“When the Government of Canada announces the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent to highlight important contributions and to provide a platform for confronting anti-Black racism, this would be a perfect time for the Prime Minister to make clear that recognition and acknowledgement in the form of reparations for the displacement of historical Black settlements, from Africville to Hogan’s Alley and every settlement in between.” – Matthew Green, NDP MP, in parliamentary remarks on December 8, 2020
New generations of Black leaders are working carefully to build dialogue between Black communities, whether they be continental, Caribbean, anglophone or francophone. Although Black communities are divided by their histories, trajectories, geographical locations within Canada, class dynamics and diverse beliefs, they still face many of the same challenges.
That is why historian Rito Joseph calls on us to celebrate Emancipation Day on August 1 with performances at the Corona Theatre. Then people will gather at Place D’Youville in Old Montreal, where the 1834 announcement that slavery had been abolished took place. Attendees will be invited to wander the streets and pay tribute to those lost ancestors who lived in Canada without their humanity being acknowledged in the history books, as Rito says.
In 2017, I made a series of access-to-information requests to the Quebec Ministry of Health and Social Services, the Quebec coroner’s office, and the Quebec Institute of Statistics in order to learn whether our systems kept race-based data on victims of psychological distress. I wanted to know if the system saw us, even when it was too late.
This is what I asked for in my request:
- How many young Black men die or attempt to die by suicide, in the Montreal area, in Quebec and in Canada, on average? This year? In the last 5 years?
- Whether there is a survey, by ethnic group, of the number of suicide attempts in Quebec and/or Canada.
- Which age group is most at risk.
- What the Ministry of Health’s recommendations are regarding the issue of psychological distress among racialized people.
- Which organization to turn to for more data in this area.
- Data on the methods used, in connection with the above questions.
- The listed causes associated with attempted suicides and cases of suicide in racialized communities.
- The equivalent data for Black women and other racialized groups.
- The number of reports per year made to the police, Info-Santé and any other structure working in suicide prevention.
Each entity responded by saying they had no such information. The Ministry of Health replied that the group considered most at risk was men aged 45 to 64, which included all ethnic groups combined. “We cannot obtain the requested data by ethnic group,” a spokesperson stated. The Quebec Institute of Statistics indicated that it did not keep data on psychological distress by ethnicity.
On May 5, 2017, the coroner’s office informed me that it held no documents listing the number of young Black men who had died by suicide: “The documents you are requesting do not exist.” Nearly four years later, I doubt that any mechanisms to answer these questions have been implemented.
We are invisible, both in life and afterwards. We are only visible when we are obstacles, objects, or in service of the dominant agenda. Elsewhere, another pattern emerges. When strong political demands are rooted in mobilized communities, recognition of these issues suddenly accelerates.
The fruit of a long struggle
Rosemary Sadlier, OOnt (Order of Ontario), who secured the official proclamation of February as Black History Month, did the same for August 1 as Emancipation Day, something she says she has worked on since 1995. She was able to obtain unanimous recognition of the initiative at the provincial level in Ontario in 2008. It twice went through a second reading in the House of Commons, in 1999 and 2000, without success. Then she presented the idea to Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, the first African Nova Scotian to hold a seat in Canada’s Senate, who began working on it in 2017.
Rather than lobbying every province, she focused her efforts, explaining that having the highest authority recognize Emancipation Day would at least force every province to consider it. (This approach is what so many of us are forced to do in order to breathe.)
In 2018, Senator Thomas Bernard brought forward a motion to recognize Emancipation Day at the national level. It was not successful, but Thomas Bernard determinedly continued her advocacy, with a resolve that is at odds with the public image of the Senate. The torch was then taken up by Ontario MP Majid Jowhari.
Ultimately, it took a pandemic, the high-profile death of an African-American man, the stubbornness of members of Black organizations and civil society, the support of MP Greg Fergus, members of the all-party Parliamentary Black Caucus, the contributions of community advocates such as Sadlier, the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Ontario Black History Society and the Canadian Association of Social Workers for the Parliament to recognize the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade on August 1, 1834, and to designate August 1 as Emancipation Day in Canada.
“I propose for Emancipation Day to be federally recognized, as this acknowledgment is a necessary step toward healing the historical trauma endured by African Canadians. Our history has been repeatedly erased. Enslaved Africans were stripped of their names in an attempt to strip them of their identities. After emancipation, our history continued to be erased by methods of segregation, murder and systemic marginalization,” stated Thomas Bernard.
Her unapologetic argument was based on the knowledge that in 1783, some 3,000 people of African descent settled in Birchtown, Nova Scotia. These former slaves were part of the cohorts who gained their freedom by joining the British army. At one time, Birchtown was the largest community of free Blacks outside of Africa. All of this is wonderfully described in Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes. At the time, it was possible to be free in Canada but still oppressed, even in death by, for example, being buried in an unidentified cemetery outside the boundaries of the community.
Following the British troops’ inevitable defeat in the American War of Independence, some of the Black soldiers arrived in what became Canada, notably in Upper and Lower Canada (which included Quebec) and in present-day Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where they endured hostility, racial segregation and various forms of discrimination, including underpaid jobs.
More to be done in Quebec
According to Statistics Canada, Nova Scotia has the largest Black population among the Atlantic provinces and the fifth largest in the country. Ontario has the largest Black population in Canada while Quebec has the second largest, with 26.6 per cent of the total Black population in Canada. Yet much remains to be done to recognize and honour their existence.
Nova Scotia does have a Minister of African Nova Scotian Affairs and recognizes the founding role of African Nova Scotian culture. The province also has senators who are active on issues related to acknowledging the realities of Black people and an Institute for the Study of Canadian Slavery was recently established at the Nova Scotia School of Art and Design in Halifax.
Perhaps in creating the conditions for the emancipation of Black communities, Quebec needs to go further than simply appointing a white anti-racism minister (without a ministry) who struggles to respond adequately to anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, anti-Arab, anti-Asian, and anti-Indian racism, but who boasts that he is more Haitian than his Haitian wife.
I would like to think that with the increased awareness resulting from the pandemic and the normalization of global discussions about systemic racism, Quebec, the province where more than a quarter of the country’s Black population lives, will pay attention to the legitimate reasons for commemorating this day. However, Emancipation Day will exist even if Quebec holds firm in its indifference.
Many Black influencers are active on social media, performing the accountability and supervisory work that the mainstream media ecosystem is avoiding. Looking ahead to August 1, as we did last summer, if the conditions are right, perhaps more voices will join the efforts of Black community groups who are doing what they must in the hopes that political and institutional hierarchies will listen to their desire for emancipation, rather than simply try to limit their grievances.