the American Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Though predominantly white, this body had several black members on its executive, blacks served as president of many local branches in southwestern Upper Canada, and its agent and leading orator was Samuel Ringgold Ward, a black Congregational minister. Besides generating awareness and public sympathy towards the issue of slavery, the abolitionist associations raised funds for fugitive relief. Much of this was done by black women, often organized in separate associations such as the Queen Victoria Benevolent Society in Toronto, the North Baptist Sewing Circle in Halifax, and the Committee of Coloured Ladies in Victoria. They held dinners and bake sales, sewed, and gathered cast-off clothing for fugitives who arrived with nothing.

Fugitive-era organizations displayed a sensitivity toward their image among whites, conscious that without respect they could not hope to achieve equal rights. An early example was the African Friendly Society, formed in Halifax in the 1830s primarily to provide sick benefits for members and pensions for widows and orphans. At its peak it had 300 members, almost the entire adult male black population in Halifax at the time. The Friendly Society coexisted, and shared several executive members, with the Anglo-African Mutual Improvement and Aid Association, which sought to avoid approaching whites for charity by generating assistance for blacks within the black community. The association also had a more overtly political purpose: members were instructed in the duties and rights of citizenship, and it was insisted that they accept no limitations on their rights and allow no insult to go unanswered. In the 1841 election they assessed the platforms of the various candidates and then required the membership to vote as a bloc to the benefit of the community. Similar motives prompted the formation at Malden, Upper Canada, in 1854 of the True Band, which had fourteen branches across the southwestern part of the province by the end of the decade. Unusually for the time, the True Band included both male and female members. It, too, promoted a benefit program for members and charity for the newly arrived or the temporarily destitute in order to prevent begging from whites, which was considered demeaning. The band sponsored educational programs for basic literacy and moral improvement, required members to submit their disputes first to a band committee rather than to provincial courts, and held meetings to prepare members for participation in political affairs.

The post–Civil War exodus disrupted many of these organizations, and in fact some of the communities were abandoned altogether while others underwent major population changes. Slavery was now lost as an issue and as an organizing principle among blacks, and American emancipation also caused a shift in white attitudes: blacks were no longer fugitives from American tyranny, no longer testimony to the superiority of British institutions, but unwelcome intruders. The late nineteenth century witnessed an increase in segregation and a greater acceptance of the idea that those who were created differently, by “race” or by gender, should associate separately. African Canadians continued to celebrate emancipation day, but more now as an apolitical and all-black community party with bands and choirs and picnics. They also tended to have separate celebrations for general holidays, for example the Queen’s birthday each 24 May, or if they participated in the common festivities it was as a distinguishable, and subordinate, unit.

Within the black community the family continued to require the economic contribution of both partners, and census records and descriptive accounts show that households typically contained extended families and collective child-care arrangements to free black mothers for employment. At a time when the “cult of domesticity” was sweeping white womanhood, black women were wage-earners, often had more education than black men since they generally started working at a slightly later age, and in the workplace sometimes performed jobs deemed unfeminine by contemporary white standards. What black families had grown used to as interdependency struck white observers as odd and unnatural; black women were depicted as masculine, black men as weak and ineffectual for their failure to support their partners, the black family as matriarchal and dysfunctional. That blacks were influenced by prevailing Victorian attitudes is suggested by the fact that, when husbands did earn enough, black wives stayed at home to care for their nuclear families.

As would be expected, black organizations reflected communal realities. Black men founded all-black fraternal societies equivalent to those of white men, followed a few decades later by black women. Prominent among them was the Masonic order and associated lodges such as the Oddfellows, Templars, and Elks. These societies, often with overlapping membership, stimulated masculine fellowship and continued the tradition of self-help and community benevolence. There were women’s organizations for charitable works, and then in the 1880s black Eastern Star chapters were organized as sister societies to the Masonic lodges. Fellowship and fund-raising went together as the Eastern Star held teas, bazaars, and banquets, visited the sick, and assisted the destitute. In the political realm, blacks became involved in Nova Scotia in the 1880s in a massive effort to achieve integrated schools, and in Ontario the Kent County Civil Rights League, founded in Chatham in 1891 with 600 members, similarly grew out of the issue of school segregation.

The most dramatic organized attempt to change the status quo occurred in Montreal, where the Colored Political and Protective Association was formed in 1917. The association encouraged its members to become politically informed, to coordinate their votes behind candidates who would promote better race relations, and to participate generally in “racial advancement” by insisting upon equal treatment. In January 1919 it sent Sol Reynolds and three black companions to challenge the racist seating policy of Loew’s theatre by sitting in the main section rather than the balcony where blacks were normally segregated. When they were ejected Reynolds sued the theatre for damages. This cause united all of the city’s black groups, which combined to finance the court case; however, the theatre’s segregationist policy was upheld at a subsequent appeal. Though it had lost this battle the association continued to struggle for black rights, enlisting black voter support for selected candidates during elections in the early 1920s.

During this same period in Calgary the Colored Protective Association marshalled resistance against an attempt to legalize residential segregation, and in Edmonton the Negro Political Association (later the Liberty Protective Society) sought legislative recognition of equality rights and coordinated black support for selected candidates. In Toronto the inaccurately named Coloured Literary Association launched a “self-protective and self-improvement” program, instructing members in their legal rights, hosting discussions on public issues, and arranging legal advice to encourage black people to test restrictive policies. In 1924, with the founding of the Canadian League for the Advancement of Colored People, came an attempt to establish a broader organization to pursue these tactics. Led by James Jenkins, an American immigrant living in London, Ontario, and John Montgomery of Toronto, the league sponsored the Dawn of Tomorrow newspaper (London, 1923–66) and formed branches in several southwestern Ontario centres. Ultimately, though it was intended to be a replica of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the United States, the league found that an American program designed to deal with such issues as lynching was not translatable to Canadian conditions. Yet it did continue to serve as a watchdog attracting attention to racist incidents in Ontario.

Following World War I a Coloured War Veterans’ Association was formed in Montreal, and in Halifax a separate branch of the Canadian Legion was named after William Hall, Canada’s first black winner of the Victoria Cross. There were also several associations formed to serve the broader community needs of the African-Canadian population. The Home Service Association (HSA) was initiated in Toronto during World War I to supply home-front comforts for black soldiers, and after the war it was transformed into a general community organization. Under its first president, John Montgomery, the HSA opened a community centre where child-care and recreational facilities were established along with a choir, a youth group, and sports teams. With funds raised from Toronto businesses the HSA provided professional counselling and social-work services at a time when governments did not do so. In Montreal, a city with rampant discrimination, the Eureka Association helped blacks find housing and fostered home ownership by arranging mortgages. Also in that city, the Reverend Charles Este of Union Church founded the Negro Community Centre in 1927, located at first in the church basement before moving to its own building. Like the HSA, the Montreal centre offered recreational and social facilities and sponsored a variety of clubs and teams, eventually becoming the focal point for black social life and community consciousness in the city. In Halifax, beginning in 1930, the Colored Citizens’ Improvement League sponsored the Halifax North Cultural and Recreation Youth Center, where president Beresford Augustus Husbands organized baseball games, fashion shows and beauty contests, street dances, and the ubiquitous annual picnic.

Alternatively competing and cooperating with centres such as these was the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), which had three branches in Nova Scotia (at Sydney, New Waterford, and Glace Bay), and others in Montreal, Toronto, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Amber Valley, Alberta, and Vancouver. Founded by the Jamaican Marcus Garvey in 1916 and headquartered in Harlem, the UNIA exalted black unity, pride, and self-reliance and elevated Africa as a symbol of black redemption by advocating the return of New World blacks to their motherland. In Canada the UNIA had its greatest appeal among West Indians, and, while the literal back-to-Africa message was effectively overlooked by most, a range of black-consciousness activities was unleashed. UNIA members heard speeches extolling the virtues of black independence, attended debates, dances, dinners, recitals, plays, or classes in black history, joined a credit union, choir, orchestra, sports team, or literary society, took first-aid training as Black Cross Nurses, and listened to live jazz performances. As a service club and social centre the UNIA had no equal while it lasted, and, though it declined in the United States following Garvey’s arrest and deportation on fraud charges in the 1920s, the Canadian operation lasted another decade or more and is still preserved, much scaled-down, in the Universal African Improvement Association.

Women participated prominently in the UNIA, HSA, and Negro Community Centre, and there were separate women’s organizations as well. In Toronto the Coloured Women’s Club, founded in 1902 to help soldiers returning from the Boer War, engaged in charitable work especially among new immigrants from the West Indies. In 1910 it gave place to the Eureka Club (also known as the Eureka Friendly Club), which would become the longest-surviving black women’s organization in Canada. Like their predecessors, most women’s groups in the early twentieth century functioned as charitable societies, raising funds to pay the rent of black families in distress, making up food baskets for the poor, and even, in the case of a Montreal group, purchasing burial plots for blacks who died destitute. More general social reform was targeted by black chapters of the Women’s Christian Temperence Union. And women’s groups cooked and catered for the picnics and baseball tournaments and annual celebrations that occurred in every black community in Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. All these societies and affairs were profoundly local, reflecting the localized identity of the African-Canadian population at that time. Still, there were moments when membership in a global community of African descent became apparent, as, for example, when independent Ethiopia was invaded by the Italians. There were fund-raising drives and bandage-making days at community centres, and in Montreal blacks mounted a street demonstration and recruited volunteers to defend Ethiopia.

The post-war decade saw the emergence for the first time of regional and provincial bodies giving effect to the secular interests of black people. In 1945 the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People was born as a provincial organization dedicated to the progress of the black community both in socioeconomic terms, through education, and with respect to citizenship rights. New Brunswick, Alberta, and British Columbia would emulate the Nova Scotian example with provincial AACPs. There was no direct Ontario counterpart, though the Canadian League (renamed Association) for the Advancement of Colored People was still in existence and there was an unsuccessful attempt in 1958 to form a provincial branch of the American NAACP. In the absence of a coordinated provincial society, activists intent on achieving full equality for blacks formed locally based associations. In Dresden, Chatham, and North Buxton, Hugh Burnett formed the National Unity Association in 1946, leading its confrontation with legally sanctioned segregation to the provincial and federal governments and then, to achieve enforcement, into the law courts. In Toronto the Negro Citizenship Association, founded in 1951 under president Donald Moore, targeted the discriminatory immigration policies that admitted former enemy aliens ahead of Commonwealth West Indians. The South Essex Citizens’ Advancement Society and its president George McCurdy moved to abolish Ontario’s last segregated school, in Colchester, and exposed segregationist policies in Windsor-area business establishments. In 1951 the Canadian Negro Women’s Association was established with headquarters in Toronto. Under its first president, Kay Livingstone, the association set about coordinating charitable activities and, in 1957, organizing Canada’s first Negro History Week.

As the black population began to grow in the 1960s, therefore, there was already planted a network of organizations and an experienced leadership representing African-Canadian concerns and achieving remarkable success in changing the laws and reversing age-old discriminatory practices. In that same era African Americans launched the non-violent civil-rights movement, placing Martin Luther King’s image before the Canadian public both black and white, and movements for national independence swept the continent of Africa and the Commonwealth Caribbean. Black Canadians could recognize a community of interest that was truly global; a highly localized sense of identity was broadening under Canadian and international influences. At the same time, local community structures were changing. Governments were supplying services that church and charity organizations had earlier provided within the black communities, and secularism affected black churches as well as white. Black schools closed under the impact of anti-discrimination challenges or regional consolidation. Both the problems and the solutions that had occupied the black community for generations were being fundamentally altered.

In particular, the waves of new black immigration produced social conditions never before experienced by African Canadians, with implications for family and community structures. Migrations always produce demographic imbalances, but, in the case of black immigration from the 1960s on, the imbalances were especially pronounced. In 1991 the average age of a black Canadian was 27, compared to 34 for non-blacks. The black Canadian population had the lowest proportion of senior citizens (3 percent) and almost half were under the age of 24. This meant that a large percentage of the population was in school or training or seeking a first job. There was also a gender imbalance. Whereas among non-blacks about 51 percent of the population was female, among blacks it was 55 percent. To some extent, this figure reflects the phenomenon of split migration; it is not unusual for one partner to migrate first and send for spouse and family once established. The historical pattern is for that first migrant to be male. Among West Indians, however, the original migrant is most often female, and this has been the case since the mid-1950s. A major reason is that the Canadian marketplace, which assigns different occupational roles according to age, gender, “race,” and immigrant status, often has more employment considered appropriate for young black women than for other black people. So, in 1991, although the percentage of Caribbean-born adults who were married was higher than for other Canadians (54 percent to 47 percent), the proportion of single-parent families was quite substantial. Moreover, post-immigration strains in newly reunited families often produced marital breakdown and generational conflict. In 1991, over 13 percent of black families had a single parent, compared to just over 4 percent of other families, and over 90 percent of these black single parents were female. In the economic environment of the late twentieth century, this has tended to mean lower than average income levels and more reliance on public assistance. In Toronto, where they comprised 8 percent of the population, blacks accounted for 26 percent of the families receiving social assistance in 1990; in Montreal, where blacks were only 4 percent of the anglophone population, they represented 23 percent of families receiving services from the anglophone child-welfare agency, and Haitians were consistently over-represented among the clients of francophone care agencies. This situation was produced by the peculiar dynamics of Caribbean immigration; it did not represent the reality for African immigrants or for Canadian-born black families.

Even when they arrive as nuclear families, black immigrants come to Canada disconnected from the extended kinship networks and communities of their homeland. They therefore present new demands upon existing community structures, which have developed historically to suit different conditions. Since the 1960s new patterns in community formation have been emerging, reflected as always in the kind of organizations being created. For example, in 1962 the Jamaican-Canadian Association was founded in Toronto, merely the first of dozens of country-specific associations and athletic and cultural clubs to be established by immigrants in succeeding years. Also characteristic of the era were several organizations devoted to youth. Beginning in 1965 in Halifax, Kwacha House (named for a Zambian word meaning “freedom”) provided a drop-in centre, discussion groups, and youth programs, with special emphasis on race relations. In Toronto the Harriet Tubman Centre, founded in 1969, and the Black Resources and Information Centre, founded in the mid1970s, offered recreational facilities and youth leadership training and, like Kwacha House, engaged in exploring the black heritage in Canada and abroad. The Harriet Tubman Centre in particular emphasized black culture and art, hosting arts, crafts, and dance events. Interest in the black cultural heritage led as well to the creation of the Ontario Black History Society in 1978 and the Black Cultural Centre of Nova Scotia in 1983.

There were also some efforts to capture the diversity of the black population in umbrella associations. The first was the Black United Front, formed in Halifax in 1969, which launched an ambitious program to promote community self-help projects, cultural awareness, and improved race relations throughout Nova Scotia. The same year the National Black Coalition of Canada (NBCC) was launched at a meeting of twenty-eight black organizations in Toronto with a “Black Manifesto” urging political and social reforms. Although funding from the federal government and the Canadian Council of Churches permitted a promising beginning under its first president, Howard McCurdy, the NBCC’s structure as a federation of athletic, cultural, church, and political activist organizations hindered its efforts to formulate a comprehensive program. Following a commission chaired by Wilson Head in 1978, the NBCC amended its constitution to become a direct-membership association, but it was too late to save an organization that had become fractious and suspicious and it effectively folded in 1979. The third umbrella association was the Congress of Black Women of Canada, which grew out of a series of conferences called by the Canadian Negro Women’s Association beginning in 1973. At the 1980 conference in Winnipeg, the congress was launched with a constitution providing for individual as well as group membership. As a network focusing particularly on women’s and family issues, the congress has had the most success of any of the umbrella groups in developing national policies and in gaining recognition as a national voice of a significant constituency. Yet another level of cooperation was reached with the formation in 1975 of the Urban Alliance for Race Relations in Toronto, a coalition of black and other groups including whites and Asians led by Wilson Head. The alliance engaged in valuable research projects demonstrating the nature of racial discrimination in Canada, published the journal Currents: Readings in Race Relations (Toronto, 1983– ), lobbied governments, mounted workshops, and supplied skilled facilitators to intervene in crisis situations.

Equally indicative of evolving community concerns was a host of more specialized organizations appearing in the 1980s: business and professional associations in Toronto, Montreal, and Ottawa, a national association of black educators, organizations for black artists and social workers, and, of particular pertinence to family and community matters, Harambee Centres Canada. Harambee provides services to black families ranging from crisis counselling to programs introducing immigrant parents to the Canadian school system. “Harambee,” the Swahili word for cooperative effort, encapsulates the current state of the black community organization in the 1990s, inspiring a genuinely communal response to social problems and enlisting the institution of the family as an instrument for mobilizing group resources on behalf of individuals.