History of resistance

Towards a new take on Black citizenship in Canada

Viola Desmond’s honouring for fighting racism, not overcoming it, is big step forward
Bank of Canada

It is not only a new year, but also the start of a new era of Black Canadian citizenship — one that should be shaped in the image of Viola Desmond.

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Last month, the Bank of Canada announced that as of 2018 the country’s $10 bill will feature the face of Ms. Desmond, a Black Canadian woman and civil rights heroine. The honouring of Ms. Desmond signals that as we move into Canada’s 150th anniversary, the country is finally prepared to begin recognizing resistance to racism as a valuable part of democratic citizenship and national identity for Blacks in Canada.

The national self-reflection, soul searching and celebration that will animate Canada’s sesquicentennial also marks a time for people of African descent to critically consider our historical purpose, place and positioning as forced, displaced, economic, re-rooted/re-routed settlers within the colonial Dominion of Canada. Viola Desmond’s legacy and memory offers a model for Black citizenship that both contributes to and contests the coloniality of this country. While the Canadian government might not quite see it this way, honouring Ms. Desmond has given this model of resistant Black citizenship in Canada important formal acknowledgement and recognition.

Canada remains a country overly invested in a national myth of racelessness, spending much energy trying to convince itself and the world that anti-Black racism has never been a serious problem within its borders, Viola Desmond’s story deeply disrupts enduring myths about Canada’s acceptance and treatment of Black people.

Because Canada positions itself nationally and internationally as a state that has mastered race relations through its official policy of multiculturalism, both racism and calling-out racism have subtly become regarded in our country as being characteristically “un-Canadian”: something impolite and thereby done by those who are not truly Canadian. This is part of what makes the Bank of Canada’s announcement to place Ms. Desmond on our currency so significant, even unexpected and timely, as we consider Canada150. Memorializing Ms. Desmond is a tacit acknowledgement by Canada for the first time that acts of anti-racist resistance are a valid and valuable expression of citizenship for Black Canadians.

Traditionally, Canada has given its most distinguished honours to Black Canadians who are seen as having fought through racism to eventually go on and make meaningful contributions in their chosen fields of politics, education, business, sports, literature, music, arts, and so on. Examples of such figures include Lincoln Alexander, Jean Augustine, Michael Lee-Chin, Michaëlle Jean, Carrie Best, Dany Laferrière, Willie O’Ree, Rosemary Brown, Dominique Anglade and Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré.

These and most other historic Black figures that Canada has most typically honoured usually have their life stories retold and remembered in a way that conveys to Canadians that the value of Black citizenship is tied up in triumphantly transcending racism, not in challenging it. To support this message, these celebrated individuals’ stories usually overemphasize personal responsibility, individual hard work and dogged self-determination to beat the odds. While these characteristics are laudable and no doubt played a role in the honoured successes of Canada’s Black heroes, the problem is that these values tend to offer too narrow a model of citizen for Black Canadians who are forced to face racism.

Viola Desmond’s honour breaks this mold. The fact that Ms. Desmond is a woman is also significant given the overprivileging of male protagonists within historical narratives of national heroism that too often diminish and displace women as chief creators of change. This is all the more true when considering Black Canadian histories more specifically, which have not given proper attention and honour to women as the centerpiece of Black survival, sustenance, resistance and the perseverance of Black Canadian communities through the eras of Canadian slavery, segregation, and ongoing systemic anti-Black discrimination.

Ultimately, honouring Viola Desmond is a turning point for what it means to be Black in the Great White North.

Unlike every other historic Black figure that Canada has officially celebrated before her, Ms. Desmond now enjoys national recognition not for what she achieved after fighting through racism, but for facing and fighting racism itself. Her struggle is seen as cause alone for national honour, regardless of the fact that she was, at least in immediate terms, unsuccessful. In this way, her honour is unprecedented. It is a paradigmatic shift from all previous ways in which Canada has officially honoured Black Canadian citizenship.

Ultimately, honouring Viola Desmond is a turning point for what it means to be Black in the Great White North. It should push us all to revisit and re-evaluate Canada’s Black history in a way that more readily honours resistance to racism, and does so not as an artifact of Black Canada’s past, but as a marker of Black Canadian citizenship for 2017 and beyond. Whether this shift will ultimately take hold and forever reframe notions Black Canadian citizenship within Canada’s national consciousness for Black and non-Black Canadians alike remains to be seen.

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