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Black History Month is a government-acknowledged time in Canada and America, that was implemented to celebrate and reflect upon the achievements and contributions of Black citizens throughout both countries’ histories.
It’s celebrated during the month of February as a nod to two important men in Black American history: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass (both of whom had birthdays in February). Funny or Die provides a great (albeit ridiculous) summary of their contributions here.
THE HISTORY OF BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Black History Month dates back to 1926 when Carter G. Woodson, an American historian, author, journalist and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, founded a week to celebrate the contributions of African Americans.
By 1976, it had grown to a month-long event, and although Canada began to recognize the event as well, it wasn’t until 1995, that Canada officially recognized February as Black History Month (just a wee bit slow on the uptake, Ottawa…).
The motion to recognize Black History Month in Canada was introduced by the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to parliament, and it was supported unanimously by the House of Commons.
Since then, the Canadian government has made it part of its annual celebration schedule, assigning a different theme each year. In 2019, the government’s campaign theme is “Black Canadian Youth: Boundless, Rooted and Proud,” which focuses on the “contributions that Black Canadian youth have made, and continue to make, in shaping Canada’s heritage and identity.”
BACK TO THE BEGINNING
Black History Month is critical for acknowledging the history and contributions of Black people in Canada, dating all the way back to the early 1600s. Historians have noted Mathieu Da Costa, a navigator and interpreter for French and Dutch traders, as the first person of African descent to make contact with Canada, and it’s believed he was able to act as an interpreter between the Indigenous populations of Canada and French explorers.
Black History Month also serves an opportunity to understand and learn from the shameful parts of our country’s past, including the hundreds of years in which Black people were enslaved in Canada.
Though Canada was one of the earliest countries to take a stand against slavery, it still existed for far too long. Up until 1807, when the Anti-Slave Trade Bill was passed, new settlers to Canada were still allowed to bring their slaves with them. It wasn’t until 1833 that the Slavery Abolition Act was created — but despite the country becoming a safe haven for African Americans during the American Revolution, Black people continued to face discrimination in our country (and many still do). A good portion of the Black Loyalists that settled in Nova Scotia after escaping America were met with prejudice.
Dances within the Black community were prohibited, and White people rioted when they learned they were earning similar wages to their Black neighbours.
It took until 1834 to finally abolish slavery throughout the British colonies.
The early 1900s saw even greater change for Black Canadians. After fighting for Canada in both World Wars, Black Canadians (finally, finally, finally) achieved recognition both on the frontlines and at home. Black Canadians entered professions once withheld from them and were celebrated on national and international stages.
NAMES TO KNOW
Not up on your Black history? Here are some notable Black Canadians who changed our country (and the world):
• Carrie Best
Founded Nova Scotia’s first Black-owned and published newspaper and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada.
• Lincoln Alexander
Former lieutenant governor of Ontario (the first Canadian from a visible minority to take on the role), and the first Black member of parliament in Canadian history.
• Donovan Bailey
One of Canada’s most celebrated athletes who once held the world record for the 100-metre sprint.
The first Black person to receive the Victoria Cross.
• Michael Lee-Chin
A Canadian businessman, philanthropist, chancellor of Wilfrid Laurier University and the namesake of the Royal Ontario Museum’s “crystal” wing.
• Josiah Henson
Escaped slavery in America and devoted his life to helping fellow former slaves. He also led a militia unit of Black men in the Upper Canadian Rebellion of 1837.
• Elijah McCoy
An inventor who held more than 50 patents, including the portable ironing board.
• Willie O’Ree
The first Black hockey player in the NHL from Fredericton, N.B.
• Mary Ann Shad Carry
The first woman to become a publisher in Canada. She was also a devoted teacher to the children of escaped slaves.
Visit CBC to learn more about notable Black Canadians.
HOW WE CELEBRATE
Though there are special events all month long all across Canada to celebrate Black History Month, there’s no need to limit your celebration and education within the month.
You can visit Canadian sites all year round that are dedicated to the history and contributions of Black Canadians. The Amherstburg Freedom Museum in Ontario preserves and showcases an incredible collection of African-Canadian artifacts, and the Black Cultural Centre in Nova Scotia focuses on the specific history and culture of the many African Loyalists who settled in Nova Scotia. And in Dresden, ON., you can visit the historic site of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, named for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and home to Reverend Josiah Henson who led many slaves to freedom.
SHOP TO SHOW SUPPORT
If Trigger Warning with Killer Mike has inspired you to “live Black,” you can support your Black community all year long by shopping brands and businesses owned by Black Canadians.
Afrobiz.ca filters Black Canadian businesses by location and category, so you can find tourism offices run by Black Canadians, or Black Canadian artists across the country, African and Caribbean dance classes, even accountants and marketing companies (no sign of the Black Farmer’s Collaborative though. Sorry Mike.).
You can also show your love by shopping Black-owned beauty companies (hello Fenty Beauty, cruelty-free Coloured Raine and vegan lipstick line The Lip Bar), and fashion brands. (Consider it your duty to go shopping!)