From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/African Canadians/Ames W. St. G. Walker
From the time of Olivier Le Jeune, who received instruction at the hands of a Jesuit priest, religion and education were inseparable in African-Canadian life. Indeed, historically, the major black community institutions were the church and the school, and, despite recent secularization and immigrant diversity, the role of these two institutions in fashioning a black identity continues to resonate. Like every other aspect of African-Canadian history, the story of black religion and education owes its character to events in Canada, African influences, and the experience of slavery.
The cultural variety of West Africa embraced significant common denominators in the realm of religion. Typically, West Africans believed in a spiritual continuum linking human beings with ancestors, nature spirits, and an omnipotent creator. Religious practice included spirit possession, in which an ancestral or other spiritual essence seized the body of the human worshipper. Ceremonies frequently incorporated the use of water as a symbol of life, and daily routine was filled with rituals to propitiate a spirit, commemorate an ancestor, or seek the intercession of a particular deity. Formal education in traditional Africa was fundamentally spiritual, conveyed during a period of initiation into full community membership when young Africans were taught the secret lore and ancestral wisdom of their people. New World slaves often adapted aspects of their traditional religion to the circumstances of slavery, including the creation of syncretic cults combining African and Christian elements and characterized particularly by spirit possession. More subtly, the African heritage was expressed through the denominational choices of slaves converted to Christianity, through worship styles, and through the religious developments that occurred in segregated black congregations following conversion. Revivalistic churches practising baptism by immersion coincided with African tradition, as did extemporaneous prayer and a participatory worship service involving call-and-response patterns familiar in Africa. Slave religion accepted spirit possession, witches, ghosts, and conjuring, and it explained medical techniques in terms of supernatural powers.
As slaves in the pre-Revolutionary American colonies, the black Loyalists had generally been discouraged from becoming Christians because owners feared that Christian slaves would be more difficult to control. This often meant that slaves either continued to observe traditional practices or, if they were Christian, kept their religion secret. Slaves were also denied access to education, and any slave discovered to be learning to read was severely punished and often sold away. When they arrived in Nova Scotia the black Loyalists displayed an immediate and urgent desire to receive the Christian religion and an education. Since the Church of England was the largest and best organized denomination, most blacks initially joined it. The pattern was for white priests to convert and baptize the blacks, but, because the black settlements were relatively remote from the white parishes, they would then be left in the charge of a local black lay reader. Receiving only occasional visits from the neighbouring priests, black Anglicans were free to interpret Christian doctrines according to their own needs and inclinations and to develop distinctive styles of worship. An identical pattern occurred among the Methodists. After their conversion by travelling white ministers, local black Methodist groups were formed under their own preachers. And so, although they were nominally members of larger, white-dominated denominations, black Anglicans and Methodists in effect had independent churches of their own.
Two other Christian groups, the Huntingdonians and the Baptists, gained large black followings in the Maritimes. The Huntingdonians were an evangelical sect which had broken with orthodox Anglicanism in England. After the American Revolution John Marrant, a black Loyalist who had served in the Royal Navy, was taken to England where he became involved with the Huntingdonians. Appointed as missionary to his fellow Loyalists in British North America, he arrived in Nova Scotia in 1785 and established a congregation at Birchtown. Later he toured the black settlements and set up Huntingdonian chapels in several of them, and since he did not attract any white converts his Huntingdonian network was exclusively black. The Baptist faith was introduced to Nova Scotia by David George, who while still a slave had become a preacher at the first black Baptist church in North America, at Silver Bluff, South Carolina. From his headquarters in Shelburne, George went on mission tours that resulted in black Baptist chapels being formed in Preston, Nova Scotia, and in Saint John and Fredericton, New Brunswick. Although some whites did belong to George’s Shelburne congregation, the early Maritime Baptists were predominantly black and were served by black preachers.
Along with religion, education was soon introduced into each of the black Loyalist settlements in the Maritimes. In 1785 a British charity group known as the Associates of the Late Dr Bray began sending funds to build schools and hire teachers for the blacks. Eventually Bray schools were established in Halifax, Preston, Brindley Town, Birchtown, and Shelburne, Nova Scotia, and at Saint John and Fredericton, New Brunswick, and the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG), an Anglican missionary body, established a school at Little Tracadie, Nova Scotia. In each case the teachers were local blacks, and in most of them the teacher was also a preacher. Like the churches, the schools were left almost entirely on their own by their white benefactors, and this freedom allowed them to develop as distinct community institutions.
After the Revolution American slaveowners began to see a value in allowing their slaves to receive Christian teachings, and so many of the refugees arriving in the Maritimes were already church members, primarily Baptists. Since the exodus to Sierra Leone, Baptist leadership in Nova Scotia had fallen to John Burton, a white man who organized Baptist congregations in several refugee settlements after 1815 and also attracted black Loyalist Anglicans. Burton enlisted a former slave preacher named Richard Preston as his assistant and protégé. White members of Burton’s congregation began to protest against the increasing number of blacks joining their services and demanded that Burton organize a separate chapel for them. He refused, but the black Baptists had become disenchanted and decided to form their own church with Preston as their pastor. They sent him to London in 1831 to receive ordination from English Baptists and to collect funds to build a new church. When he returned in the summer of 1832 he became pastor of the African Baptist congregation in Halifax, with mission stations in Preston, Dartmouth, Hammond’s Plains, and Beech Hill. With the English Baptists’ assistance, the blacks built their separate church on Cornwallis Street, Halifax, and when it opened in 1833 it housed a school and a community hall as well. Preston’s long evangelical career took him to every black settlement from Tracadie to Birchtown, establishing chapels in many of them and winning the adherence to the Baptist faith of almost the entire black population of Nova Scotia. His crusade culminated at Granville Mountain in 1854 where he called delegates from twelve churches to create the African Baptist Association of Nova Scotia, linking the black chapels in an organization that had no connection to the white Baptist denomination in the Maritimes. Cornwallis Street became the mother church of the association, and by the time of Preston’s death in 1861 there were fifteen member churches in the province.
The network did not extend into New Brunswick where a majority of blacks belonged to the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), a denomination formed in 1816 at Philadelphia in reaction to racial humiliations at the hands of white Methodists. There was also an AME church in Halifax, known as Zion Chapel, which attracted many of the West Indians who arrived during the middle years of the century, and there were small AME congregations elsewhere in Nova Scotia. Relations between denominations were friendly: Preston cooperated in the Methodists’ campaign for a building fund, and the Methodist pastor participated with Preston in founding the African Abolition Society in 1846.
The enthusiasm with which the Maritime blacks accepted religion was duplicated in their desire to obtain an education. From 1820, almost every refugee settlement petitioned the provincial assembly for assistance in establishing schools. Several of the Bray schools were still in existence in the older settlements, and government grants enabled the establishment of schools in the newer ones. At first these schools were taught by whites, but by the mid-1830s they were producing enough black graduates who could act as teachers themselves. The segregated schools were poorly equipped, and the black teachers were underpaid and frequently underqualified, but for the first time since 1792 almost every black community had a church and a school under effective black leadership.
The fugitives arriving in Upper Canada, like the Maritime refugees, came from an American slave community already profoundly Christian, and one of the first things they did in their new home was to establish churches. Baptist former slave William Wilks was preaching in Malden (Amherstburg) and Colchester as early as 1818, and the first Baptist church in Toronto was founded in 1826 by Washington Christian, who went on to set up Baptist churches in St Catharines and Hamilton. Although led by blacks, these and other Baptist congregations in Upper Canada included white members until, in the 1830s, the whites separated to form churches of their own. In 1841 representatives from black Baptist churches in Amherstburg, Sandwich, and Detroit formed the Amherstburg Baptist Association as a deliberately distinct black organization to liberate themselves from restrictions imposed by white Baptists and to dissociate themselves from any link with slaveowning Baptists in the United States. From its mother church in Amherstburg, the association sent missionaries into almost every black settlement. Soon there were member churches in Chatham, Buxton, Dresden, Windsor, Hamilton, London, and several smaller communities; in 1861 there were fourteen Upper Canadian churches in the association, and several in Michigan, each with an obligatory Sunday school and temperance society.
The Methodists also claimed the allegiance of large numbers of Upper Canadian fugitives. In 1832, when Jeremiah Miller arrived as the first AME missionary, there were already four congregations in existence. By 1840 there were twelve, enough to justify a separate Upper Canadian conference under Bishop Morris Brown, and by 1852 there were eighteen AME churches extending from Toronto to Windsor. In 1856 the all-black, all-Canadian British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church was created from the Upper Canadian AME conference; Bishop Willis Nazrey of the AME became its first bishop and the Victoria Chapel in Chatham, Ontario, its mother church. Some congregations voted to retain the AME tie, and Bishop Nazrey led them as well until 1864. The BME continued to expand, absorbing existing Methodist chapels and creating new ones through missionary endeavour, with branches in Owen Sound and Collingwood as well as all the major black centres in southwestern Upper Canada.
As in the Maritimes, schools joined the churches as an integral part of black community life in Upper Canada. Since most black settlements could not afford to establish or maintain a school, they relied to a considerable extent upon outside white assistance. The Associates of the Late Dr Bray extended support to a school at Chatham, Ontario, in 1827 and another Anglican body, the Colonial Church and School Society, opened schools in London, Hamilton, Dresden, and Chatham in the 1850s with both black and white teachers. The largest network of charity schools, the Canada Mission, was launched by Hiram Wilson and eventually funded by the American Missionary Association. At various times the Canada Mission had fifteen schools in Ontario, the American Baptist Free Mission Society had four, and the Presbyterians sponsored the schools at the Buxton settlement; in addition, the AME, the BME, and the True Band supported schools from funds raised within the fugitive community. In the early years the teachers tended to be whites – Hiram Wilson recruited American college students during their summer vacations – but as educated fugitives arrived it became increasingly common in southwestern Upper Canada for black children to be taught by black teachers.
Despite the wide availability of private charity schools, not all black Canadians lived close enough to attend one, and other black parents rejected the idea of a separate education for their children. Petitions to be allowed to attend local “common” (that is, public) schools were sent to the provincial government as early as 1828, when blacks found their children barred by local officials. Sometimes, as in Hamilton in 1843, black parents were successful; more often they were not. At this period public education was not widespread for either colour. Then in 1844 Egerton Ryerson became superintendent of education with the mandate to construct a provincial system of free common schools. Ryerson’s design was incorporated in the Common School Act of 1850, which divided Upper Canada into school districts with elected boards of trustees. Local taxation from each district was matched with provincial funding to provide free schooling for every child in a given district. Section XIX of the act also provided for the subdivision of school districts along religious and racial lines, permitting boards to establish separate schools for “Protestants, Roman Catholics, or coloured people” upon request from “12 or more, resident heads of families.” Ryerson later explained that the intention was to allow twelve or more black families who wanted a separate school to elect their own trustees, use their own taxes, and apply for an equivalent provincial grant. But the wording of the act left open a different interpretation: if any twelve family heads applied for it, a separate black school district could be formed; in other words, whites could make the decision and impose a separate school on black residents.
Several black communities took immediate advantage of the new act to establish separate school districts, for example, in Amherstburg, Sandwich, Windsor, Colchester, and Chatham. Usually such action was taken where a black school already existed and parents were merely formalizing matters in order to apply for provincial funding and to qualify for their share of local taxation. For many blacks, the idea of a separate school was a comforting one, offering security from white prejudice and an opportunity for fugitive children to grow on their own terms. In 1859 the Provincial Association for the Education and Elevation of the Coloured People of Canada, with prominent blacks such as Wilson R. Abbott and Isaac Cary on its board, defended separate black education. Others, including newspaper editors Henry Bibb and Mary Ann Shadd, were just as strongly opposed, arguing that black schools would perpetuate racial division and in any case would inevitably be underfunded and inferior. But the choice was not usually left up to the blacks. White taxpayers could legally create a separate district, and once it existed all black children could be forced to attend.
Ryerson received numerous complaints from black parents whose children were kept from common schools. Yet he did not have the authority to enforce school integration. Whites were asked to admit black children voluntarily, and if that failed blacks were advised to take the matter to court. Court appeals did gradually bring a clarification of educational policy, though not necessarily to the satisfaction of the black parents. In Washington v. The Trustees of Charlotteville Chief Justice John Beverley Robinson ruled that, where no separate school existed, the children must be permitted to attend the common school. But in another case, Hill v. Camden and Zone, he ruled that once a black school was founded it was legal to require blacks to attend it and to bar them from white schools. Later court cases built upon these precedents, so that black parents suing for admission to common schools were successful only if no other schooling was reasonably available for their children.
Under an 1811 school act, Nova Scotia, too, provided for provincial grants to local schools on a matching basis, but in Nova Scotia even more than Upper Canada impoverished black communities had no tax base from which to supply their proportion of the funds. Many smaller communities were left without any school at all. Charitable funds from the Bray Associates or the Anglican Society for the Propagation of the Gospel continued to support black education, and the provincial legislature made special grants to some communities. Yet the schools that existed as a result of this assistance – in Halifax, Preston, Hammond’s Plains, Birchtown, Digby, and several other centres – were all private and attending them was considered a privilege rather than a right. The SPG also opened schools in Saint John and Fredericton, where black children were excluded from white schools not by law but by local convention, and in the all-black settlement of Loch Lomond; in regions with small concentrations of blacks, children were usually accepted into the common schools. Eventually the New Brunswick legislature voted annual subsidies to the black charity schools, lending official recognition to segregated education, and there were fundraising drives to ensure their continued viability. On Prince Edward Island most of the blacks lived in the same district in Charlottetown, and it was here that the Colonial Church and School Society established the “Old Bog School” for poor people, both black and white.
Though patterns were somewhat varied, most black children throughout the Maritimes, including those living in the larger urban centres, were attending racially segregated schools, and educational quality inevitably suffered. Black schools in Halifax went only to the level of Grade 7, teachers and equipment were inferior, and common schools could refuse admission to black children even though black householders were paying taxes for those schools. In the 1870s black parents in the city began organizing protests against the limitations placed on their children. The campaign culminated in 1883 in a public meeting in the African Baptist church and a petition from the city’s most prominent black men demanding the full integration of Halifax schools. Some of the 105 signatories were not themselves parents, indicating that education was regarded as a legitimate issue for the whole black community and not just for those with a personal interest in their own children. The petition precipitated a debate in the legislature and resulted in amendments to the School Act in 1884. It was a partial but significant victory for black people. The revised act permitted school commissioners to establish separate facilities for the education of black children but added that “colored pupils shall not be excluded from instruction in the public school in the section or ward where they reside.” This produced a situation similar to what had been worked out in Ontario: in areas of black concentration segregated schools could continue to operate, but in residentially integrated areas black children would not be forced to commute to a special school or go without an education. In Halifax itself the latter provision gained black youths access to secondary education, one of the objects of the petitioners, since it was only available on an integrated basis. A later section of the act was less helpful, stipulating that no school receiving special aid could hire a teacher with anything higher that a Grade D licence. Since virtually every all-black school in the province received provincial aid, this ensured that they must be served by the most poorly qualified teachers. At the same time, the Provincial Normal School at Truro did not accept black students, and so those interested in becoming teachers did so under a special licence of permission. This put them in the lowest category and therefore eligible to teach in black schools. In short, the combination of provincial policies and racial discrimination ensured that many of Nova Scotia’s black schools were in the hands of black teachers. It also ensured that black children did not generally receive an education equivalent to that obtained by whites; they entered the workforce with inferior qualifications, which limited their occupational horizons, their incomes, and their status in the broader society.
Black religious life did not suffer from the same sort of difficulties as beset black education, but difficulties there certainly were. Following Richard Preston’s death in 1861, James Thomas, a Welsh immigrant who was pastor of the Preston church and had married a black woman of that community, assumed charge of the African Baptist Association. His leadership was not universally accepted, however, and there ensued a period of schism during which member churches left the association; coincidentally, the migration of thousands of black Nova Scotians to the United States and central Canada disrupted the community and deprived it of many vital individuals. After Thomas’s death in 1879, the ministrations of George Neal and George Carvery healed the administrative rift, but the association remained underfunded and under-staffed, served mostly by part-time preachers with weekday jobs and by elected deacons and elders in the congregations. At the 1885 annual conference Peter McKerrow, the West Indian–born clerk of the association, proposed union with the white Maritime Baptist Association as a solution to these problems and as a gesture of Christian unity, but the black Baptists of Nova Scotia voted him down, demonstrating once again their determination not to sacrifice their independence for presumed economic advantage. Instead the association chose the path of internal revitalization, which included an evangelistic renewal, a campaign for temperance, and, in 1902, the appointment of the first full-time home missionary.
Until 1891, when the first female delegates were admitted to the annual conference, women were not included in the formal administrative structures of the African Baptist Association. Yet church membership numbered more women than men and in most congregations the effective local leadership was provided by women. Women were especially involved as Sunday-school teachers and church musicians as well as in temperance and home mission activities. While the Women’s Missionary Society was not formed until 1913 and the Ladies’ Auxiliary until 1917, this apparent delay may reflect the very centrality of women in the regular operation of the church at the local level. Association records show that long before World War I women had been prominent in fundraising and local spiritual leadership, and, since women typically had paid employment, they were in a position to make direct donations in their own right. A Pastor’s Aid Society at the Cornwallis Street church existed at least from 1892, giving an organizational opportunity for women’s involvement under its president, Louisa Bailey, one of the first female conference delegates and a leader of the temperance campaign. In 1903 the African American B.B.B. Johnson became pastor of Cornwallis Street, and with him came his wife M.E. Johnson, who was also an ordained Baptist minister. Though the Reverend Mrs Johnson’s primary role was as the pastor’s spouse, as a minister herself she led public prayers, preached sermons, and even performed a marriage at Preston in 1904, elevating the public profile of women in the church at a time when the “cult of domesticity” was working in the opposite direction. When the Women’s Missionary Society was formed it participated in secular affairs, supporting social work, the establishment of an industrial education institute, and the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children, launched by James Kinney in 1921.
A 1911 publication claimed that 90 percent of Nova Scotia’s black population was Baptist, but throughout the period under discussion there were Methodists as well, both AME and BME, and occasional Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Roman Catholics among West Indian immigrants. Then, in 1921, the establishment of St Philip’s African Orthodox Church in Whitney Pier, Cape Breton, made a unique addition to the province’s religious diversity. This denomination was inspired by the black-independence message of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, though there was no organizational connection with that body in Canada, and it flourished among the West Indians of Sydney following its introduction by the Reverend W.E. Robertson. With its Garveyite roots and a succession of pastors from the Caribbean, St Philip’s kept alive a tradition of black consciousness and pride on the island. Leadership among the majority Baptists, meanwhile, came from the Reverend William White, an African American who had studied at Acadia University and become pastor of the African Baptist church in Truro. During World War I White was prominent in the campaign to permit black men to enlist in the Canadian army, and when the Nova Scotia No. 2 Construction Battalion was established in 1916 he became its chaplain and served overseas until the armistice. In 1919 he was made pastor of the Cornwallis Street mother church and from that position he inspired a series of programs for black self-improvement and citizenship rights, with emphasis on vocational education. On his death in 1936 he was succeeded by another Acadia graduate, Nova Scotia–born William P. Oliver, who would also become chaplain to “Coloured Personnel” during the next world war and who would devote his life after 1945 to the social and economic advancement of black people.
Upper Canada’s Amherstburg Baptist Association also underwent a decade of schism and confusion, which began when the white-American missionary Isaac Rice was association clerk from 1851 to 1854. The controversy was sparked by Rice’s “begging” crusades among white Christians, crusades that allegedly invited interference in their internal affairs by implying that black Baptists could not look after themselves. Later, as the fugitive flood receded during and after the Civil War, Baptist churches had to readjust and consolidate. By the early 1880s ten association congregations had withdrawn or become extinct and only four of twelve member churches had regular pastors. And, like their Nova Scotia counterparts, the Amherstburg Baptists launched a self-examination and renewal, led in Ontario’s case by the Women’s Home Missionary Society, which had been founded in 1882 with Elizabeth Shadd Shreve as president. The society embarked on a program of aid to weaker churches and proselytizing among the black population, stemming further decline for a generation.
Ontario’s Methodists underwent a similar contraction after the Civil War. Congregations merged; some AME and BME parishes consolidated. Bishop Nazrey had promoted missionary work, particularly toward Nova Scotia and Bermuda, and on his death in 1875 his successor Richard Disney directed this effort into the Caribbean. The BME West India mission was remarkably successful, so much so that it grew beyond the capacity of Ontario’s black Methodists to support it. This led Bishop Disney to propose reunification with the AME, in the hope that the greater resources of the American denomination would reinforce West Indian missionary work. The reunion was effected in 1884 and Disney became an AME bishop, and his fifty-six BME congregations, more than half in the Caribbean, were scheduled to follow his example. But there were many members of the BME in Canada who cherished their separate identity and did not wish to lose it even to an African-American church so closely related to their own. In 1886 a conference at Windsor, Ontario reconstituted the BME and elected the Reverend Walter Hawkins of Chatham as superintendent and later bishop. Gradually a majority of Ontario’s black Methodists rejoined the BME, so that by the end of the century it had twenty-seven chapels served by twenty-five preachers.
In Montreal in the early years of the twentieth century, there was a wide variety of denominations represented among a black population with ties to the United States, the West Indies, and Nova Scotia. Because of this diversity it was difficult to sustain separate congregations, and as a result a Union Church – affiliated to the Congregational Church of Canada – was formed in 1907. Other churches continued to exist, but Union Church became predominant in Montreal’s black community. This position was enhanced by the leadership of Charles Este. Coming to Montreal from Antigua in 1913, Este initially hoped to find work on the railroad but he studied part-time for the ministry and became pastor at Union Church in 1925. At that time Union Church followed its Congregational denomination into the United Church of Canada, and it was under the new denomination’s auspices that Este became the unrivalled spiritual leader of black Montreal and Union Church carved a leading role in its secular affairs as well.
In Toronto at this time there were BME, AME, and Baptist churches, around which the spiritual and social life of the black community revolved. Regardless of which church they belonged to, people would attend events at all three, especially the youth dances held at the BME. Then the Reverend C.A. Stewart, originally from Jamaica and lately presiding elder of the AME church in the Maritimes, moved to Toronto and established the interdenominational Afro-Community Church. Stewart conducted services in the UNIA Hall before he raised enough money to buy a separate church building. With his Maritime connections he encouraged young Nova Scotians to migrate to Toronto, especially young women for whom there was ample employment as domestics, and in the 1930s and 1940s his church became a focal point for Nova Scotians in Toronto while Stewart himself promoted community activism and social causes. In 1951 the Afro-Community Church merged with the BME. To the west in Maidstone, Saskatchewan, and Wildwood, Breton, Campsie, and Amber Valley, Alberta, the American migrants established churches similar to the ones they had left behind. Most were Baptist, some were Methodist, and Amber Valley created an interdenominational church in 1914. In Calgary the main religious institution was the Standard Church of America, founded in 1916. Edmonton and Winnipeg had AME congregations, but Edmonton’s largest church was Shiloh Baptist, founded in 1910. In British Columbia, where the California migrants had voted in 1858 not to create distinct institutions, a black church did not appear until 1912 when railway porters from the United States and eastern Canada formed an AME congregation in Vancouver. In 1946 a congregation of the Standard Church was established in the same city.
The interest of the African-Canadian churches in education did not subside, regardless of schism and disruption. In Chatham, Ontario, the BME established the Nazrey Institute as a secondary education facility in 1869. In 1873 it merged with the former British American Institute at Dawn, whose assets combined to create the Wilberforce Educational Institute in Chatham. This new organization provided secondary education and teacher training for the black community of southwestern Ontario. Its first principal was Robert Lowe and its president from 1873 to 1880 was Anderson Abbott, the most prominent black lay leader of his time. Also located in Chatham was the Woodstock Industrial Institute, founded in 1908 for preparation in skilled trades such as blacksmithing, dressmaking, wireless telegraphy, and sewing; it also had a respected music program. There was an attempt in Halifax to found an institution encompassing both industrial and teacher training. James R. Johnston, lawyer and clerk of the African Baptist Association, had been impressed with the success of industrial education at the Hampton Institute in Virginia, and he established a similar facility in Halifax. Just three weeks after it opened in 1917, however, the institute was destroyed in the great Halifax explosion. Though it was never replaced, many of its principles were incorporated in the training program at the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. Yet, generally, Nova Scotia black communities were not well served educationally; the law continued to permit the imposition of segregated schools, and there were long periods when no teachers could be found for some of them. Recognizing this legacy as a severe limitation upon black progress, the Reverend W.P. Oliver utilized his position as leader of the Baptist church to promote adult education and other self-help measures to enable Nova Scotia blacks to qualify for better jobs. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, founded through Oliver’s inspiration in Halifax in 1945, stressed education as the most effective means of earning equal treatment from mainstream society. In 1949 Oliver established an urban and rural life committee of the African United Baptist Association through which local churches could conduct adult education courses in their own communities, including agriculture, health, home economics, industrial arts, and elementary education. He left his church position in 1964 to work full time with this program.
As the American Supreme Court determined in 1954, segregated education is inherently inferior. This was as true in Canada as in the United States, and African Canadians were aware of it long before 1954. In Chatham, Senix Bannister refused to pay school taxes, inspiring a concerted community effort by the Kent County Civil Rights League which led to the integration of Chatham schools in 1893. Most of Ontario’s separate schools would close by early in the twentieth century, and, under the impact of court precedents, children were quietly admitted to neighbourhood schools. Still, it would be 1964 before the Ontario legislature, on the motion of its first black member, Leonard Braithwaite, amended the clause of the Education Act permitting the imposition of separate schools. Even then it took a campaign by the South Essex Citizens’ Advancement Association in 1965 to close the school in Colchester.
In Halifax the black community effort of 1883–84 integrated secondary education and restricted segregation in the primary grades, leading to the integration of all Halifax schools except the one in Africville by 1902. However, it was not until 1953 that Nova Scotia’s Education Act was amended to leave out any reference to separate education, and only in the 1960s did the provincial government eliminate the separate school districts across the province. On the prairies, where segregated education was enforced by geography and convention rather than by law, the black schools disappeared in the 1920s as community populations declined everywhere except in Amber Valley, whose remote location sustained a single school into the 1960s. Across Canada, migration, the consolidation of school districts, and changed sensitivities had ended separate education even for the most isolated black communities by the end of the 1960s. But, despite its obvious disadvantages, the black school had considerable historical significance in the development of the African-Canadian community. The closing of the Africville school in 1953 was regarded as a blow to community identity, by some even as a treacherous government act to undermine their viability; since North Buxton, Ontario, lost its school in 1968, local residents have reported that the community has never been the same. Imposed and resented, the school, like the church, had nonetheless institutionalized black culture and community life in Canada.
The 1960s represented a watershed in African-Canadian history. The separate school disappeared; the social, political, and charitable functions of the church were assumed by other agencies. But the greatest change was effected by Caribbean migration which, except in the Maritimes, overwhelmed the existing urban black communities by a ratio of 10 or 20 or even 30 to 1 in a few years. The newcomers brought different religious affiliations, and they had decidedly different educational credentials. The early Caribbean immigrants were highly educated, more highly than black or white Canadians on average. Suddenly there were black professionals where few or none had been before, changing the socio-economic profile of black Canada. The pace of change continued as Africans began arriving in large numbers in the 1980s. Not only did the Africans inject different Christian affiliations, but large numbers – more than half – were Muslim, with a religious and cultural heritage far removed from the Baptist and Methodist traditions of indigenous blacks.
The African migration has also brought a high proportion of well-educated and professional black people to Canada, considerably above the immigrant or native-born average, but in the meantime the educational level among Caribbean immigrants has fallen. The 1981 census showed that Ontario residents born in the Caribbean matched the provincial average in the proportion of persons with some university education, but the census aggregate disguised a great diversity within the Caribbean-born population. Among those who arrived before 1960, 31 percent of males and 13 percent of females had some university education; for arrivals between 1975 and 1981, the figure was 10 percent for males and 5 percent for females. An analysis of immigration statistics from 1981 to 1986 revealed that the trend continued: 6.5 percent for males and 3.2 percent for females. In relative terms, in the 1960s West Indians were a close second to South Asians as the most highly educated immigrant group. Twenty years later they had fallen to seventh in a field of eight. This phenomenon is explained, in part at least, by the decline in the number of independent immigrants, who require high qualifications to enter Canada, and a corresponding increase in nominated and family class who enter automatically or are admitted with a lower score on the immigration point scale.
The decline in educational level among Caribbean immigrants generated images and problems that did not always reflect a universal reality among African Canadians. For one thing, a high proportion of Caribbean immigrants after the mid-1970s were children coming to join a parent or parents already here. Because of their age they immediately entered school, creating a demographic exaggeration which in turn produced unrepresentative statistics. Those who had already begun school in the Caribbean were trained in a system of strict discipline and “correct” answers, where debate and interpretation were discouraged, leading to problems in adapting to the Canadian classroom. Their parents, too, had learned to venerate teachers and hesitated to seek explanations for a child’s performance or challenge a teacher’s assessment. Because of Caribbean migration patterns, the immigrant child had typically been left behind while a parent became established; joining that parent in Canada imposed tremendous family stress, and since the parent might be a lone mother there was the continuing factor of family separation impeding the child’s school performance. Immigrant parents, especially lone mothers, normally earn a lower than average income: 40 percent of all black children in Toronto in 1986 were in families earning less than $25,000 per year, compared to 20 percent of non-black children. Although English was the mother tongue for almost all outside Quebec, accent and manner of speaking generated initial language barriers with teachers and classmates, and Haitians faced even greater linguistic differences in Quebec. The external factors that most enhance a child’s school performance, according to the Toronto Board of Education, are living with both parents, high family socio-economic status, and English (that is, Canadian) mother tongue, and on all these counts the Caribbean immigrant child in the 1980s was at a disadvantage.
Although very little Canadian research has been done into this situation, some school boards, especially Toronto’s, have been monitoring the student population over a number of years. Toronto figures from the 1980s indicate that two-thirds of all black schoolchildren were born outside Canada, they had a lower rate of progress as measured by the accumulation of credits, they left school earlier, and, most ominously, they were grossly over-represented in the basic stream and under-represented in the advanced stream which leads to university. There was a positive shift between 1983 and 1987 – from 29 percent in basic to 21 percent – but it still left the proportion of black students in the basic stream more than double that of whites (at 9 percent) and the contrast with Asians (at 3 percent) was stunning. It was becoming obvious that black school children were not reaching their academic potential in the regular school system, and observable differences compounded the problem by conditioning teachers to hold low expectations for all their black students, including the Canadian-born. Concerned educators and parents formed liaison committees in several cities and a Canadian Alliance of Black Educators, whose fundamental purpose was to promote academic excellence through programs designed to meet the specific needs of black (especially immigrant) students. A 1993 report sponsored by the federal, Ontario, Metropolitan Toronto, and Toronto governments went so far as to recommend the virtual re-establishment of educational segregation, with designated schools in each Metro Toronto municipality where black students, teachers, and administrators could be concentrated and a special curriculum – including black history, for example – could be offered.
In the 1960s in Nova Scotia, with Canada’s longest history of black education, the heritage of inferior schools and limited grades had produced a black population with substantially lower educational qualifications than those of non-blacks and, in particular, a student-aged cohort with small hope of attending university. Awareness of this situation led a group of black student leaders and some white colleagues to initiate a special-education program for black school drop-outs in 1968, using facilities at Dalhousie University. In 1970 Dalhousie incorporated this enterprise and its volunteer teachers into an innovative Transition Year Programme (TYP), which took both black and Micmac students for an intensive year of training with the object of qualifying them for full university entrance. The TYP is still flourishing at Dalhousie more that two decades later, and hundreds of its graduates have proceeded to university or other higher education. Its success has sparked imitations, or partial imitations, at some other Canadian universities, and at Dalhousie itself a special program was designed to facilitate entrance to the legal profession with the inauguration in 1989 of the Indigenous Blacks and Micmacs (IBM) program in the law school. Its first graduates were called to the bar in 1993. Also at Dalhousie, there is now the James R. Johnston Black Studies Chair, named after Nova Scotia’s first black lawyer. Its intention is to encourage research into matters of concern to the African- Canadian community, leading to improved educational materials for students at all levels of schooling. In other provinces, and particularly in Ontario, the traumas of immigrant adjustment and the anomalous experiences of black students are making education a priority on the public agenda.