Canadians of African descent include people brought to this country as slaves in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, former American slaves who arrived here between the American Revolution and the Civil War, free American migrants, Caribbean Peoples, and those who have come directly from Africa. This entry, which follows the current practice of using the terms “African Canadians” and “blacks” interchangeably, focuses on the historic black community that had established itself in Canada by the end of the nineteenth century. (See also CARIBBEAN PEOPLES,  ERITREANS, ETHIOPIANS,  GUYANESE,  HAITIANS,  JAMAICANS, NIGERIANS,  OROMOS, SOMALIS,  SOUTH AFRICANS, AND TRINIDADIANS. )
Just as Canadians of African descent display a remarkable diversity, so does their land of origin. Africa is the world’s second-largest continent, and each of its regions is characterized by particular features of climate and vegetation which have helped shape distinctive civilizations.
Most of the African Canadians whose ancestors arrived in the New World during the era of the slave trade can trace their origin to West Africa, and especially to a broad sweep of territory extending from the Senegal River in the north to Angola in the south and advancing inland for at least 800 kilometres and occasionally much farther. Even this relatively limited area is environmentally diverse, and, in adapting to its physical characteristics, African peoples have produced a variety of cultures and different types of social organization, from small kin-based autonomous communities in the more heavily forested regions to nation-states and vast multi-ethnic empires on the open savannah. Besides the obvious influence of geography, commerce frequently provided a stimulus for the creation of larger states and empires. West Africa was laced with local trading routes over which travelled food and other goods, and these routes were linked to long-distance and even transcontinental trade networks. Most significant was the trans-Sahara caravan trade, which, beginning in the fifth century C.E., brought Mediterranean goods and influences deep into West Africa and provided a market for a variety of African products, including gold, ivory, leather, and other craft works, and exotic finery such as ostrich feathers.
The largest empires arose on the southern fringes of the Sahara trade routes: Ghana (fifth to eleventh century C.E.), Mali (thirteenth to fifteenth century), and Kanem-Bornu (eighth to seventeenth century). Most important during the period of contact with Europe was the Songhai Empire, which at its height in the sixteenth century ruled an ethnically diverse territory larger than all of western Europe. Farther south, where the savannah blended to forest, more compact states emerged that were connected as suppliers to the Saharan trade and that, in the fifteenth century, were well placed to benefit from contacts with Europeans on the Atlantic coast. The Yoruba people had established the state of Oyo before the fifteenth century, and the related state of Benin had expanded to the coast by 1450, before the Europeans’ arrival. Dahomey arose in the late seventeenth century in response to the expansion of Oyo and to the commercial opportunities initiated by Europeans on the coast. At about the same time, the Ashanti people formed a unified state and began expanding towards the Atlantic. South of the Congo River, the coastal states of Kongo and Ndongo existed by the fourteenth century and were later linked by inland trade routes to the southern savannah states of Lunda, Lozi, and Luba. By the time the Europeans became seriously involved in West Africa, therefore, there already existed a series of states and empires engaged in sophisticated commercial networks and, in some instances, in imperial expansion and territorial rivalries. The Europeans would meet a dynamic situation, and the trading opportunities they offered would increase that dynamic substantially.
The foundation of the social and economic systems throughout West Africa was small-scale agriculture, organized in family groups clustered in villages. Families were normally polygynous and were linked with broader kin-groupings and clans. Agricultural and household tasks tended to be gender-specific. In a pattern of shifting cultivation men would clear and prepare the land and women would care for the growing crops. Both would participate, along with children, in planting and harvest. Sometimes certain crops were designated for male or female cultivation, yams for men and cassava for women in some areas, and cattle herding was most often a male responsibility. Household cooking and child care were almost always performed by females, as was local market trading, while craft production, longer-distance trade, hunting, and defence against enemy intrusions fell to men. This division of labour and the fundamental significance of the family and procreation gave African women substantial areas of independent control and an influence upon group affairs.
Even in the intricately structured states and empires, the most important decisions affecting any African’s life were taken locally, by the family, clan, and village elders. In this social environment, kinship and the wellbeing of the family shaped all activities and relationships, land was held communally, and individual identity was acquired and sustained through kin-group membership. At the bottom of the social hierarchy were slaves, who were usually outsiders captured in war and therefore not part of the kinship system. They lacked many participatory rights and could be exchanged and sold along the trade routes, though slave children could be adopted as kin and those born to female slaves and free men would join the clan of their father as full members. Gang slavery occasionally operated in mines and even in plantations established in the interior by Muslims, but most Africans who became enmeshed in the Atlantic slave trade knew only relatively more benign forms of bondage.
When the Portuguese began sailing along the West African coast in the fifteenth century, they were not at all interested in slaves; gold was their primary object, though they soon added other African products to which they were introduced. Portugal and Benin exchanged ambassadors, and a peaceful alliance was struck between the kings of Portugal and Kongo. But the period of mutual respect and cooperation was interrupted by events elsewhere in the world. Until this time, the chief source of European slave labour – used principally in the cultivation of sugar – had been the Slavic peoples of the Black Sea region. In 1453, however, access to the Black Sea was cut off by the Muslim conquest of Constantinople, and western Europeans had to look elsewhere for labourers. Small numbers of African slaves had been present in Europe from ancient times, conveyed across the Sahara or through Egypt, and Africa’s potential as a labour supply was reinforced by Portuguese who were meeting African societies with slaves for sale. By the end of the fifteenth century white Slavic peoples were being replaced by black Africans as slave labourers in the Mediterranean. The shift in colour was entirely coincidental, and slaves remained a subordinate aspect of the Europe-Africa trade until the middle of the seventeenth century.
Meanwhile, Columbus had opened new prospects for European enterprise in the New World, and in 1532 direct slave shipments from Africa were inaugurated to further that cause. Several factors influenced this development. European maritime technology made it possible, and inexpensive, to establish efficient trade networks extending from Europe to Africa to the New World. In the New World itself, the labour supply was in crisis. Native Americans lacked immunity to European diseases and died in horrifying epidemics. European workers, at the same time, were vulnerable to the tropical diseases prevalent in the Caribbean and Brazil. Africans had an advantage over both, having shared diseases with Europe for centuries and having developed resistance to the diseases of the tropics at home. Early experiments with European indentured labourers and peasant cultivators proved far more costly, in money and lives, than the employment of Africans; not only were Africans healthier and more efficient, but as outright slaves they could multiply a purchaser’s investment over a lifetime. In contrast, even if European labourers did not sicken and die, their indenture term would expire and their employer would have to import new labourers.
The transfer of the Mediterranean system of African slave labour to the Americas was therefore effected for practical reasons and had nothing to do, at this initial stage, with any belief in African inferiority. On the contrary, it was the superiority of African labourers in the New World tropics that sealed their fate as slaves. The success of the plantation model in Portuguese Brazil encouraged its spread elsewhere, first to the Dutch West Indies and then to British and French colonies in the same area. By the end of the seventeenth century a “sugar revolution” had occurred, and the sugar plantation staffed by unfree African labour dominated the economy of the greater Caribbean region and was being adapted for tobacco, rice, and cotton production in Britain’s North American colonies. European America gained a stable supply of adult labourers at a fraction of the cost involved in importing or reproducing European workers; Africa gained European manufactured goods at a fraction of what they would have cost to produce in Africa. Both parties saw an advantage in the exchange. But there were some people who would lose profoundly: the slaves themselves and, eventually, their descendants throughout the Americas.
Africans were enslaved in the first instance by other Africans, and those deemed likely to command a good price would be sent to the coast for sale to Europeans. There a second selection took place, according to age, condition, and gender, and the most suitable were shipped to the Americas. Thus began the deadly “Middle Passage” across the Atlantic and, for the survivors, eventual sale in the New World. In the Caribbean, such sales would almost certainly be to plantation owners. These people generally preferred to import cheap adult slaves rather than raise replacements from infancy, and so there was a constant infusion of new Africans into the Caribbean right up to the abolition of the slave trade in the nineteenth century. More than in any other New World region, slaves dominated the West Indian population numerically. Although they came from diverse backgrounds and cultures, plantation life imposed a new order and a common experience; the existence of slaves was exceedingly harsh, characterized by gang labour and constant surveillance. African traditions were not completely lost, but they were modified to suit the new conditions of slavery.
In the North American colonies, on the other hand, the plantation experience was neither so common nor so encompassing, and the temperate climate kept Africans even healthier than they had been at home. One consequence was that slave women reproduced at a significant rate: as early as 1750 only about 10 percent of North American slaves were African imports, the vast majority having been born in America. This meant in turn that North American slaves had less direct experience of African culture than their Caribbean counterparts; it also meant that, since children are born in equal sex ratios, North American slavery avoided the drastic demographic imbalances of the Caribbean and offered much greater opportunity to recreate family and kin relationships. Although the Caribbean received approximately ten times as many African slaves as North America, their descendants today are a mere fraction of the African-American population.
The end of slavery did not immediately bring genuine liberation. In the French colony of Saint Domingue a slave rebellion at the end of the eighteenth century overthrew European control and established the black republic of Haiti, though it remained a pariah state and was denied mutually beneficial intercourse with Europe and America. Elsewhere in the Caribbean the combined forces of European abolitionism and slave resistance succeeded in abolishing slavery, first in Britain’s colonies in 1834 and throughout the region by the 1870s. Many former slaves left their plantations and acquired smallholdings, but these were usually in less fertile areas and so bore the seeds of continued poverty. Furthermore, since the social and economic structures created during slavery were largely retained, blacks continued to suffer restrictions and to be denied equality. Political control was centred in the European imperial capitals and in local white élites, while the offspring of white masters and female slaves occupied an intermediate position with limited privileges. These historical conditions were widespread throughout the Caribbean. All the territories experienced European conquest, the sugar plantation, and the institution of slavery; all were ruled as colonial satellites with structures created for external exploitation. The social order imposed by slavery and colonial rule has tended to persist, along with the legacy of imbalanced economic development.
Among the territories where most African Canadians have their immediate origin, Jamaica and Trinidad-Tobago gained independence from Britain in 1962, as did Guyana and Barbados in 1966. As emerging nations, these and other West Indian states have faced a barrage of problems as well as new opportunities. Sugar still dominates as a cash crop, and inflation, unemployment, and population growth are chronic. While class and colour lines are starting to break down under the pressures of political democracy, the liabilities of an externally-oriented economy have not been overcome. Emigration, which has been an established tradition in the Caribbean since the abolition of slavery, has therefore not been staunched by independence. Even West Indians with the highest qualifications continue to seek better economic opportunities abroad.
At the same time, the Caribbean region is immensely diverse in both human and physical terms. It consists of more than forty islands and coastal territories stretching in a 2,400-kilometre arc from the tip of Florida to the Venezuelan coast, with extensions in the Bahama Islands to the north and on the South American mainland. Landscapes vary accordingly, and geographical insularity combined with links to different European capitals has encouraged cultural characteristics unique to each society. Even within one territory there exists a medley of ethnic types and heritages, all reflecting different groups of invaders, slaves, indentured servants, and settlers who have contributed to the population and who often have retained cultural ties to their various homelands. In recent decades, external linkages have declined in importance and internal and inter-territorial relations have been promoted by increasing political autonomy.
Until the 1950s the United States was the immediate origin of most black people in Canada. In the 1960s this changed under the impact of Caribbean migration, initially by British West Indians and later by Haitians. Then in the 1980s, for the first time, Canada began to receive large numbers of immigrants directly from Africa. The Commonwealth West African nations of Ghana and Nigeria, which had been sending students to Canada for several decades and which shared many historic ties with Canada, were among the first to send permanent migrants; subsequently, the largest numbers were from Ethiopia and Somalia and included many refugees driven from their homeland by famine and civil war.
Africans accompanied many of the earliest European voyagers to the Americas, both as servants and as crew members. Among them was Mathieu de Coste (or da Costa), who served the governor of Acadia in 1608 as interpreter to the Micmacs. Apparently he had learned Micmac, or possibly some other native American language, while travelling with the Portuguese. De Coste is the first African in Canada whose name was recorded, but there was at least one other who died of scurvy at Port Royal in 1606, and a legend persists that one of Jacques Cartier’s crew members came originally from Africa. The first person recorded as coming directly from Africa, and the first African slave known in Canada, was a child brought to Quebec in 1628 by the English invader David Kirke and sold to a local resident. A native of Madagascar (or possibly of the Guinea Coast), the young slave was baptized in May 1633 as Olivier Le Jeune. He worked as a household servant until his death in 1654 when he was in his early thirties. The parish register lists him as “domestique” (domestic servant), but this need not imply that he was free for the word “esclave” (slave) was seldom used in official documents until 1709 when the colonial authorities issued an ordinance declaring slavery to be legal in New France. In fact, the new law merely sanctioned an established practice, since there were already African and Indian slaves in the colony. The most recent analysis documents a total of 1,400 African and 2,692 Indian slaves in New France before the conquest of 1760. Although the colony’s governor in 1688 sought permission to establish a trade in African slaves, there was never any direct importation from Africa; most of the Africans came via the French West Indies or the British colonies in North America, and 137 were born into Canadian slavery. Among the imported slaves, 60 percent were male and 40 percent female, and almost all of them were located in urban centres as domestic servants.
There were slaves in Nova Scotia as well – 104 were listed in a census of 1767 – and with the arrival of the Loyalists in 1783 their numbers increased dramatically. White Loyalists brought approximately 2,000 slaves with them as they fled from the victorious Americans; about 1,200 were relocated to the Maritimes, 300 to Lower Canada, and 500 to Upper Canada (Ontario). Men outnumbered women by a ratio of about three to one, reflecting the tendency of Loyalist masters to keep the slaves with the highest monetary value. Males were valued for their physical strength and were also more likely than females to have acquired valuable skills. Common field hands were generally not brought to Canada.
Numerically and historically more significant than the Loyalist-owned slaves were about 3,500 free black Loyalists who migrated to Canada at the same time. During the American Revolution British commanders had promised freedom and equality to slaves who ran away from American masters and aligned themselves with the Loyalist cause. Thousands of slaves responded to this invitation, in the hope that a British victory would spell an end to slavery and racial inequality in the colonies. Some of them fought in white regiments while others enrolled in an all-black corps known as the Black Pioneers. Those with specialized skills frequently applied them on behalf of the British as blacksmiths, carpenters, cooks, dressmakers, and teamsters; others laboured on defensive fortifications, washed laundry, or acted as personal servants. Despite their best efforts, the Revolutionary War resulted in American independence and Britain was required to evacuate them, for it was not possible for former slaves to remain safely in the new republic. The British commitment to black freedom was more apparent than real, however; many of the black Loyalists were simply left behind to be recaptured by former owners, and others were illegally kept as slaves by white Loyalists. Some were carried to safety in the West Indies, Bermuda, or England, and the largest number came to Canada. One document describing 3,000 individual black Loyalists leaving New York for the Maritimes lists 1,336 men, 914 women, and 750 children. These figures show a considerably higher proportion of women among the free blacks than among the slaves. About four-fifths of the total had been born in the American colonies and most came from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Maryland. The adults are typically described as healthy, in their prime years, travelling in families and possessing some occupational skills.
The black Loyalists had been attracted to the British by the expectation that they would be accorded completely equal treatment with their white counterparts. This turned out not to be true: their civil rights were curtailed and there were many restrictions imposed on them by a white majority that considered them more suitable for slavery than for equality. Above all, the black Loyalists failed to receive adequate land grants and so remained dependent upon white employers. After several petitions seeking land and equality were ignored by local officials, they decided to present their grievances directly to the British government. In 1790 they sent Thomas Peters, a former sergeant in the Black Pioneers, to London bearing a description of unfulfilled promises in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In London, Peters met the directors of the Sierra Leone Company, which had established a colony for freed slaves on the coast of West Africa. When Peters returned to North America in 1791 he bore an offer from the company to receive the black Loyalists in their African colony, as well as a government promise to pay the expenses of their migration. With the company’s white agent, John Clarkson, Peters carried the message of free land and equal opportunity in Sierra Leone to most of the black Loyalist settlements in the Maritimes and recruited almost 1,200 persons willing to move to Africa. The exodus took place in January 1792 and resulted in the foundation of Freetown, capital of the colony and later of the independent African state of Sierra Leone.
White Loyalists had done their best to impede the migration to Sierra Leone, for black labour was vital to pioneer enterprise in the Maritimes. There was therefore a readiness to welcome a group of almost 600 black people from Jamaica who arrived in Halifax in July 1796. They were known as “Maroons,” a name derived from the Spanish-American term for “runaway slave.” For generations, Jamaican slaves had been escaping to the hills where they established independent communities. Aided by the wilderness landscape, the Maroons resisted several full-scale expeditions sent out to re-enslave them, but during one of these military encounters in 1795 they were tricked into laying down their arms and were imprisoned aboard three ships in Kingston harbour. They were then deported en masse to Halifax. In Nova Scotia they made themselves useful as labourers reinforcing the Halifax citadel, but they were never happy and kept insisting on removal to some warmer climate. Eventually, contrary to the wishes of the Nova Scotian government, the Maroons were shipped to Sierra Leone in August 1800. They arrived in Freetown in the midst of an armed rebellion by the black Loyalists who found that their Sierra Leone Company government had not fulfilled the promise of free land and full equality. Ironically, the Maroons were enlisted on the government side and were instrumental in squashing the black Loyalists’ attempt to establish an independent black state in Sierra Leone.
Since the Maroons had been kept more or less segregated in Nova Scotia, their presence had not materially affected the black Loyalists who remained in the Maritimes. Of greater lasting importance was the arrival of a new group of blacks, the refugees of the War of 1812. The reputation acquired by the British during the American Revolution, as champions of black freedom and equality, still survived among American slaves. During this new war between America and Britain, therefore, thousands of slaves ran away and attached themselves to the British armies. In April 1814 Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, recognizing a fait accompli, issued a proclamation inviting Americans to become British subjects; as such, the proclamation promised, they would be sent as “Free Settlers” to British colonies. Slaves were not mentioned specifically in Cochrane’s proclamation, but his obvious intention was to give legal status to the runaway slaves and it was interpreted that way by both black and white Americans. Even before Cochrane’s proclamation black refugees were being taken to Nova Scotia. Several had landed as early as September 1813 and been cordially received by a province suffering a wartime labour shortage. By the end of the war about 2,000 refugees had been settled in the Maritimes, over 1,500 in Nova Scotia, and the rest in New Brunswick. As their numbers increased, and as a post-war depression eroded the demand for labour, the attitude of the white public and government grew less welcoming. In 1815 the Nova Scotia assembly tried to ban all further black immigration, though in 1812 they had called for more, and suggestions were made to transport all the refugees to Sierra Leone or the West Indies. Trinidad, in particular, was experiencing a labour shortage following the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, and, with Nova Scotia government encouragement, Trinidad sought to recruit migrants in the refugee settlements. In January 1821 one group of ninety-five refugees did sail for Trinidad, but, despite repeated efforts over the next two decades, no more could be induced to leave voluntarily and the British government would not countenance a forced removal.
Black migration to Canada between 1628 and 1815 reached a total of approximately 8,500 people, consisting of approximately 3,000 slaves, 3,500 black Loyalists, and 2,000 black refugees. About 95 percent of them lived in the Maritimes and Quebec. There was also a small number of individual runaway American slaves who, beginning in the 1790s, had migrated chiefly to Upper Canada. In 1793 an act of the Upper Canada legislature provided for the gradual abolition of slavery in the province. Although existing slaves were not liberated, their children born after 9 July 1793 would eventually be free. Also in the act was a provision that any slave who came into the province – whether brought by a master or arriving independently – would be immediately free. That same year the American Congress passed its first Fugitive Slave Act, which provided for the reclamation of slaves who fled to free states within the American union. Upper Canada thus became a legal haven for runaway slaves who could not remain with security in the United States. The existence of a British refuge for slaves was advertised by the War of 1812 and the Cochrane proclamation, by visiting American abolitionists who wrote descriptions of free black settlements north of the border, and, ironically, by American government attempts to extradite fugitives who had fled to Upper Canada. By 1830, when the term “Underground Railroad” was coined, hundreds of slaves and free African Americans were crossing the border each year. Their numbers would multiply manyfold before the Civil War ended American slavery.
The majority of black fugitives coming into Canada were fleeing directly from slavery. An analysis of published interviews and fugitive slave narratives indicates that most of them came from border slave states such as Maryland, Virginia, and Kentucky, about three-quarters of them were male, and most of the females came with a husband and/or other family members. Given the rigours of clandestine travel, the dangers of pursuit by armed posses and bloodhounds, and the threat of betrayal by any passing stranger, it required superb fitness and outstanding courage to escape successfully. The Underground Railroad was a series of routes used by fugitives as they passed through the northern states. On some of those routes sympathetic whites or free blacks offered secret transportation assistance, on others the assistance provided was a secure hiding-place and food for a few days, but the majority were simply secret trails where nature provided the security for the fleeing slave. The legendary “stations,” “conductors,” and “telegraph signals,” while they did have a basis in fact, affected only a tiny percentage of the fugitives who reached Canada.
There were other fugitives who were already free and were fleeing not from slavery but from racial oppression and mob violence in the American north. Their numbers increased substantially when, in 1850, the American Congress placated the slaveholding south by implementing a much more vigorous Fugitive Slave Act. Slaves who had escaped to the north years before suddenly became vulnerable to recapture, and even the free-born felt insecure. The flow kept up throughout the decade of the 1850s. Estimates of total numbers are varied and contradictory, for the official census is unreliable and border crossings were not recorded. The Anti-Slavery Society of Canada thought that there were 60,000 blacks in Upper Canada by 1860, of slave and free origin, while other estimates range from as low as 20,000 to as high as 75,000. Most modern researchers put the total between 30,000 and 40,000. Much smaller numbers reached the Maritimes and Lower Canada (Quebec), primarily because the major escape routes passed through Pennsylvania and Ohio towards the border at Niagara Falls and Detroit. During the American Civil War many African Canadians returned to fight in the Union army, and this reverse flow continued well after the conflict’s end as fugitives sought to rejoin family and friends left in slavery or grasped the opportunities offered by the post-war Reconstruction era.
One interesting group of free African Americans migrated from California to Vancouver Island between 1858 and 1860, numbering about 800 people. During the 1850s California brought in oppressive legislation by which blacks were excluded from state schools and barred from giving evidence against whites in court, and attempts were made to require them to be registered and to prevent further black immigration into the state. The precipitating event behind the migration to Vancouver Island was the arrest and trial of a fugitive slave in 1858. A meeting held in San Francisco decided to send a delegation to Victoria to explore the possibility of a mass relocation. Assured of a favourable reception, the first families shipped for Victoria in the spring of 1858. Like their Upper Canadian counterparts, many of them returned to the United States once slavery was abolished and the racial climate seemed to improve.
The African-Canadian movement to the United States continued even after the promise of Reconstruction proved to be false. The officially recorded population of blacks in Ontario, for example, declined by one-half between 1871 and 1911, and in New Brunswick it fell by one-third in the same period. Nova Scotia’s decline was less precipitous but was especially marked during the 1880s and 1890s. This was not simply a case of African Americans returning home, but of the Canadian-born moving to the cities of the American north in search of educational, cultural, and employment opportunities. The result was a net loss of black citizens in post-confederation Canada, though some black Americans did continue to migrate northwards. Prominent among them, beginning in the 1880s, were porters seeking employment on the Canadian railroads. Initially a community of temporary male sojourners, by the turn of the century they were settling permanently with their families in the rail centres of Canada, especially Montreal. Besides the porters, experienced African-American workers were recruited in 1901–02 to help establish the blast furnaces in Sydney, Nova Scotia. But the largest group of black immigrants between confederation and World War I consisted of farmers moving to the prairies.
There had been blacks in the Canadian west earlier – fur traders, cowboys, broncobusters – but in 1901 they numbered fewer than 100 individuals, mostly male. The new migrants, who arrived in family groupings, had their immediate origin chiefly in Oklahoma. Until 1908 Oklahoma was part of federally administered Indian Territory, but with the achievement of statehood that year there began the typical pattern of restrictive acts and personal violence: blacks were deprived of the vote, official segregation was imposed, and there were beatings and lynchings. Between 1909 and 1911 about 1,500 black settlers moved into Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and especially Alberta, creating several distinct black settlements across the prairies. The Oklahoma example prompted other African Americans to migrate as well, particularly western farmers but including some from Chicago and other cities.
The prospect of a mass migration of black settlers provoked a hostile response from whites. Public petitions and municipal resolutions from all three western provinces urged Ottawa to ban further black immigrants and to segregate those already there. The Liberal government prepared an order-in-council in 1911 to prohibit black immigration for one year, but fear that relations with the United States could be damaged, and that African-Canadian voters in Ontario and the Maritimes could be alienated, apparently prevented its implementation. Instead, less overt measures were adopted: agents were sent into the American south to discourage black migrants; medical, character, and financial examinations were rigorously applied at border points, with rewards for officials who disqualified blacks; and American railroads were asked to deny blacks passage to Canada. Continued by the Conservatives after their 1911 election victory, this campaign had effectively stopped most African-American immigration by 1912. It was conducted under the authority of the Immigration Act of 1910, which enabled the government to prohibit “immigrants belonging to any race deemed unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.” Those “races” supposed to be genetically incapable of assimilation, especially Asians and Africans, were to be denied admission to Canada. For the next half-century very few persons of African origin would be admitted. Even when immigration regulations generally were liberalized after World War II, restrictions against African peoples were maintained. The Immigration Act of 1952 amended the prohibitory grounds from “race” to “ethnic group” but no practical change was effected; in 1955 the Supreme Court of Canada interpreted the two terms to mean the same thing and validated exclusion of prospective immigrants because of their “race.”
Black West Indians were affected by these regulations just as much as African Americans. During the nineteenth century there had been a small movement of migrants from the British Caribbean into Canada, often sailors who would terminate a voyage in a Canadian port and decide to stay. At mid-century there were several dozen such people in Halifax and Victoria, and somewhat fewer in Toronto, mostly males who married into local black families. Numbers gradually increased when workers were brought from Barbados to the coal mines of Sydney, Nova Scotia, at the end of the century. A scheme to recruit female domestics in Guadaloupe in 1910–11 was terminated in the glare of the Oklahoma controversy after only about 100 women landed in Montreal. Nevertheless, more West Indians, including skilled workers, arrived during World War I to work in the mines and furnaces of Sydney. Many of these successful immigrants were able to send for their families, but, although they made a definite demographic imprint on Cape Breton, their numbers were not significant in national terms. According to official records, between 1900 and 1955 there was an annual average of fewer than seventy “Negro” immigrants from overseas – that is, from elsewhere than the United States – with males moderately outnumbering females. Most of these came from the British West Indies and a few from Africa, often including students who took degrees in Canada and then opted to stay. The first significant change occurred in 1955, with the inauguration of the West Indian Domestic Scheme. To be eligible an applicant had to be a single female aged between eighteen and thirty-five and in good health. After working as a domestic for at least one year, a woman would be granted landed immigrant status. At first limited to 100 women annually from Jamaica and Barbados, the scheme expanded both in numbers and in the islands of recruitment. By 1965 a total of 2,690 West Indian women had been admitted under the scheme.
An entirely new era was launched with immigration reforms beginning in 1962, when education and skills became the main conditions of admissibility and “race” or ethnic origin were made largely irrelevant. Between 1961 and 1966 over 12,000 West Indians migrated to Canada, a number greater than the entire West Indian population recorded in the 1961 census. In 1967 the last racially discriminatory regulations were eliminated and a “points system” was introduced to rationalize the skill-orientation of admission policy. That same year the first immigration offices were opened in the Caribbean region, in Jamaica and Trinidad, and later in Barbados, Guyana, and Haiti. West Indian immigrant numbers doubled from 1966 to 1967 and tripled again by the mid1970s. In rank order the West Indies jumped to third place as a source of Canadian immigration. From 0.69 percent of all immigrants in the 1950s, West Indians increased to 3.3 percent in the 1960s and 11 percent in the 1970s; though the figure would slip to 9.2 percent in the 1980s, the Caribbean region including Guyana remained a leading supplier of Canadian immigrants. Annual averages by decade were 1,068 in the 1950s, 4,603 in the 1960s, 15,922 in the peak years of the 1970s, and 11,560 in the 1980s. Numbers have been increasing again in the early 1990s, with an annual average of 15,259. By the 1991 census there were 298,580 Caribbean-born people residing in Canada, a 22 percent increase over the 1986 census, with the greatest change in the number of Guyanese (up 30 percent to 66,060).
Immigration statistics do not specify the colour of an immigrant, but surveys and interviews suggest that over 80 percent of Caribbean immigrants are of African or partially African descent; most of the remainder are of East Indian ancestry, though there are numbers whose families first came from China or Europe. This imprecision in ultimate origin applies to immigrants from Africa as well. The vast majority of immigrants from the Republic of South Africa, for example, are of European origin, and until the early 1980s South Africa sent the largest number of immigrants from the African continent. The Arab countries of North Africa, similarly, have supplied more Canadian immigrants than the black-majority countries south of the Sahara.
Nor is country of origin itself a reliable guide, for Canada has received thousands of Asian-descended people from East Africa, over 7,000 from Uganda alone following their expulsion in 1972, and many of the individuals leaving Angola, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe at the time of independence were European settlers. Still, there is evidence of a dramatic increase in the immigration of black Africans in recent years. In the late 1970s South Africa accounted for 40 percent of Canada’s immigrants from Africa; in the early 1990s the figure had declined to 6 percent. In the same period Somalia moved from less than 0.1 to 20 percent and Ethiopia from 1.5 to 15 percent. Other black-majority countries have sent increasing numbers as well, including Ghana, Nigeria, and Zambia. In 1991 Somalia sent the largest number of African immigrants, 3,221, followed by Ethiopia at 2,424 and Ghana at 1,118. Comparing the 1986 and 1991 census figures, the African-born population in Canada, not including the Arab north and the Republic of South Africa, expanded from 48,535 to 76,260, a change of 57 percent in just five years.
African Canadians participated in the original settlement of almost every region of Canada. Black slaves were present at the foundation of Montreal, Louisbourg, Halifax, and virtually all the Loyalist communities. In New France most were urban domestic servants: 46 percent lived in Montreal and 43 percent in Quebec or their environs. Elsewhere, especially during the Loyalist period, slaves were more likely to practise skilled trades, work as farm hands or labourers, and be located in rural areas or smaller centres, though many (especially females) were urban domestics as well.
The free black Loyalists were also pioneers, particularly throughout the Maritimes. Their success in putting down roots was remarkable, for less than one-third of their number in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick received any land at all and the farms they did get were considerably smaller in size and usually in less fertile or more remote regions than those of the white Loyalists. They were handicapped in another way, too. Imperial policy had established that free provisions were to be extended to Loyalists while they were preparing their farms for a harvest. Blacks generally failed to receive these provisions, however, and so even if they had land it was difficult for them to support their families while they cleared it and brought in a crop.
It was often the case that groups of Loyalists, sometimes members of an entire military unit, would be settled all together on their arrival in British North America. This principle was also applied to the blacks, so that when they did receive land it was usually in blocks where they were on their own, with few or no whites among them. As a consequence, separate black settlements were created in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, often on the fringes of white settlements. The largest separate black community was at Birchtown, Nova Scotia, with a population of more than 1,500. Others were at Brindley Town (near Digby, Nova Scotia), Preston (near Halifax), and Little Tracadie in what is now Guysborough County, Nova Scotia.
Following the exodus to Sierra Leone in 1792, those blacks who remained behind in Nova Scotia tended to migrate to larger settlements such as Halifax, where they could find employment as servants or apprentices or seek jobs individually on white-owned farms as sharecroppers or labourers. Most of the large and isolated concentrations of black people were broken up. When the Maroons had completed their work on the Halifax citadel in 1796, Nova Scotian officials chose to locate them in the neighbourhood of Halifax, convinced that a French attack on the city was imminent and that the Maroons would be useful as defenders. And so the Maroons were settled at Preston, recently vacated by black Loyalists, and there they were able to maintain their own social organization and way of life until they in turn departed for Sierra Leone. The black Loyalist remnant, meanwhile, began to experience an improvement in their economic position within a decade of the exodus. As indenture terms were fulfilled and as apprentices qualified in trades, they once again constituted an available labour reserve. By 1812 the lament was heard that there were not enough free blacks in Nova Scotia to perform all the available work, and wages rose accordingly. During the War of 1812 blacks volunteered for militia service and three separate black corps were formed, winning white approval for their readiness to defend the Empire. Though blacks were still a disadvantaged class, slavery and its repugnant racial distinctions were dying away, residential segregation was breaking down, and economic advance was visible.
After the war, conditions were different. Almost 1,000 black refugees were settled at Preston, about 500 more were placed at Hammond’s Plains, on the other side of Halifax, and during the summer of 1817 almost 400 went to Loch Lomond near Saint John. Smaller groups gathered on the outskirts of other Maritime centres. In all about 2,000 new blacks were located in the region, most in or close to Halifax. Though supplied with clothing, provisions, and farm implements, they were placed on farms which – at three or four hectares in size – were too small to sustain economic independence. At the same time, a post-war depression combined with the arrival of thousands of labourers from the British Isles meant that there were few jobs available for the blacks. To supplement their government rations, they cut the trees on their allotments for sale as firewood, and when that was gone they attempted to find work with neighbouring white farmers or in the city of Halifax. Since their lands had been given on licences of occupation, not freehold grants, they could not sell their farms to finance a move to a different location.
All blacks, both Loyalist and refugee, shared in this poverty, for there was no longer any valid role for them in the Maritime economic structure. Supported by sympathetic white neighbours, black leaders in Nova Scotia appealed to the government for relocation to more viable farms. In 1839 the British authorities finally agreed, but there was not enough Crown land available in large blocks to enable existing communities to be transplanted to new locations. Instead, individual families would have to occupy new farms scattered throughout the province. Without widespread enthusiasm from black leaders, who feared the destruction of local communities, the relocation plan was dropped.
Nevertheless, in a gesture towards black self-reliance, the legislature decided, in May 1842, to convert the tickets of location to freehold grants. This enabled those who chose to do so to sell their allotments and move elsewhere where prospects might be more favourable. One immediate result was a migration towards the larger population centres, especially Halifax and Saint John. In the former city, though they were not entirely ghettoized, about two-thirds of blacks lived in a single downtown ward. Just at the edge of town, migrants from Preston and Hammond’s Plains established the community of Campbell Road beginning in 1848. By the end of the century Campbell Road had become known as “Africville,” the name by which it would gain nationwide fame. And by that same time black Loyalists and refugees were coming together in shared settlements. Refugees joined the older Loyalist settlements in Guysborough and Annapolis regions, and Loyalists joined the refugee settlements in the Halifax region. Thus the descendants of Loyalists and refugees merged, along with those of people who had been enslaved in the province, creating a new black population that eventually lost its awareness of the particular origin of its ancestors.
The few black Loyalists who went to Upper Canada were not channelled into any particular settlements, but in the 1790s many of them established neighbouring farms. These centres of settlement, located mainly along the Detroit and Niagara frontiers, attracted some of the earliest fugitives entering Upper Canada. Runaway slaves entering through Niagara settled there or moved to nearby St Catharines or Hamilton; those crossing at Detroit settled in the regions of Windsor, Chatham, or London. From both directions fugitives moved to Toronto or the virgin lands south of Georgian Bay.
Many fugitives intended to support themselves by farming, but they faced considerable difficulties in doing so. Private land was beyond the purchasing ability of most former slaves and Crown land was often remote. Some blacks who did push into the wilderness but were unable to pay the Crown fees simply squatted on unoccupied land and proceeded to raise crops. When surveyors caught up with them the price assessed for the land was increased by the improvements the blacks themselves had made; unable to pay, many families were forced to vacate the farms they had created.
There were other threats to black security as well, including the possibility of being kidnapped back into American slavery. For slaveowners, every slave who reached freedom in Canada threatened the security of the entire slave system and offered an example to every other slave. They were therefore prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to retrieve fugitives in Canada. Besides hiring kidnappers, or occasionally pursuing fugitives themselves, owners sought to enlist the aid of the Upper Canadian government by filing formal extradition requests. Yet early demands for the return of slaves were routinely rejected on the ground that escape from slavery was not a crime in Upper Canada and fugitives were therefore not liable to criminal extradition.
In response, American owners began demanding the extradition of fugitives on criminal grounds such as theft. Only one such effort was successful, when Nelson Hackett was charged by his master with stealing a horse, a gold watch, and fur coat, and, for good measure, with raping a white woman. Although the latter charge was dropped when no evidence was offered, Governor Sir Charles Bagot ordered Hackett’s return to Arkansas as a common thief in 1842. This was clearly a test case on the part of the masters to prove that Canada was not a secure haven. Hackett’s owner spent far more than his sale price, and Canadian and British abolitionists’ offers to purchase him were rejected. Significantly, the alleged thief was not tried for theft on his return to Arkansas but was beaten and tortured as a runaway before crowds of slaves to discourage escape to Canada. There was a public outcry in Canada, Bagot was reprimanded by the British government, and eventually the case led to negotiations for a treaty of extradition with the Americans. When the Webster-Ashburton Treaty was concluded in 1843 robbery remained an extraditable offence, but horse theft in the course of escape from slavery did not. No fugitive was ever surrendered under the 1843 treaty, but the possibility of it happening kept the issue very much alive. In the most famous extradition case of all, the fugitive John Anderson was arrested in 1860 on a charge of murder. Though his first trial resulted in a ruling in favour of extradition, his second ended in his discharge on a technicality. The case had captured the imagination of the public, and when he was freed it was to the universal rejoicing of black and white Canadians.
Difficulties in obtaining land, a well-founded sense of insecurity, personal poverty, and general problems in adapting to life in a strange land prompted some Upper Canadian fugitives and their white sympathizers to propose the establishment of separate communities. These communal settlements were intended not as a permanent solution but as an intermediary step between slavery and freedom. Opponents within the fugitive population argued that, despite good intentions, the organized communities would promote segregation and also create an impression that African peoples were incapable of living in North America without white support. Both sides in the debate shared a commitment to equality and integration; the disagreement was over the particular means of achieving them. Beginning in 1829 four major communal experiments were initiated: Wilberforce, near London, led by Austin Steward; Dawn, at Dresden, led by Josiah Henson; Buxton, near Chatham, led by the Reverend William King; and the Refugee Home, in several different locations near Windsor, led by Henry and Mary Bibb. Their significance did not lie in the numbers of people who lived in them, for at their peak they probably contained no more than about three or four thousand people, but they did give those fugitives who participated an opportunity to become landowners, to gain an education, and to raise families and build communities sheltered from the many vicissitudes of mid-nineteenth-century racism.
On the west coast, many of the blacks who settled on Vancouver Island in the late 1850s had acquired skills and business experience in California and some brought capital to invest in new enterprises. At this point the Pacific Coast was in the midst of an economic boom, fuelled by the gold rush. Labour was in urgent demand, and the migrants found immediate employment and entrepreneurial opportunities. Most settled in Victoria, where they tended to live in the same neighbourhood; others settled at nearby Saanich, some penetrated as far as Nanaimo, and one group established a small farming community on Saltspring Island. Anxious to integrate as loyal subjects, the blacks deliberately declined to form separate churches or community associations. In 1859 many of the men on the island volunteered to serve in the fire brigade but were rebuffed. They thereupon decided to form a military group, for the colony was at that time undefended and some white Americans in the area were lobbying for annexation to the United States. Using money raised by the Committee of Coloured Ladies, they hired a drill sergeant and purchased uniforms. As a trained militia and with their own elected officers the corps became the Pioneer Rifles in April 1860. Known familiarly as the African Rifles, it remained for more than a year the only defence force on the island. Following the Civil War and the return of many migrants to the United States, some of the Vancouver Island blacks moved to the mainland and were among the early settlers of what would become the city of Vancouver.
Most of the thousand or more African-American migrants who arrived in Alberta between 1908 and 1912 settled in the Athabasca region north and west of Edmonton. All their settlements were isolated physically, and the soil was not the province’s best. The pioneers appear to have selected their remote locations deliberately, in order to avoid the racist hysteria which their arrival had evoked from the white majority. Although they were experienced farmers, crops and conditions were different from what they were used to, and the heavily forested land took years to clear by hand. In order to supplement their income, most adult males sought temporary waged employment and, with the men away so much of the time, primary responsibility for operating the farms fell frequently to the women. Railway construction offered an early opportunity for paid work, and later Edmonton was the source of seasonal jobs. As it became apparent that urban opportunities were greater than those on the farm, many families began moving permanently to Edmonton and a smaller number to Calgary, where a black district had already been established in the vicinity of the railway yards by porters on layover. The 1911 census showed a provincial total of 979 blacks, with 208 in Edmonton and 72 in Calgary; although the Alberta figure would remain almost constant, the urban proportion grew continually as the farms were abandoned over the next two or three decades. Only Amber Valley maintained its identity as an all-black community, with a population of about 350 in the 1930s.
Blacks in Saskatchewan and Manitoba had a similar experience. Most of the 336 migrants who reached Saskatchewan during the early 1900s took up farms in the Eldon district; however, necessity forced many of the men to find winter jobs in the region’s larger centres, such as North Battleford, Lloydminster, and Saskatoon, and temporary migration often foreshadowed an eventual shift of entire families to the cities. Smaller groups of farming families scattered across Manitoba, totalling about 200 people. In addition, Winnipeg, like Calgary, had a black settlement centred on the railway yards.
The emergence of black urban neighbourhoods was evident in other parts of the country, too. The West Indians who located in Sydney, Nova Scotia, in the early twentieth century took jobs in the coal and steel industries and settled in a defined area of Whitney Pier, separated from the rest of Sydney by the steel plant and the railway tracks. Blacks from other parts of Nova Scotia were also migrating towards the expanding economy of Sydney, as were some black Americans, but West Indian influences prevailed and the Whitney Pier community of about 600 people remained culturally distinct. Although many moved away from Cape Breton altogether, Sydney blacks largely remained in the original neighbourhood, known as “Coke Ovens.” In Montreal, the American migrants, characterized by railway employment, came to inhabit an area close to the Canadian National and Canadian Pacific railway yards. As they were joined by families and by other blacks with no particular connection to the railway, housing discrimination in other parts of Montreal directed most of them towards the existing black community and its main thoroughfare, St Antoine Street. Nineteenth-century fugitives who settled in urban Ontario, particularly Toronto, Chatham, Hamilton, and Windsor, also developed residential communities located around their churches and concentrated, for the most part, in the least expensive districts. To the original African-American population of Toronto there was added an increasing flow of migrants from other parts of Canada and, in smaller numbers, from overseas.
Official records, including the census, provide inadequate data on the numbers and locations of African Canadians. Terminology has been imprecise, and there was sometimes a deliberate effort to underestimate the black population. As a general rule, private and community estimates have been about double the official census total. The figures in Table 1 are presented on the understanding that African Canadians have been consistently under-represented, though they remain useful in reflecting the declining trend from 1871 to 1911 (a period when the Canadian population generally was expanding enormously) and then an uneven growth towards 1961. The sudden increase from 1951 to 1961 was not a product of migration but of a more accurate count by the census-takers. Until 1971, when the impact of West Indian immigration was felt in the census figures, regional distribution had remained reasonably stable. The most marked demographic development was the urbanization of the black population. In 1901, for the first time, the ratio of urban African Canadians to rural ones was even (this would not happen in the general population until 1931), and it has been increasing in every census since then. By 1971, 85 percent of Canadian “Negroes” were urban, not including the “West Indians” who were 98 percent urban, and in that year Toronto already had 42 percent of the African-Canadian total. The settlement patterns of Caribbean and African immigrants since 1971 have accentuated these trends.
Refinements in the census since 1971 have made numerical precision more likely, but the lack of consistency over time makes historical comparison extremely difficult. Since there is still no direct question on “colour,” citizens must consider themselves to be “black” by culture and ethnicity in order to be counted as “black” for census purposes. In 1981, for the first time, the census questionnaire was self-administered (it had been partly so in 1971), and multiple origins were accepted but not encouraged. In 1991 a mark-in space for “black” was added, making it easier for people to indicate a black identity. As well, responses of multiple origins were encouraged and categories suggesting black ethnicity were expanded. All these amendments made it more likely that a person with some African ancestry would identify it on the census.
The 1991 census offers the most detailed information about Canadians with roots in Africa, but there remain incompatibilities which must be interpreted. For example, there were 298,580 Canadians born in the Caribbean but only 94,395 single responses and 72,225 multiple responses (166,620 in total) showing “Caribbean” ethnicity. “Blacks” had meanwhile grown to 224,620 single responses and 127,045 multiple (351,665 in total), a population obviously including many persons born in the Caribbean. The 1991 census also listed 166,165 persons born in Africa but, for reasons explained earlier, it is not possible to assume that they are all black. There were, however, 26,430 persons who described their ethnicity as “African” and 13,180 others gave multiple responses, for a total of 39,610. All of these people were almost certainly black, and there must have been Afri-
Source: Census of Canada, 1991
cans who, like some West Indians, identified themselves simply as “black.”
Absolute precision, therefore, is still impossible, but the greatly enhanced dimensions of the Canadian population with some African ancestry are readily apparent. Regional distribution reflects patterns that have been developing throughout the twentieth century. Of the single-response entries for “black,” “Caribbean,” and “African” (345,445), 3.7 percent live in the Maritimes, 20.4 percent in Quebec, 66.3 percent in Ontario, 6.8 percent in the prairies, and 2.8 percent in British Columbia. Metropolitan Toronto alone, with 189,155 single responses, contains 55 percent of the national total; Montreal, with 66,045, has almost 20 percent. The total population covered by the term “African Canadian” undoubtedly includes all those who entered a single response of “black,” “Caribbean,” and “African.” Some of the 212,450 multiple responses must be combinations among these three, but some must reflect multiple ancestry with white or other groupings. Besides, incompatibilities between place of birth and ethnicity imply that self-categorization by ethnic group may not have captured all the black people in Canada. All things considered, one cannot go farther than to suggest that, in light of the figures given above, there were in 1991 about half a million people in Canada of African or partially African descent.
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.
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.
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.
From the African-Canadian perspective, efforts to achieve equality in the face of racial discrimination have dominated intergroup relations, while participation in mainstream politics has generally been seen as one aspect of the same ongoing quest for justice.
Black Loyalists, besides not obtaining the land grants they deserved, were not deemed eligible to vote or serve on juries. Usually no laws were passed to implement these distinctions, though the city of Saint John legislated certain restrictions against blacks in the 1780s; they simply became a part of public policy and administrative practice. The black Loyalists did not, however, refrain from political activity, for they regularly petitioned for their individual rights, for the abolition of slavery, and for recognition of their status as Loyalists. Thomas Peters’s mission to London in 1790–91 was a dramatic demonstration of their faith in British justice and their determination to receive equitable treatment. Yet it was only in the 1830s that it became common for black men to be admitted as voters in the Maritimes. The leading Reform politician Joseph Howe, who overtly sought the blacks’ vote for his candidates, assured them of their right to the franchise despite a widespread prejudice to the contrary, and following their electoral support in the 1841 election he regularized their land grants in 1842 and called blacks into jury service in 1845. By the 1847 election both parties in Nova Scotia were actively campaigning for the black vote, giving the black communities an opportunity to negotiate for political favours. In Upper Canada, similarly, naturalized adult black males who owned taxable property were legally qualified to vote and serve on juries, but local convention frequently prevented them. On several occasions it required appeals to local magistrates for the civil rights of black Canadians to be recognized in practice. In Victoria, too, there was resistance in the 1860s to allowing American-born blacks to exercise the franchise or act as jurors.
If black freedom was incomplete, at least discrimination in the matter of voting rights did not have the sanction of law; when legal authority became involved, it was to enforce the rights of blacks and not deny them. This encouraged African Canadians in their practice of appealing directly to political leaders and to the courts to preserve their rights and further their progress towards equality. The Anglo-African Mutual Improvement and Aid Association of Nova Scotia, as we have seen, coordinated black voting behind those most favourable to black rights and challenged any insult or restriction against their members on grounds of colour. In the early 1840s Toronto blacks successfully petitioned the city council to ban travelling American shows that ridiculed black people, or at least to require them to omit certain insulting songs from their repertoire. In 1857, when a member of the Canadian legislature referred to blacks as habitually lazy people, thieves, and liars, Toronto blacks held a mass “indignation meeting” to refute the charges and demand an apology, threatening retaliation at the ballot-box. In Upper Canada the fugitives tended to favour Conservative candidates, associating Reformers with an American-style democracy which had kept them enslaved. The political status quo in Canada was what preserved their freedom, making them suspicious of any political change and overwhelmingly opposed to radical reform. But when individual candidates spoke out directly on black-related issues, black voters in Upper Canada were as ready as those in the Maritimes to coordinate their vote for political effect.
The law did not, however, secure African Canadians against discrimination by individuals or private businesses; on the contrary, the right to discriminate on grounds of race was upheld by the Canadian courts. Some of the most widespread discrimination occurred in public accommodations, transportation, and places of entertainment. Hotels, saloons, lake steamers, stagecoaches, and theatres in the Maritimes, Ontario, and the west habitually refused service to blacks or relegated them to segregated facilities. Occasionally, racial separation was enforced by mob violence. For example, in Chatham in 1860 a violent demonstration protested the marriage of the Reverend William Pinkney, a black, to the white Elizabeth King, demanding legislation against “racial amalgamation”; and in Victoria that same year, blacks who sat in the main section of the Colonial Theatre were attacked by whites who wanted them restricted to the balcony. Although such incidents were not frequent, they demonstrated a consistent principle, namely, that blacks must not presume to behave as if they were equal to whites.
Against this separatist logic, African Canadians seized the rhetoric of British rights to assert their demand for equality. In Nova Scotia blacks objected that segregated and inferior schools were unfair and that as taxpayers and voters they deserved the same opportunities for their children as anyone else. The 1883–84 campaign for integrated schools in that province, like the one in Chatham, Ontario, a few years later, was both a tactic to improve the future prospects of black children and a fundamental declaration of black equality under the British constitution. In Saint John, New Brunswick, Abraham B. Walker, a British Columbian–born lawyer who had studied at an African-American college, adopted tactics very similar to those of the Anglo-African Association in Halifax: he coordinated black voting in order to gain some influence upon the political leadership, and he targeted discriminatory circumstances in deliberate public confrontations. For instance, in 1887, as part of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee celebrations, local organizers promoted a “Coloured Baby Show” in Saint John. Walker protested that such an event was “ungentlemanly” and would be an occasion to ridicule the black community. The event was cancelled. Then, during jubilee celebrations that resounded with the rhetoric of British imperial justice, William Diamond was denied access to public transportation from Saint John to Portland, Maine. His protest was couched as a query: was it the transit authorities or the jubilee declarations of equality that were in error? Diamond received no answer, but in 1898 a Montreal bellhop named Johnson sued a theatre for refusing him a seat on grounds of colour. The Quebec appeal court awarded him damages because he held a ticket for the specific seats in question, but the judges added that the broader question of racial equality was not a matter for the courts.
There were occasions when African Canadians themselves sought office as elected politicians. Before confederation Austin Steward of the Wilberforce settlement, Abraham Shadd of Buxton, and Wilson Abbott of Toronto all won municipal office. On the west coast several African Canadians were elected to local school boards. John Craven Jones won a seat on the Saltspring Island municipal council in 1873, while Mifflin Gibbs was elected to the Victoria council in 1866 and became chair of the city’s finance committee. In 1868 Gibbs was the delegate of Saltspring Island to the Yale Convention, where he supported British Columbia’s union with the dominion of Canada. Henry Weaver was repeatedly returned as a Chatham alderman during the 1890s, as was Robert Dunn in Windsor into the early years of the twentieth century. The most successful political career belonged to William Hubbard, who was first elected to Toronto council in 1894 and remained a key figure in the city’s municipal government for the next twenty years.
Another and more frequent way for blacks to demonstrate their commitment to Canada and the empire was through voluntary military service. Even before coming to Canada the black Loyalists had fought to retain British rule throughout the American colonies, and after their arrival they and the later refugees remained in militia units in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In Upper Canada blacks served in regular militia units until a separate company was formed during the War of 1812. The black corps saw action against the Americans at several engagements during that conflict before being disbanded in 1815. Black volunteers were enlisted in Upper Canada again during the Rebellion of 1837, and, in the 1840s and 1850s, black units remained in the provincial militias of Upper Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick while in both Hamilton and Victoria blacks created their own volunteer rifle corps. The notion that blacks would fight for British supremacy arose repeatedly in their petitions. During the Crimean War Chatham blacks volunteered their services against Russia, and when an American invasion of Canada was rumoured in 1856 black Upper Canadians formed a volunteer force to repel the threatening Yankees. This would occur again during the Fenian raids after the American Civil War. African Canadians served the Empire abroad as well. The most famous black soldier was William Hall of Nova Scotia, who joined the British navy in the 1852, served in the Crimean War, and won a Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery at the relief of Lucknow during the Great Revolt of 1857.
After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, young black men once again offered to defend their country. Though no blanket restriction was imposed, individual commanding officers were entitled to refuse black recruits, and almost all did so. The racial stereotype in 1914, contrary to all Canadian experience, identified blacks as inadequate soldier material whose presence would weaken a fighting unit. Despite insult and rebuff the blacks persisted, appealing to politicians and the governor general for an opportunity to serve. Finally, in 1916, they were rewarded with the formation of the Nova Scotia No. 2 Construction Battalion, which was authorized to recruit black men all across Canada. When the No. 2 went overseas in 1917 it was not to fight Germans but to provide physical labour as attachments to the Canadian Forestry Corps. In Europe the men of the No. 2 were segregated in the camp cinema; provided with their own “coloured chaplain,” the Reverend William White of Truro, who, as an honorary captain, was the only black officer in Canada’s army; treated in a separate hospital wing when ill or wounded; incarcerated in a separate punishment compound when they misbehaved. Although some individual African Canadians did serve with distinction in regular regiments, the general experience in war was similar to their condition at home: rejection, limitation, and consignment to an auxiliary role. At the end of the war, physical attacks by both Canadian soldiers and civilians – and the establishment of a separate section for deceased black veterans in the Camp Hill military cemetery in Halifax – provided further evidence that the loyal efforts of black servicemen had not gained them the acceptance of white society.
Yet wartime discrimination did not discourage black Canadians from their quest for equality and dignity. When the American film Birth of a Nation (1915) appeared in Canada, with its implicit approval of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and its disparaging images of black people, there was an immediate reaction from the Canadian Observer (Toronto, 1914–19), a black newspaper: it launched an editorial counter-attack and editor J.R.B. Whitney organized a community protest in September 1915. Resolutions denouncing the film as degrading to black people and provoking hatred against them were carried to Premier William Hearst by a black delegation, and Hearst agreed to have some of the most objectionable scenes removed from the film. In Halifax, with the compliance of white supporters, blacks were actually able to have the offensive film banned from city cinemas.
These successes were not sufficient, however, to stem the tide of global racism in which Canadians were caught regardless of local experience. In 1910–11, during the black migration from Oklahoma, city councils and boards of trade across the prairies passed resolutions asking Ottawa to suspend further immigration and to segregate those African Americans already in Canada. In a revealing document the Edmonton branch of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire demanded that blacks be kept out or white women would not be safe, and it warned that lynchings could occur if the government did not act to protect white womanhood. The American stereotypes were apparent. In 1920, when a black family moved into the Calgary district of Victoria Park, a petition was signed by almost 500 white householders asking city council to legislate racial segregation. Since the council had no experience with such matters (the black population numbered only seventy people), the city clerk wrote to sixteen other Canadian cities asking for any by-laws they might have to enforce racial segregation. When no model legislation was found, the exclusivity of Victoria Park was preserved by a property covenant agreed among the white residents. Just four years later Edmonton council received a request from its own city officials for a by-law banning blacks from public parks and swimming-pools. Though no legislation was forthcoming, segregated private recreational facilities were allowed to continue. Local black organizations – the Colored Protective Association of Calgary and the Negro Political Association of Edmonton – rallied in defence of black rights, and in Ontario in 1924 there was an effort to create a national body to confront these and related issues. As noted earlier, however, the Canadian League for the Advancement of Colored People never expanded beyond southwestern Ontario.
Once again, there were appeals to the courts to declare and enforce black equality. The most well known was the above-mentioned Loew’s theatre case of 1919 which upheld the principle of racial segregation. But there were other cases too. One of the most important was launched in 1936 by Fred Christie when he was refused a beer in the York Tavern, located in the Montreal Forum. With the moral and financial support of the city’s black community, Christie sued the tavern and appealed eventually to the Supreme Court of Canada. In December 1939 the highest court in the land pronounced that racial discrimination was legal. The Christie precedent was followed less than six months later when the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld the right of a Vancouver hotel to decline service to a black man named Rogers simply because the owners objected to his colour.
The Christie decision showed that Canadian attitudes remained unchanged after the outbreak of World War II. In response, the Negro Community Centre and the Canadian Society for the Advancement of Coloured People, both of Montreal, not only denounced the employment practices of the National Selective Service but also intervened on behalf of volunteers who were rejected from the navy and air force. Protests by black soldiers were common as well, and gradually change did occur. As in World War I, the pattern was not absolute and numerous black soldiers were embraced as equals by their comrades, but a discriminatory shadow hung over the Canadian forces throughout much of the war and was dissipated primarily by the efforts of black people themselves.
During the 1940s and 1950s most provinces and some municipalities passed laws against discrimination in employment, accommodations, and public facilities, and in 1960 the federal government enacted a Bill of Rights incorporating many of the principles for which African Canadians had been struggling. But these changes did not just happen on their own. The post-war period witnessed an articulate black attack on the restrictions which had existed for generations, and it reached an increasingly receptive white audience horrified by Nazi racism and encouraged by the United Nations Charter and global opinion to consider legislative reforms. In the forefront of this attack were the railway porters. The international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, rallied his American membership to become a movement for racial equality in the United States, threatening a massive protest march on Washington which virtually forced President Franklin Roosevelt to integrate the wartime defence industry and to establish a Fair Employment Practices Commission. In 1942 Randolph visited Toronto, not only to receive the CPR porters into his union but to voice the international porters’ abiding concern with discrimination. It was the Toronto division of the CPR porters, led after the war by Stanley G. Grizzle, that was particularly effective in communicating information and advice from coast to coast. Grizzle and other porters on layover would contact local black communities, help them to understand that their experiences were part of a broader pattern, and offer specific tactical suggestions. The porters’ union saw the advantage of making alliances with other Canadian movements, including organized labour (which had not traditionally been sympathetic to racial issues) and newly developing black associations at the local level, in order to mobilize a concerted demand upon governments for legislative change.
Fighting the same fight as the porters was the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. From the time of its founding in 1945 under the leadership of W.P. Oliver, the NSAACP identified three chief areas of concern – education, employment, and housing – as the fundamental expressions of racial disadvantage in Nova Scotia. The association insisted upon “full citizenship” for black Nova Scotians, which meant that the same standards of rights and responsibilities must be applied to blacks and whites. Oliver accepted the historic convention among his people that discrimination could be overcome if blacks acquired skills and attributes which were genuinely appreciated by mainstream society, and he taught that blacks must educate themselves to be ready for the exercise of full citizenship. Through the African Baptist churches, as we have seen, the NSAACP promoted education for both children and adults. It also conducted surveys of housing and employment conditions, using the results to press for government action, and sent delegations to visit employers in efforts to break through long-standing discriminatory patterns. Sister associations in New Brunswick, Alberta, and British Columbia, founded over the next few years, had comparable programs.
The most direct legislative result arose from the efforts of the National Unity Association in southwestern Ontario. In 1943 one of its founders, Hugh Burnett, appealed to Justice Minister Louis St Laurent to interfere in a local situation of severe discrimination, but he was told that according to the Christie precedent there was nothing the federal government could do. With this decision in mind, the NUA directed its program locally, asking Dresden council for an anti-discrimination bylaw in 1947. The council prevaricated and then decided that the issue required an explicit mandate from the voters. In 1949, therefore, council held a referendum seeking approval for such a by-law, but the people voted 517 to 108 against it. Burnett and the NUA then turned to the provincial government for redress, joining a broader movement led by the Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Association for Civil Liberties. Using Dresden as their primary example, the coalition eventually convinced Premier Leslie Frost that a legislated response was necessary, and, as indicated above, Ontario’s Conservative government became the first to enact fair employment and fair accommodations practices acts.
Meanwhile, Toronto blacks had achieved a regulation similar to the one rejected in Dresden. In 1946 a Toronto skating-rink ejected the son of Harry Gairey, porter and prominent member of the Toronto black community, for no other reason than his colour. Joined by university students, church groups, and labour organizations, black Toronto held a series of public demonstrations and sent delegations to city council, winning an order requiring places of amusement licensed by the city to accept all customers regardless of “race, colour or creed.” Several other municipalities followed the Toronto model. Conscious, as always, that racial stereotypes lay behind much discriminatory behaviour, African Canadians were also confronting public images which undermined their quest for equality. In 1944 the Colored Citizens’ Improvement League in Halifax, joined later by the NSAACP, launched an eventually successful campaign to have the story Little Black Sambo (1899) withdrawn from school readers. In Toronto Daniel Braithwaite focused on the same story, convincing the Toronto Board of Education to remove it from the public schools in 1956.
Three court battles in the post-war years gave insight into the state of intergroup relations in Canada. In 1946 the Roseland Cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, ejected Viola Desmond, a visitor from Halifax, because she had sat in the downstairs section rather than the balcony where blacks were segregated. She was jailed overnight and fined $20 on the grounds that she had been issued a balcony ticket and was therefore entitled only to sit in that section. Carrie Best of New Glasgow, editor of the Clarion newspaper (1946–49), rallied a public campaign on Desmond’s behalf and the NSAACP funded an appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. The court acknowledged that balcony tickets were a device to enforce segregation, but, since the provincial tax was one cent higher on a downstairs ticket, Desmond was in technical violation of the law and her fine was upheld. No action was possible against the cinema, for segregated seating was not only legal but quite common in the 1940s. Following passage of the Fair Accommodations Practices Act in 1954, this was no longer so in Ontario, but restaurants and other enterprises in Dresden continued to refuse service to blacks. During the summer of 1954 Hugh Burnett and the NUA conducted “tests” of Dresden restaurants, sending groups of whites and blacks to ask for service and lodging formal complaints when the blacks were refused. In September the Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights joined the campaign, sending teams from Toronto to test the restaurants accompanied by newspaper reporters. A reluctant provincial government was embarrassed into laying charges, only to have them dismissed in court in 1955 because the Crown failed to prove that the denial of service had been motivated by racial discrimination. Another round of testing by local blacks and volunteers from Toronto was necessary before a conviction was upheld in 1956 and FAP was finally enforced. Alberta had no comparable act in 1959 when Ted King, president of the AAACP, learned that a Calgary motel would not receive black guests. To confirm this report, King, a Calgary resident, drove to the motel and asked for accommodation, suing for damages when he was refused. He lost his case, and his appeal to the Alberta Supreme Court in 1961 was dismissed; though the racial motive was not denied by the owners, it was not illegal for a motel to practise racial discrimination in Alberta at that time. As a result of the publicity surrounding the King case, the provincial government amended its Innkeepers’ Act to prevent other occurrences of this nature.
West Indian immigrants participated in these campaigns but their special concern was discriminatory immigration regulations which prevented family reunification and which above all characterized black people as undesirable. In 1951 Donald Moore, first secretary of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and a Toronto community activist since the 1920s, founded the Negro Citizenship Association (NCA) to press for federal immigration reform while cooperating with other groups such as the National Unity Association in the movement for provincial anti-discrimination legislation. The NCA attacked the implicit assumptions of an immigration policy that favoured certain “races” over others, pointing to the historic contribution of blacks to Canadian society through which they had earned their right to equality, and denouncing the poisonous atmosphere generated by regulations designed to keep Canada white. The Canadian Negro newspaper (Toronto, 1953–56) reported fully on NCA meetings and resolutions, and its accounts were spread by railway porters across the country. The Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights assisted with writing briefs to the federal government; MPs of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (precursor of the New Democratic Party) brought the NCA’s arguments before the House of Commons. In 1954 a delegation travelled to Ottawa to meet with cabinet ministers; there, Moore presented the NCA brief and Stanley G. Grizzle added passionate support from the BSCP. The legislative result was modest but real: the government introduced the West Indian Domestics Scheme in 1955, the first deliberate program to expand the black population of Canada. The full fruits of the campaign would not be seen until the 1960s.
Experience was teaching African Canadians that the courts did not provide an effective route to equality: legislation was more direct. By pressing for human-rights reforms blacks were able to amend public policy in Canada, culminating in 1962 when Ontario consolidated its anti-discrimination laws in a comprehensive Human Rights Code with a full-time commission to enforce it, a model followed by other provinces and the federal government over the next fifteen years. Appropriately, an African Canadian, Daniel G. Hill, was appointed to head the pioneering Ontario Human Rights Commission. Public policy had once been a source of racial discrimination in itself, for example, in military recruitment or immigration restrictions; public policy had also served as an enforcer of private discrimination, as in the Christie or Desmond cases. By the 1960s public policy explicitly declared against discriminatory acts and provided punishments for their perpetrators. And yet in many substantial ways African-Canadian conditions had not improved. A study of blacks in Halifax published in 1962 found that 60 percent had no private bathrooms and 75 percent had no hot running water, and unemployment ran at double the rate for non-blacks. To city officials the most embarrassing conditions were in Africville, located within the city limits on the shores of Bedford Basin. Talk of expropriating Africville and relocating its people had begun as early as World War I, but it became more serious in the late 1950s as Halifax initiated a major urban-renewal program. Demands by the Africville people to have their community improved and developed right where it was were disregarded, and in 1964 Halifax began relocating Africville residents to alternative accommodations in the city, usually subsidized public housing. Compensation packages and adjustment assistance were, however, inadequate; a viable black community had been destroyed in a concrete example of black powerlessness, public misunderstanding, and government insensitivity. The legislative reforms and human-rights codes of the 1960s had not saved Africville, had created no jobs for unemployed blacks, and had not even squashed overt expressions of white supremacy, as attested by burning crosses and KKK slogans in Amherstburg, Ontario, in the summer of 1965.
By 1968 there were young black people in Canada ready for a different approach to social reform. Developments in the United States were seductive. The southern-based non-violent civil rights movement, launched when Rosa Parks took a front seat in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, gaining momentum through the freedom rides and student sit-ins beginning in 1960, and reaching a crescendo with the march on Washington in 1963, was shocked into a new reality with the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4 April 1968. Tactics appropriate to the American south – voter-registration drives and courting arrest for violating state segregation laws – had already been proved irrelevant for urban and northern African Americans who had a right to vote and sit at the front of the bus but had no jobs, inadequate housing, poor education, and daily experience of racial harassment. Symbolic of the African-American shift was the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960 with King’s collaboration; in 1966, under its new leader, Stokely Carmichael, SNCC dropped its non-violent commitment, expelled its white members, and adopted the electrifying slogan “Black Power.” In Oakland, California, the Black Panther Party advocated black solidarity and active self-defence against racist oppression. “Race riots” in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Washington seemed to be a fulfilment of the radical agenda and a promise of a revolutionary adjustment in intergroup relations.
In Canada the new black consciousness and its attendant political orientation was best represented by Halifax youth leader Burnley (“Rocky”) Jones. With a group of young black activists and a few white students, Jones articulated an intellectual message not often heard in Canada before, offering a novel definition of the “race” problem and a program to combat it. Jones and his colleagues identified the problem as systemic, as the responsibility not just of a few overt racists but of society as a whole. Instead of fighting instances of discrimination case by case, Jones confronted the underlying syndrome which tended to generate another case every time one was solved. Rather than lobbying with political leaders, he carried his message directly to the people, describing the nature and effect of racism and then assigning responsibility to all members of the mainstream public, including his white audiences. In the place of laws to restrict and punish individual acts of racism, which he regarded as ineffectual, Jones demanded broad intervention to interrupt the self-perpetuating syndrome of black disadvantage in Canada. Jones did not reject the traditions of his Nova Scotian community, but he revitalized them and gave them a political edge. For example, while he acknowledged the historic significance of self-help programs, Jones demanded affirmative action from government to give black initiatives a chance of success. An indicative product of this intellectual approach was the Transition Year Programme at Dalhousie, of which Jones was one of the originators. Dressed in dashiki, Afro hairstyle, and dark glasses, Jones thrilled listeners both black and white and forced a re-examination of the black situation in Canada.
“Racial violence” featured in Canada’s most famous student incident at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in February 1969. The previous spring a group of West Indian students had accused a biology professor of racism. Finding the subsequent university investigation unsatisfactory, in January 1969 a number of students, both black and white, staged a sit-in to dramatize a demand for a more thorough inquiry and attention to allegations of pervasive racism at the university and in the city of Montreal. The student occupation provided a forum, virtually a “teach-in,” on Canadian racism; aroused students barricaded themselves in the university’s computer centre, refusing to leave until the issue of racism was seriously addressed. On 11 February authorities moved to dislodge the students by force, and in the ensuing struggle about $2-million damage was done to the computer equipment. Ninety student occupants were arrested, forty-one of them black. Subsequent press reportage tended to emphasize the culminating violence, rather than exploring the existence of racism, and to identify the perpetrators as foreigners, although only twenty-three of the ninety arrested were West Indians. Frustration at the public response and embarrassment at the connection with violence renewed a proposal, first raised in Montreal in 1968, to create a national network of black organizations. In late 1969 the National Black Coalition of Canada was founded in Toronto, chaired by Howard McCurdy of Windsor, to coordinate efforts towards black equality. Meanwhile, in Halifax, the concept of the united front underwent considerable community debate, leading in August 1969 to the receipt of federal government funding and in September to the appointment as first executive director of the Black United Front of Jules Oliver, author of a revelatory 1968 report on employment discrimination in Halifax and a collaborator in the group that had originated the Transition Year Programme.
West Indian immigration, growing annually through the 1960s and into the 1970s, temporarily diverted attention away from black issues per se to the adjustment problems of the newcomers. Many Canadian-born blacks were resentful, finding the impact of their own rising assertiveness being submerged by overwhelming numbers of West Indians whose attributes and initial concerns seemed quite different. Repeated experience with common treatment in Canada derived from their skin colour, however, led indigenous and immigrant blacks to discover the extent of their common interest. This became especially apparent by the mid-1970s, when a series of violent racist incidents in many parts of the country led Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to declare in a 1975 speech that Canada was facing a “race” crisis. At the same time, small groups of white extremists began openly to articulate racist hostility, gaining attention from the national media. Most Canadians were shocked by these events and at first denied that they could be symptoms of racism. Public and press demanded government action to clarify the situation, punish the wrongdoers, and restore Canada to its reputed condition as a non-racist, non-violent society. The result was a flood of official and private inquiries probing the feelings of violators, victims, and the general population. Several dozen reports were filed, sponsored by human rights commissions, institutes, and every level of government, focusing public attention as never before and producing, finally, a recognition that racial discrimination did in fact exist in Canada. Legislative changes followed, facilitated by article 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which committed Canada to racial equality and permitted official affirmative-action programs to overcome the legacies of past discrimination. By the mid-1980s public policy had assumed a corrective role, accepting a responsibility to interfere in the historic syndromes that kept blacks and others unequal, just as certain far-sighted elements in the black community had demanded two decades earlier.
The black profile in Canadian public life was expanding throughout this post-war era as mainstream Canada grew more responsive to the black presence. Many African Canadians became active in local politics, as councillors and school trustees and occasionally as municipal heads: Ralph McCurdy was reeve of Amherstburg, S.F. Monestime was mayor of Mattawa, Daureen Lewis was mayor of Annapolis Royal. The first African Canadian to win a seat in a provincial legislature was Leonard Braithwaite of Ontario, who held the Etobicoke riding for the Liberals from 1963 to 1975. Then in 1968 Lincoln Alexander of the same province became the first black member of the House of Commons when he was elected in Hamilton West. In 1979 Alexander set another mark when he became minister of labour in the Conservative government of Prime Minister Joe Clark before leaving electoral politics in 1980. In 1972 Emery Barnes, originally from New Orleans, and Rosemary Brown, born in Jamaica, became the first black immigrants in a Canadian legislature when both were elected in a British Columbia provincial election as New Democrats. Brown contested the federal leadership of her party in 1975 and left the legislature in 1986; Barnes, repeatedly re-elected in Vancouver, became speaker in 1994. Another New Democrat, Howard McCurdy, was elected to the federal House of Commons in 1984 from Windsor and reelected in 1988. In 1990 he was a candidate for the federal leadership of the New Democratic Party. The 1993 federal election brought three Caribbean-born Liberals to Ottawa: Jean Augustine, Hedy Fry, and Ovid Jackson. The first black provincial cabinet minister was Alvin Curling, appointed minister of housing in Ontario’s Liberal government following his election in 1985 and minister of skills development from 1987 to 1989. The New Democratic victory in the Ontario election of 1990 brought Zanana Akande of Toronto to the provincial cabinet as minister of community and social services from 1990 to 1991, the first black woman to reach cabinet rank. More history was made in 1993 when Wayne Adams of Nova Scotia was elected in the new provincial riding of Preston, deliberately created to concentrate black voters for greater electoral impact. All three major parties nominated black candidates in Preston, and when his Liberal Party formed a government Adams joined the cabinet as minister of supply and services. Other African Canadians have been serving the public in non-elected positions. Anne Cools, a Barbados-born Toronto Liberal, was appointed to the Senate in 1984. She was joined in the upper chamber by Halifax Conservative Donald Oliver in 1990. Jamaica native Glenda Simms was appointed president of the Canadian Advisory Committee on the Status of Women in 1989. In 1991 Julius Isaac, born in Grenada and a justice of the Supreme Court of Ontario since 1989, was elevated to become chief justice of the Federal Court of Canada. Yet another honour in the history of black Canada went to Lincoln Alexander when he was named to the vice-regal position of lieutenant governor of Ontario in 1985.
Genuine as this recognition was, African Canadians continued to face frustrations in intergroup relations. For generations, one significant measure blacks have applied to their progress toward equality has been the respect and dignity they receive from their fellow-citizens and their government. Symbolic of dissatisfaction in this regard have been widespread reports of hostility and unfair treatment from the police. Complaints included outright brutality, such as beatings in police stations, and constant harassment such as being stopped for questioning or submitted to degrading body searches on no evidence. In one 1985 Toronto survey almost half (46 percent) of blacks replied that they were treated with less courtesy by police than non-blacks were. Above all, there have been shootings of black people by police in several Canadian cities in circumstances that did not seem to require such a degree of force, leading community members to conclude that the police lacked adequate respect for the life of a black person. In response to perceived police harassment and violence, the Black Action Defense Committee was formed in Toronto in 1987 to monitor police behaviour, lay official complaints, and rally public opinion. One public demonstration, held in Toronto on 4 May 1992 to protest the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles and the fatal shooting of Raymond Lawrence by Toronto police on 2 May, deteriorated into a rampage of vandalism and looting down Yonge Street by black and white youths, many not associated with the original demonstration. Labelled a “race riot,” the Yonge Street episode prompted a four-level government inquiry into intergroup relations in Metropolitan Toronto and a personal investigation by former United Nations ambassador Stephen Lewis. Their reports confirmed a pervasive sense of alienation among young black people, who perceived that they still did not receive equal respect from those in authority.
Allegations of unfair treatment or demeaning images aroused black anger in several Canadian centres. Following a high-school snowball fight in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, in 1990, there was community outrage when only the black participants were charged. In July 1991 violent skirmishes occurred when black youths complained that they were turned away from Halifax night clubs; the same month a similar complaint provoked a night of violence in Montreal. In Toronto a Royal Ontario Museum exhibit, “Into the Heart of Africa,” was deemed to perpetuate imperialist stereotypes about black people, leading to a demonstration organized by the Coalition for the Truth about Africa which lasted several months in 1990. In 1993 the arrival of the American musical “Show Boat” was widely protested by Toronto blacks because of scenes and language felt to be degrading to the black characters. These and similar protests continued a long-standing black tradition in Canada, which in the past had produced objections to minstrel troupes and to films and stories bearing insulting imagery; the difference was that now the protest was public, carried to the Canadian people directly. At the end of the twentieth century, restricting stereotypes were being undermined by a record of black achievement in business, professional, and public life, and a numerically powerful and politically alert black population made the continuing quest for equality increasingly difficult to ignore.
There is no single African-Canadian culture, for peoples of African origin represent a cultural mosaic as diverse as any in the world. Africa itself has always been pluralistic and most African Canadians have come through a variety of New World experiences since their ancestors left their continent of origin, adding innumerable infusions from European and other cultures. African-Canadian cultural characteristics are in dynamic relationship with each other, with non-black cultures in Canada, and with the physical reality of life in a modern, industrial, urban society. Canadian regionalism itself has supplied influences and evoked innovations productive of immense variations over time and space. African-Canadian culture, like every other, is a process, and in Canada it is producing something new and unique in response to Canadian conditions.
Yet it is possible to trace a Canadian pattern in black cultural evolution, illustrating the transmission of African elements, the impact of enslavement, and the continuing influences of a Canadian context characterized by racial restriction. The barriers erected by racism encouraged black people to look to their own communities and institutions, permitting the growth and protection of cultural distinctions and generating a conscious black identity. At the same time, there was the constant goal to destroy the barriers altogether, and this quest for equality gave the evolving black culture an inescapably political tone and shaped its institutional development.
The process began with the arrival of the earliest former American slaves, the black Loyalists. The half-century before the American Revolution was the most creative period for shaping black American culture and, more specifically, for adapting it to the condition of slavery. While this process was at its most critical phase, the American colonies received their largest direct importation of slaves and hence a renewed infusion of African influences. The American Revolution did not end the development of black culture, but the black Loyalists were removed from one essential context: slavery. They were a self-selected group, convinced that they deserved and could obtain full equality as British subjects, and they brought this determination into the cultural dynamic that would continue in Canada. The defining characteristic of African-Canadian culture was a belief in the equality of black people and a determination to have it recognized. As new waves of black immigrants arrived, whether runaway slaves or free black people seeking equality, this fundamental orientation was confirmed. One consequence, recognizable at every stage of African-Canadian history, has been an insistence on the respect owed to black people as citizens. This was not a demand for “social respectability” but a much deeper political commitment to equal treatment.
The rejection of the black Loyalists’ claims for equality lent a direction to their subsequent development. Economic dependence produced obvious limitations, but in most other areas of life black people were forced to rely on their own resources. In terms of religious life, for example, very few of the blacks had openly belonged to churches while in slavery; in Canada they developed new religious styles, adapting the message of their white mentors to their experiences in slavery and their African heritage. In church there grew not only a unique religious blend but a positive sense of worth and identity. According to African criteria, the presence of the spirit could be felt and demonstrated, and this presence was more apparent in the blacks’ churches than in the whites’. Black preachers often relied on visions and dreams for their inspiration; congregations participated experientially in what they recognized as a spiritual visitation. Their notion of being a “Chosen People,” initially derived from the historical parallel with the Israelites, reflected as well a conviction that their Christianity was especially “sanctified” by the creator. Thus could the political vision be articulated in religious terms, as church and community were melded in a common source of identity.
The separate black churches lent institutional support to the preservation and transmission of black culture, so that particular features that were not essentially religious would often bear religious motifs. Music, dance, folklore, even daily speech became imbued with biblical imagery. Africa supplied the call-and-response rhythms that slaves applied as work songs during gang labour. When masters disallowed drums, fearing they could be used for long-distance communication, slaves fashioned gourds and tambourines and developed clapping and dance rhythms to accompany their music. For instruments, the slaves adapted a fiddle, based on an African prototype, and introduced the banjo from Africa. On Saturday nights the slaves would “frolick,” singing, dancing, and often mocking their masters in satirical versions of marches and balls. African musical styles, tempered by slavery, clearly entered Canada very early and grew within the all-black churches to lend a particular tone to worship services. By the same process, much musical development was channelled into hymns, spirituals, and gospel songs.
The persistence of African influences was evident in other areas. In slavery, mother-tongue communication was often forbidden by masters or in any case was difficult where many African languages were represented. Instead slaves developed pidgins, combining European vocabulary terms with African grammatical structures and speech patterns. To this was added African folk speech, a proverbial way of speaking using a saying or a tale to make a point. Often those would be animal tales or “tall tales” which were meant to lend special significance through exaggeration or humour or immediately recognizable metaphors. The early Canadian use of “black English” has been demonstrated through analysis of black Loyalist letters and petitions written shortly after their arrival in Sierra Leone. African influences have also been discerned in slave housing designs. The small plantation cabin was built by slaves themselves, using local materials according to familiar African patterns. These designs were carried into Canada and survived in all-black settlements well into the twentieth century. Similarly, African-inspired crafts and decorative arts, such as basketry, quilting, and needlework, were preserved in Canada for many generations and often provided commercial opportunities for black women. Family and community structures, including in particular an independent role for women, were equally the product of African models reshaped by slavery and adapted to Canadian circumstances. Although specific memories of Africa were lost or blended in generic legacies, Africa-consciousness was not extinguished. Use of the term “African” in many black organizations, including the African Baptist and African Methodist churches, echoes a pride of origin, and in their anti-slavery utterances nineteenth-century black Canadians articulated an awareness of belonging to an international family of African descent.
The cultural process launched in the eighteenth-century colonies continued in the independent United States as well, but there were significant differences between the American experience and the Canadian. In the United States, the slave trade, conduit for African influence, lasted another quarter-century, there was protracted experience of slavery itself, and the huge urban ghetto emerged as a defining feature of African-American life. Black American numbers and formal segregation policies facilitated the emergence of a fully parallel society, with a range of institutions, social classes, and cultural opportunities quite unavailable in Canada. Historical experience and geographical setting influenced black American language, food, and religious expression, and there was even a post-emancipation urban shift in musical instrumentation from the African-based banjo and violin to horns and the piano. In 1925 the African-American anthropologist Arthur Huff Fauset visited Nova Scotia to examine black folklore and, finding it different from his own experience, concluded that there was no black culture in Canada. He was shocked to discover that the Uncle Remus stories were unknown in Canada, yet he did not recognize the cultural imperative in the Nova Scotians’ refusal to tell stories that were beneath their dignity or might suggest a “minstrel” role. Without conscious irony Fauset recorded black tales, noted African-Canadian religious distinctiveness, and described the houses in Preston as identical to those of their southern progenitors, but because certain ingredients were missing he did not connect them as valid cultural expressions of black history in Canada. More recent anthropologists and sociologists, sharing Fauset’s external definition of black culture, have come to similarly faulty conclusions.
Besides petitions and appeals to government, the earliest literary records of the black Canadian experience were autobiographical narratives. Three of the most influential black Loyalist preachers, David George, Boston King, and John Marrant, wrote or dictated accounts of their lives in slavery, their escape to the British during the American Revolution, and, above all, their religious development. As historical records they contain details unavailable anywhere else; as expressions of the fledgling black Canadian community they encapsulate the values and concerns of the people and demonstrate the dominating quest for equality in an environment of restriction. In nineteenth-century Upper Canada, autobiography was also the most typical literary form for black fugitives. Leaders of three black settlements, Austin Steward of Wilberforce, Josiah Henson of Dawn, and Henry Bibb of the Refugee Home, among many others, participated in that popular genre, the fugitive slave narrative. John William Robertson wrote the only example of the slave narrative published in the Maritimes. Osborne Perry Anderson, Canadian-born employee of the Provincial Freeman (Windsor, Toronto, Chatham, 1853–60?) in Chatham, accompanied John Brown on the famous raid of October 1859; his personal account, prepared with the assistance of Mary Ann Shadd, shares many of the same features. All are redolent with the struggle against injustice and the conviction that equality would be won, and the liberal use of biblical quotation revealed the implicit combination of religious and political principles.
Still the most prolific and sustained literary record came through the black press, reflecting at different times the predominating priorities of the African-Canadian community. The first successful black newspaper was the Voice of the Fugitive (Sandwich, 1851–54) in Upper Canada, edited by Henry Bibb and his schoolteacher wife, Mary. The Voice was challenged by the Provincial Freeman, at first nominally edited by Samuel Ringgold Ward and then by William P. Newman. The effective force behind the paper was always Mary Ann Shadd, though she was only listed as editor from 1856 to 1859, the first female editor in Canada and the first black female editor in North America. The two papers differed profoundly on several important issues, most particularly the wisdom of establishing separate black communities, yet both resonated with the same fundamental concerns: land ownership, self-reliance, antislavery, temperance, education, and Christian values. The BME church produced The True Royalist and Weekly Intelligencer (Windsor, 1860–61), its title reflecting another constant black theme – loyalty to Britain and the monarchy. The British Lion (Hamilton, 1881–92) was edited by Charles A. Johnson. The only Maritime journal of the era was Neith (Saint John, 1903–04), published by lawyer Abraham B. Walker. Dedicated to “Canadian principles of Liberty and Equity,” Neith praised British civilization and denounced American-style racism. Its intellectual successor was the Canadian Observor (Toronto, 1914–19). Editor J.R.B. Whitney crusaded against imported American influences, such as the film Birth of a Nation, and epitomized his editorial ideology with a long and successful campaign for the enlistment of blacks in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. If young black men “did their bit” for king and Empire, Whitney taught, the entire black community would be “elevated” to equal citizenship. The Dawn of Tomorrow(London, 1923–66), founded by James F. Jenkins of London and associate editor Robert Edwards of Toronto, proclaimed its loyalty to “One King, One Flag, One Empire” while extolling black equality and exposing instances of racial discrimination. Until Jenkins’s death in 1931, the Dawn was the official organ of the Canadian League for the Advancement of Colored People; thereafter it appeared occasionally, published by members of the Jenkins family. The Free Lance: Afro-Canadian Weekly (Montreal, 1934–41), published by E.H. Packwood and William Trott, vigorously promoted black community causes, reaching a peak circulation of 5,000 copies as it rallied support for Haile Selassie in Ethiopia and Fred Christie at home. A new Maritime journal appeared in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, in 1946; edited by Carrie Best, it was known as the Clarion until 1949 and then the Negro Citizen until 1956. Another example of social activism, with a masthead dedication “For Church and Community,” the Clarion broke the Viola Desmond story in its first issue and it continued to publicize racial injustice in Nova Scotia and as far away as Dresden, Ontario. Meanwhile, original editors Roy Greenidge and Donald Carty gave the Canadian Negro (Toronto, 1953–56) the motto “Long Live the Queen!,” but successors John White and Jean Daniels, both from Nova Scotia, injected a more radical line than this would imply. They joined Donald Moore’s campaign for immigration reform, effectively making their paper the official organ for the Negro Citizenship Association, picked up the Dresden story, and promoted the movement to have Little Black Sambo removed from Toronto schools.
Most of these newspapers were aimed deliberately at the black community itself, as was most black music in the same period. Often regarded as the quintessential expression of black culture, African-Canadian music tended to celebrate religious themes. The Reverend Wellington States compiled Hymns Sung at Services (1903), including traditional songs sung in folk and country style as well as explicit church music. Spirituals and country music, especially gospel, were virtually black folk music in the Maritimes where the link to African stringed instruments was never broken. More elaborate were the mass choirs, usually church-based, such as the Jubilee Singers founded in Halifax by J. O’Banyoun in 1860 and the Hawkins Singers founded in Chatham in 1869. Black choirs were regular participants at emancipation day festivities and civic celebrations as well as religious occasions. At the same time, black Canadians were drawn into African-American musical movements. Shelton Brooks from Amherstburg, Ontario, who wrote “Darktown Strutters’ Ball,” and Nathaniel Dett from Niagara Falls were acclaimed ragtime composers in the United States. Jazz also took talented Canadians to the United States, often returning them for a professional career in Canada as black dance bands became popular. After achieving American success, Lou Hooper of North Buxton toured Ontario and Quebec in the 1930s with Myron Sutton’s Canadian Ambassadors, settling in 1935 in Montreal where he founded a black male choir, the Hooper Southern Singers, and played in local jazz clubs. Trumpeter Louis Metcalf and his International Band played hotels and dance halls, as did the Harlem Aces (later Harlem Knights) led by “Chas” Winn and Harry Lucas, and the Cy McLean Orchestra, with its roots in Sydney, Nova Scotia. The popularity of dance bands peaked in the 1930s, but black musicians continued to entertain in cities across Canada. Eleanor Collins from Edmonton began singing with dance bands there, and then in 1938 she moved to the west coast where she remained Vancouver’s leading jazz singer into the 1950s. Phyllis Marshall from Barrie, Ontario, began her jazz and blues career singing with Toronto dance bands. The most famous Canadian jazz musician, Oscar Peterson, studied with Lou Hooper and played in Montreal clubs and dance bands before his 1949 Carnegie Hall debut launched his international career. Black musicians did not play black music exclusively: Truro-born contralto Portia White won international renown as a concert soloist, singing the European classics as well as traditional black songs.
Until the 1940s black musicians were not permitted to play in some Canadian hotels and resorts, and in others blacks could play but not sit in the audience. This kind of discrimination was also true of sports. All-black baseball teams existed in every Canadian region, sometimes limited to exhibition games against white teams. Most famous were the Chatham Coloured All Stars and the Halifax Coloured Rangers, who achieved provincial renown in the 1930s and 1940s. Although discrimination existed in boxing as well, it did not completely exclude blacks from professional opportunities. George Dixon, history’s first black world title-holder, was born in Africville and held the bantamweight and featherweight championships simultaneously through the 1890s. Sam Langford from Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia, never won a title because he was never granted a title match, but he defeated most of those who did. Known as the “uncrowned champion of the world” at his peak before World War I, on his induction into the Boxing Hall of Fame in 1955 Langford was honoured as the best heavyweight fighter ever. Canadian titles were held by Larry Gains of Toronto, Roy Mitchell of Halifax, and Flash Bailey and Vern Escoe of Edmonton.
Track and field also offered opportunities to black athletes, success coming most notably to sprinter Phil Edwards of Montreal who ran in the 1928, 1932, and 1936 Olympics, winning a bronze in the 100-yard dash in the latter, and in 1937 he was the first recipient of the Lou Marsh trophy as Canada’s most outstanding athlete. His Olympic team-mate Sammy Richardson won a gold in the broad jump at the Empire Games in 1934 and in 1935 set a Canadian record that remained unbroken for thirty years. After World War II, black Americans began migrating to Canadian professional sport. Herb Trawick was the first black American professional football player in Canada, in 1946, the same year that Jackie Robinson joined the Montreal Royals baseball team en route to the Brooklyn Dodgers where, in 1947, he broke the colour line in American professional ball. They were followed by hundreds more.
The appearance of numbers of African-American athletes was only one aspect of a transformation in Canada’s black cultural scene. West Indian immigrants, representing a wide spectrum of class and territorial backgrounds, lent critical mass to the black population as well as new heights of cultural enrichment. African-American influence exceeded their personal presence, for the styles and symbols of black resurgence in the 1960s and 1970s easily penetrated the border to capture the imagination of young Canadian blacks. Out of the politico-cultural cauldron of the 1960s there emerged a much enhanced diversity in black self-expression and self-identification, and black artists and performers began occupying a more central position in Canadian culture generally, especially youth culture. Since the 1960s there has been a more deliberate adoption of African themes and a much greater awareness of historical experiences in Canada. The historic pattern in black cultural development was reconstructed rather than abandoned, and it continued to set the directions of African Canadians’ growth as a conscious community.
Beginning in the 1970s black Nova Scotia experienced a cultural outburst that has been labelled a “renaissance.” It followed upon the explosion in black consciousness that took place at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s and the related creation of vital political movements, and it was undoubtedly influenced by the dismissal of black culture epitomized by the demolition of Africville. As Africville had been a symbol of the African-Canadian condition, its destruction served as a call to vigilance and vigour in protecting the black heritage. The opening of the Black Cultural Centre in 1983 was both a symptom of the black revival and a facilitator for continuing creative impulses. The renaissance has been defined by poets – George Elliott Clarke, Maxine Tynes, George Borden, David Woods – and expressed through a variety of forms including the plays of George Boyd and Walter Borden, the novels of Fred Ward, and the films of Sylvia Hamilton. Characteristic of the Nova Scotian renaissance, and justifying the term, has been a striking resurrection of historical themes and personalities, a recognition that the black identity has been asserted historically through the pilgrimage towards justice and liberty, and styles of expression laced with biblical imagery and voices speaking “black English.” Because black English is most recognizable orally, consisting in rhythms as much as in grammar, there has been an emphasis on public presentation and performance. In symbolic recognition of its communal roots, black literature is being carried physically into the community in plays, films, songs, and poetry recitals.
Nova Scotia did not have significant West Indian or African immigration; the audiences and most of the artists have themselves been products of the Nova Scotian black community. In the rest of Canada the situation has been quite different, so that the immense flowering of artistic expression in recent years has been dominated numerically by immigrants. The unquestioned dean of black Canadian literature is Barbados-born writer Austin Clarke, whose humorous style and poignant imagery captures the experience of West Indian migrants in short stories and most notably in a trilogy of novels depicting a domestic servant and her circle of friends, The Meeting Point (1967), Storm of Fortune (1973), and The Bigger Light (1975). Thematically, the new black literature includes Caribbean reminiscences and there is considerable attention to the trauma and excitement of immigrant adaptation, but interestingly there is also a recovery of specifically Canadian historical material. Poetry has flourished outside Nova Scotia as well, as represented in the anthologies listed at the end of this entry and by the francophone poets Joel Des Rosiers and Alix Renaud. Black newspapers have been an additional forum for discussion of artistic themes while reflecting the social concerns of an evolving black community. Contrast (Toronto, 1969–85), founded by Al Hamilton, opened with the Sir George Williams story and paid regular attention to the National Black Coalition of Canada and political affairs. Bromley Armstrong introduced the Islander (Toronto) in 1973 to keep West Indians in closer touch with events in the Caribbean. Contrast’s absorption of the Islander in 1977 seemed symbolic of the multiple roots and interests of black Canadians, and it was matched by the appearance of a new journal, Share (Toronto, 1978– ), founded by Arnold Auguste, which has included news from the diaspora and lessons from the Canadian past along with current Canadian events. Michelle Lee Williams launched the Afro-Caribbean Newsletter (Vancouver, 1986– ), and Darryl Gray, the Provincial Monitor (Halifax, 1990– ).
Even more than literature or journalism, black music has been embraced by the Canadian mainstream, especially youth. In Montreal, jazz, once the preserve of St Antoine Street clubs, is now celebrated at a ten-day international festival, one of Canada’s major cultural events. Also indicative of the current popularity of black jazz is the career of Oscar Peterson, who, having emerged from the dance bands of the 1940s, has received every available music award as well as honorary academic degrees and appointment as chancellor of York University. There are other examples, too. After forty years in jazz Lou Hooper was “discovered” by Montreal jazz enthusiasts in the 1960s, and veterans Phyllis Marshall and Sonny Greenwich won new audiences. Toronto native Dan Hill became one of Canada’s bestselling pop musicians in the 1970s; Salome Bey in Toronto and Leon Bibb in Vancouver both wrote and performed musicals dedicated to black historical themes in the 1970s and 1980s. In the Maritimes the groups Four the Moment and the Gospel Heirs carried traditional black musical styles to the broader Canadian community. The black Canadian choir tradition has been maintained into the 1980s and 1990s by the Montreal Jubilation Gospel Choir and the Nova Scotia Mass Choir. Meanwhile Caribbean musical fashions had been introduced. Canada’s foremost calypso group was the Tradewinds, founded in Toronto in 1967, and the reggae group Roots Revival became one of Canada’s most popular bands in the 1970s. Radio stations have aired daily programs of West Indian music since the 1970s, and, beginning in 1978, the Société de Recherche et de Diffusion de la Musique Haitienne has sponsored concerts in Montreal. During the 1980s American rap music dominated the air waves, introducing an encounter with black music into almost every Canadian home. The proliferation of black musical styles in Canada was recognized with the creation by the Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences of separate categories in the Juno awards – granted in honour of Canadian musical achievement – for calypso, rap, and reggae.
A Negro Theatre Guild was founded in Montreal in 1942, but black theatre really began to emerge from amateur and festival circles only at the end of the 1960s. A black acting company, the Sepia Players, was founded in Vancouver in 1969 and renamed Black Theatre West in 1982. In Toronto, Black Theatre Canada and Theatre Fountainhead both appeared in 1973, concentrating on works by black playwrights. Winnipeg had the Caribbean Theatre Workshop, and in Halifax actor-playwright Walter Borden organized the black theatre company Kwacha in 1984. In the later 1980s there existed several theatre and dance groups in Toronto and Montreal, and Raymond Lindstrom’s Artczar Galleries in Toronto and Halifax displayed black artistic works. Film became an especially lively art form, encouraged by the Black Film and Video Network and the National Film Board. Black filmmakers in the 1980s and 1990s expressed themes similar to those established in black Canadian literature, as exemplified in the works of Jennifer Hodge, Sylvia Hamilton, Roger McTair, Claire Prieto, Dionne Brand, and Almeta Speaks.
In the 1960s track and field was ruled by Canadian-born black athletes, particulary Vancouver’s Harry Jerome (originally from Saskatchewan) and Abigail Hoffman from Toronto. Jerome participated in the 1960, 1964, and 1968 Olympics, taking the 100-metre bronze in 1964 and the Pan American gold in the same event in 1967, and was the only person ever to hold the 100-yard and 100-metre world records simultaneously; Hoffman ran in every Olympics between 1964 and 1976 and won gold medals twice at the Pan American games and once at the Commonwealth games in the 880-yard race. By the 1980s West Indians dominated Canadian track and field, epitomized by Jamaica-born sprinters Angella Issajenko and, until his 1988 Olympic disqualification, Ben Johnson. Michael Smith won a Commonwealth gold in the decathalon in 1990, and Mark McCoy took the Olympic gold in the hurdles in 1992. Curtis Hibbert won a silver medal at the World Gymnastics Tournament in 1987, the highest achievement ever for a black gymnast. At least a dozen black Canadian boxers have held national and world titles since 1960. The first to box at the Olympics was middleweight Bryan Gibson, a Nova Scotian, in 1976; then, in the 1988 Olympics, Jamaica-born Lennox Lewis won the heavyweight gold while Ray Downey of Halifax won the light-middleweight bronze medal. Professional baseball and football continued to be overwhelmed by American imports, though Canada has sent professional athletes in the other direction as well. The pre-eminent athletic export was pitcher Ferguson Jerkins, born in Chatham, Ontario, who became one of the finest baseball players in the United States and won the Lou Marsh Award in 1974 as Canada’s outstanding athlete.
Accompanying the artistic flowering of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s was a grass-roots renaissance of community interest in black history and culture. In 1978, as mentioned earlier, the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) was founded by Daniel G. Hill. It has a downtown Toronto headquarters and resource centre, conducts an oral-history program recording reminiscences of black seniors, runs tours to historic sites in Toronto and around the province, collects and preserves documentation, mounts workshops and displays, publishes a newsletter, and stimulates research and writing in black Ontario history. In Halifax, W.P. Oliver first proposed the formation of the Society for the Protection and Preservation of Black Culture in Nova Scotia in 1976, on the principle that to achieve self-determination black people had to understand their communal roots. Under its first president, Donald Oliver, the society moved to establish the Black Cultural Centre of Nova Scotia, which opened in 1983 at the site of the old Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children. The centre has a modern research facility and reference library, hosts concerts, special displays, and a prestigious annual lecture series, and has produced an impressive list of original publications. Like the OBHS, the Black Cultural Centre engages in community outreach, both making presentations and gathering oral evidence, documents, and artifacts. Organizations have appeared in other provinces dedicated to promoting awareness of black history and culture: the Alberta Black Cultural Research Society; in New Brunswick, PRUDE (Pride of Race, Unity and Dignity through Education) and the Black Loyalists of New Brunswick Association; and, in British Columbia, the Black Historical and Cultural Society.
In recent years, the historic presence of black people in Canada and their contribution to Canadian society has won increasing recognition. Plaques or monuments have been raised to commemorate the No. 2 Construction Battalion, military hero William Hall, and boxer Sam Langford, all in Nova Scotia; the Underground Railroad at the international tunnel in Windsor; and, in Victoria, the landing of the ship Commodore in 1858 bearing the original black pioneers. First Baptist Church in Chatham, where John Brown held meetings with local blacks preparatory to his raid on Harper’s Ferry, is recognized as a historic site, as is the BME church in St Catharines honouring Harriet Tubman, who led over 300 fugitives to Canada during nineteen separate trips back into slave territory, and the Nathaniel Dett Memorial Chapel in the BME church in Niagara Falls, named for the composer and musician. Shiloh Baptist Church in Maidstone, Saskatchewan, and John Ware’s cabin, relocated to Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta, have been declared historic sites. The site of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn’s Toronto home has been the subject of an archaeological examination and accompanying film telling the story of their escape and the attempt to extradite them in 1833. There are several elaborate historic sites and museums located in Ontario, with original artifacts and documents, reconstructions, and educational programs: in Dresden, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Museum where Josiah Henson’s home and the Dawn Institute are preserved; at North Buxton, the Raleigh Township Centennial Museum and adjacent schoolhouse; in Maidstone Township, the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad Museum, part of the Refugee Home settlement; and, at Amherstburg, the North American Black Historical Museum and Cultural Centre. An international site commemorating the Underground Railroad is being developed by the United States National Parks Service, with Canadian participation.
In the 1991 census black people in Canada designated their own ethnicity in a variety of fashions, some by continent or region such as Africa or the West Indies, some by country of origin such as Ghana or Jamaica. Yet the largest number listed themselves as black Canadian, and when age group is combined with ethnic identification it becomes apparent that younger people, many of them born in Canada, are most likely to identify themselves in this way. Their immigrant parents, too, are beginning at least to include black Canadian in a multiple response. Common experience in Canada is encouraging a sense of shared destiny, and, as the existence of a black community of interest is recognized, the history of blacks in Canada is being explored for the communal experiences that led to this moment. And the acculturation process is reciprocal, so that cultural attributes brought by immigrants are being shared widely throughout the black population. As a result an entirely new black culture is emerging in Canada in the 1990s, essentially Canadian with features from all points in the black diaspora and with an especial respect for Africa itself. Kwanzaa, a seven-day holiday beginning 26 December, was fashioned in the United States as a synthesis of African agricultural festivals and is celebrated in many Canadian homes as a means of stimulating pride in the African heritage. Toronto’s annual Caribana carnival, Montreal’s Carifête, and similar festivals in many Canadian cities have become an amalgamation of components from the Caribbean and elsewhere, and participation is not exclusive to West Indians. Immigrant, regional, and linguistic distinctions remain powerful in Canada, among blacks as among non-blacks, but boundaries are becoming blurred as the historic process, begun with the slave trade, continues to produce an indigenous community of African Canadians with a culture and identity appropriate to Canadian conditions, a realm of the spirit that African-American writer Bell hooks has called “homeplace.”
Useful introductions to African history are J.F.A. Ajayi and Michael Crowder, eds., History of West Africa, 2 vols. (London, 1971, 1974) and Philip Curtin et al., African History(Boston, rev. ed., 1995). A representative sampling of current scholarship on the Atlantic slave trade is David Northrop, ed., The Atlantic Slave Trade (Lexington, Ky., 1994). Paul E. Lovejoy, Transformations in Slavery: A History of Slavery in Africa (Cambridge, England, 1983), incorporates both domestic and overseas slavery into the African historical experience.
A good introduction to the themes and debates in contemporary scholarship on American slavery is Lawrence B. Goodheart et al., eds., Slavery in American Society, (Lexington, 3rd ed., 1993). Randall M. Miller and John D. Smith, eds., Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery(New York, 1988), has articles on every aspect of the slave experience. Slave life and the evolution of a distinct African-American culture are the subjects of a vast literature. Among the many works that could be recommended are John Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, (New York, rev. ed., 1980); Eugene Genovese, Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1974); and Herbert Gutman, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750–1925 (New York, 1976). Larry Gara, The Liberty Line: The Legend of the Underground Railroad (Lexington, 1961), analyses the experience of runaway slaves.
Hilary Beckles and Verene Shepherd have edited a two-volume collection presenting scholarship on the full range of Caribbean history, Caribbean Slave Society and Economy (Kingston, Jamaica, 1991) and Caribbean Freedom: Economy and Society from Emancipation to the Present (1993). Laura Foner and Eugene Genovese, eds., Slavery in the New World: A Reader in Comparative History (Englewood Cliffs, Calif., 1969), contains articles describing both North American and Caribbean slavery. Franklin W. Knight, The Caribbean: The Genesis of a Fragmented Nationalism (New York, rev. ed., 1990), deals with the period since emancipation.
Robin Winks published the first major survey of African-Canadian history, The Blacks in Canada: A History (Montreal, 1974), and it remains the outstanding reference work in the field. Daniel G. Hill, The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada (Agincourt, Ont., 1981), is more suitable for introductory reading. James W. St. G. Walker, A History of Blacks in Canada: A Study Guide for Teachers and Students (Ottawa, 1980), offers a narrative overview and a discussion of the most significant literature on African Canadians published before 1980. Regional overviews are provided by Bridglal Pachai, Beneath the Clouds of the Promised Land: The Survival of Nova Scotia’s Blacks, 2 vols. (Halifax, 1987, 1991); Jim Hornby, Black Islanders: Prince Edward Island’s Historical Black Community (Charlottetown, 1991); Howard and Tamara Palmer, “The Black Experience in Alberta,” in their Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity (Saskatoon, Sask., 1985), 365–93; and Crawford Kilian, Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia (Vancouver, 1978).
Local and thematic studies include Donald H. Clairmont and Dennis W. Magill, Africville: The Life and Death of a Canadian Black Community, (Toronto, rev. ed., 1987); Judith Fingard, “Race and Respectability in Victorian Halifax,” Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol.20 (1992), 169–95; Suzanne Morton, “Separate Spheres in a Separate World: African–Nova Scotian Women in Late-19th-Century Halifax County,” Acadiensis, vol.22 (1993), 61–83; Frances Henry, The Caribbean Diaspora in Toronto: Learning to Live with Racism (Toronto, 1994); Gwendolyn and John Robinson, Seek the Truth: A Story of Chatham’s Black Community (Chatham, Ont., 1989); Dionne Brand, No Burden to Carry: Narratives of Black Working Women in Ontario 1920s to 1950s (Toronto, 1991); Peggy Bristow et al., “We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up”: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History (Toronto, 1994); Calvin W. Ruck, The Black Battalion: No.2 Construction 1916–1920 (Halifax, 1986); and James W. St. G. Walker, “‘Race’ and Recruitment in World War I: Enlistment of Visible Minorities in the Canadian Expeditionary Force,” Canadian Historical Review, vol.70 (1989), 1–26.
Slavery and abolitionism in Canada are discussed in David G. Bell, “Slavery and the Judges of Loyalist New Brunswick,” UNB Law Journal, vol.31 (1982), 9–42; Barry Cahill, “Slavery and the Judges of Loyalist Nova Scotia,” UNB Law Journal, vol.43 (1994), 73–134; Marcel Trudel, Dictionnaire des esclaves et de leurs propriétaires au Canada français (LaSalle, Quebec, 1990); Allen P. Stouffer, The Light of Nature and the Law of God: Antislavery in Ontario 1833–1877 (Montreal, 1992); and Peter C. Ripley, ed., The Black Abolitionist Papers, vol.2: Canada 1830–1865 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1986). On migration and settlement of different waves of free blacks, see James W. St. G. Walker, The Black Loyalists: The Search for a Promised Land in Nova Scotia and Sierra Leone, 1783–1870 (Toronto, rev. ed., 1992); John N. Grant, The Immigration and Settlement of the Black Refugees of the War of 1812 in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick (Hantsport, N.S., 1990); Jason Silverman, Unwelcome Guests: Canada West’s Response to American Fugitive Slaves, 1800–1865 (Millwood, N.Y., 1985); Stewart Grow, “The Blacks of Amber Valley – Negro Pioneering in Northern Alberta,” Canadian Ethnic Studies, vol.6 (1974), 17–38; Agnes Calliste, “Women of ‘Exceptional Merit’: Immigration of Caribbean Nurses to Canada,” Canadian Journal of Women and the Law, vol.6 (1993), 85–102; and James W. St. G. Walker, The West Indians in Canada (Ottawa, 1984).
The discriminatory conditions often faced by black people in Canada are studied in Agnes Calliste, “Sleeping Car Porters in Canada: An Ethnically Submerged Split Labour Market,” Canadian Ethnic Studies, vol.19 (1987), 1–20; Donald Clairmont and Fred Wien, “Blacks and Whites: The Nova Scotia Race Relations Experience,” in Douglas Campbell, ed., Banked Fires: The Ethnics of Nova Scotia (Port Credit, Ont., 1978), 141–82; Frances Henry and Effie Ginzberg, Who Gets the Work: A Test of Racial Discrimination in Employment (Toronto, 1985); and James W. St. G. Walker, Racial Discrimination in Canada: The Black Experience (Ottawa, 1985).
On educational issues consult Vincent D’Oyley, ed., Innovations in Black Education in Canada (Toronto, 1994); Charles Saunders, Share and Care: The Story of the Nova Scotia Home for Colored Children (Halifax, 1994); Afua Cooper, “The Search for Mary Bibb, Black Woman Teacher in 19th Century Canada West,” Ontario History, vol.83 (1991), 39–54; and R. Bruce Shepard, “The Little White Schoolhouse: Racism in a Saskatchewan Rural School,” Saskatchewan History, vol.39 (1986), 81–93. On religious issues, see Frank Boyd, ed., McKerrow: A Brief History of Blacks in Nova Scotia, 1783–1895 (Halifax, 1976), a scholarly edition of the 1895 original, and Dorothy Shadd Shreve, The AfriCanadian Church: A Stabilizer (Jordan Station, Ont., 1983). Other cultural matters are the concern of Neil V. Rosenberg, “Ethnicity and Class: Black Country Music in the Maritimes,” Journal of Canadian Studies, vol.23 (1988), 138–56; Charles Saunders, Sweat and Soul: Saga of Black Boxers from the Halifax Forum to Caesar’s Palace (Hantsport, 1990); and Jason Silverman, “We Shall Be Heard! The Development of the Fugitive Slave Press in Canada,” Canadian Historical Review, vol.65 (1984), 54–69.
Biography, autobiography, and collected memory are currently popular genres in African-Canadian writing, as they were in the nineteenth century. Some recent examples include Carrie M. Best, That Lonesome Road: The Autobiography of Carrie M. Best (New Glasgow, N.S., 1977); Black Cultural Centre of Nova Scotia, Traditional Lifetime Stories: A Collection of Black Memories, 2 vols. (Dartmouth, N.S., 1987, 1990); Barry Cahill, “The ‘Colored Barrister’: The Short Life and Tragic Death of James Robinson Johnston, 1876–1915,” Dalhousie Law Journal, vol.15 (1992), 336–79; Grant Gordon, From Slavery to Freedom: The Life of David George, Pioneer Black Baptist Minister (Hantsport, N.S., 1992); Jason Silverman, “Mary Ann Shadd and the Struggle for Equality,” in Leon Litwack and August Meier, eds., Black Leaders of the Nineteenth Century (Urbana, Ill., 1988), 87–100; Patrick Brode, The Odyssey of John Anderson (Toronto, 1989); Donna Hill, ed., A Black Man’s Toronto: The Reminiscences of Harry Gairey (Toronto, 1981); Stephen L. Hubbard, Against All Odds: The Story of William Peyton Hubbard, Black Leader and Municipal Reformer (Toronto, 1987); Gene Lees, Oscar Peterson: The Will to Swing Toronto, 1988); Donald Moore (founding president of the Negro Citizenship Association), Don Moore: An Autobiography (Toronto, 1985); Carol Talbot, Growing Up Black in Canada (1984), about a childhood in Windsor, Ont.; and Velma Carter et al., The Window of Our Memories, 2 vols. (St Albert, Alta., 1981, 1990), a collection of Alberta reminiscences. There are many excellent biographies of African Canadians in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography (Toronto, 1966– ). The Canadian Encyclopedia (2nd ed., 4 vols., Edmonton, 1988) also has succinct biographies of several outstanding black Canadians.
To taste the renaissance in African-Canadian culture, see George Elliott Clarke, ed., Fire on the Water: An Anthology of Black Nova Scotian Writing, 2 vols. (Lawrencetown Beach, N.S., 1991, 1992), the introduction to which offers a definitive overview of literary developments in Nova Scotia; Ayanna Black, ed., Voices: Canadian Writers of African Descent (Toronto, 1992); and Lorris Elliott, ed., Other Voices: Writings by Blacks in Canada (Toronto, 1985). Recent novels include Cecil Foster, No Man in the House (Toronto, 1991); Lawrence Hill, Some Great Thing (Winnipeg, 1992); and Dany Laferrière, How to Make Love to a Negro (English trans., Toronto, 1987). Black on Screen: Images of Black Canadians 1950s– 1990s is a descriptive catalogue produced by the National Film Board in 1992.