We must go back and fetch our forgotten Black history

Posted on July 31, 2020 in Equality History

Source: — Authors:

TheStar.com – Opinion/Contributors

Chloe was stubborn, rebellious, and fiery. One day, a sergeant took her and tied her to a boat. But Chloe didn’t easily obey; she caused such a fuss that her capturer had to get two other men to keep her down. Chloe struggled and cried out for her freedom. Bystanders witnessed the horrific scene and reported it, sending in to motion a series of events that would go on to shape Canada.

You see, it was 1793. Chloe was a Black woman enslaved in Upper Canada (now Ontario), and the sergeant was the man who legally owned Chloe.

For over two hundred years, the enslavement of African and Indigenous people was commonplace, and helped support the economic expansion of Canada.

Chloe’s resistance helped lead to the Act to Limit Slavery. The act didn’t make slavery illegal, but it did outlaw the import of enslaved people, and guaranteed the freedom of children born to enslaved women once they reached the age of 25.

Slavery in Canada was officially abolished on August 1, 1834.

It marked the day that nearly one million Black and Indigenous peoples in the country gained their freedom for the first time. The day when hundreds of thousands of freedom seekers in the United States would begin to set their sights on Canada. The day when systemic racism in the country would no longer be as easily identifiable, but would instead be codified into our institutions and dipped in layers of politeness.

Tomorrow, across the country, thousands will be celebrating August 1st — Emancipation Day — in commemoration of our country’s rich Black history. Unfortunately, many thousands more will not even know to celebrate.

The tale that is told of Canada’s history has selectively omitted almost all of the country’s Black stories — including the story of emancipation. This narrative is wildly inaccurate, as it also reinforces the systemic oppression and invisibility of Black Canadians.

Racial segregation in Canadian schools may have ended in 1965, but our education is only integrated physically — curriculums and academic policies are overwhelmingly taught and governed from a dominant white agenda. The knowledge taken away by students of the Canadian education system is deeply biased. In school, children learn of the European explorer, Samuel de Champlain, who came to Canada in the 17th century and built French settlements. Rarely, however, are they taught of Mathieu da Costa — the Black interpreter who travelled alongside de Champlain and helped maintain peaceful communications between Indigenous peoples and colonists.

Black people have been in Canada for over four hundred years, as long as some of the first Europeans. Their labour built Canada’s economy, their skills led Canada’s innovation, and their activism helped make Canada more inclusive. Despite this, Canadian children of all backgrounds often grow up not knowing how instrumental Black pioneers were in shaping the country.

Canadians know the names and stories from America’s civil rights movement: Martin, Malcolm, Rosa. Meanwhile, the names of Chloe, Mathieu, and Viola only evoke the same sense of recognition and pride for a select few. I am, of course, referring to Viola Desmond, the young Black woman who was arrested in a movie theatre in Nova Scotia for refusing to sit in the section reserved for Black customers. Almost ten years before Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks protested racial segregation in the United States, Viola’s story made headlines and helped change discrimination laws.

Canada’s strategically crafted narrative has created a framework within which racial inequities have simultaneously been upheld and delegitimized through the erasure of Black experiences. It’s actually quite ingenious. If we can’t identify the roots of our systems of oppression, we will never dismantle them. If we don’t recognize the whole of our history, we will never learn from it.

Increasingly, Black change-makers and their allies have been chanting “Sankofa.” Taken from the Akan language in Ghana, “Sankofa” translates to “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.”

Canada’s Black history has been written out, overlooked, and forgotten. But it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.

Happy Emancipation Day.

Tiyahna Ridley-Padmore is the author of Trailblazers: The Black Pioneers Who Have Shaped Canada, coming this October. She has a master’s degree in public policy.

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