Thank you very much.
Before I begin, I want to say that I almost don't have to do anything because of the wonderful presentation that we've already received from Anthony Sherwood.
I also should take a moment to just frame myself as being the descendant of people of African origin who arrived in this country in 1783 and of people who arrived in this country because of the first freedom movement of the Americas, the underground railroad.
I should also add further that most of the people who enlisted in Canada's armed forces from New Brunswick in the Number 2 Construction Battalion era were related to me. I mention this because I grew up not knowing this. And if this is who I am and if this is what my legacy is, how can people who do not have this as their personal experience come to know about these particular kinds of contributions?
Mr. Chairman and honourable members of the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage, I'm honoured to have been included in this early phase of the study regarding preparations for the pending 150th birthday of Canada. I congratulate you on putting together such a timely committee, which should lead to some important discussions about what Canada is and what Canada will be in the future.
I believe I have been invited to represent the Ontario Black History Society, La Société d'histoire des Noirs de l'Ontario, and to share my opinions and the opinions I gleaned during my brief opportunity to consult others about aspects of commemoration and celebration as they connect to this pending anniversary. I am delighted to be able to do so.
I would like to briefly familiarize you with the OBHS.
Founded in 1978 by educators, the mission of the OBHS is to study, preserve, and promote black history and heritage. As the first such black historical organization in Canada, our reach has long extended past Ontario to encompass the entire country. Now, with social media, I am happy to report that we have clear and often daily global reach.
Among the first items of business for the newly formed OBHS was to petition the City of Toronto to have February proclaimed as Black History Month, which was successful, effective in 1979. Then Ontario also proclaimed it, not without a little help, and subsequent to that, the OBHS was successful in initiating the process, introducing it to the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first woman of African descent who was an MP. That resulted in the national declaration of February as Back History Month across Canada, passed in December 1995, effective in February 1996.
At the celebration to mark the first national observance of February as Black History Month in Canada, right here on Parliament Hill the Government of Canada announced the creation of the Mathieu Da Costa Challenge, a national essay and art competition geared to students, designed to honour the first-named Canadian of African origin who arrived on Canada's east coast about 1604, if not earlier. While highly successful, I have recently learned that this program has been suspended, and I am unclear about what national initiative will replace it.
However, the OBHS program continues to include our annual kick-off brunch to launch February as Black History Month, to which you are all invited. It will be on Sunday, January 29, in Toronto. OBHS offers our speaker series, the OBHS leaders of tomorrow conference, the youth engagement program, the official OBHS Black History Month poster, our newsletter, and the nomination of people, places, and events to be formally recognized.
We advocate on African Canadian history and heritage matters. We have an oral history and photographic collection. We conduct internships for university students interested in the study of black heritage. We have travelling exhibits and we have the most hit-upon African Canadian website in Canada, if not North America, wwwblackhistorysociety.ca. We assist in the launching of the Canada Post Black History Month stamps. We have an annual black heritage site tour. We have a Facebook presence. And we have the newly created OBHS Black International Film Festival, BIFF, films that are by or about people of African origin in Canada or beyond.
For BIFF, the OBHS partnered with the National Film Board to share films from their collections with the general public, as well as films from the African diaspora. In October, among the many events that we created to observe the UN International Year for People of African Descent was the OBHS conference aimed at professionals, students, and the community, which featured our keynote speaker, internationally acclaimed Dr. Molefi Asante from Temple University.
The OBHS also initiated the formal commemoration of August 1 as Emancipation Day by the City of Toronto, Metro Toronto, the City of Ottawa, since 1997, and now, through Bill 111, throughout Ontario. While the commemoration of August 1 as Emancipation Day has gone to second reading federally, it remains unacknowledged across Canada to date. This is disappointing, since August 1 marks the beginning of freedom for peoples of African origin here. It both underscores the presence and contribution of people of African origin in Canada and the role of the British Empire, which included Canada at that time, to be the first global power to legislate against slavery.
Is it the way we might remember that needs to be queried? Certainly the way we remember needs to be more inclusive, if that is the future, if that is the legacy that is to be carried into the future as the vision of Canada. While Toronto is now home to half of all Canadians of African origin, it is also the home to a number of long-established communities of African descent who have made an immense contribution to the development and survival of Canada from its earliest beginnings.
African Canadians defended the crown during the American revolution in units such as the Black Pioneers and the Ethiopian Regiment, or served with other British land regiments. Following that war, they arrived in Canada as refugees along with the United Empire Loyalists, but remember Mathieu Da Costa had already been here as a free person and interpreter.
Several thousand black loyalists played a valuable role in the reshaping of British North America, the place that would become Canada, and in particular in Nova Scotia and Ontario, some also settling in Quebec.
While the security of this country was challenged in 1812, black units and other African Canadian volunteers helped greatly in the defence of Canada, particularly along the Niagara frontier. In fact, one of the first actions of the first Parliament of Ontario in 1793 was an act limiting slavery, which effectively slowed the slave trade in Ontario, making it one of the first jurisdictions in the world to do so. It was a necessary step on the long road to the abolition of slavery, finally experienced August 1, 1834. This, in turn, sparked the first freedom movement of the Americas, the underground railroad—the underground railroad, of course, being a loosely organized means of secreting enslaved Africans out of the United States and into Canada. Clearly, prior to Confederation, there was immense activity and significant development leading to the creation of communities with culture, arts, religion, trade and commerce, and the rule of law flourishing. The infrastructure of what would become Canada had been growing since the earliest times and was formalized by the Fathers of Confederation, effective in 1867.
If the 150th anniversary were to focus solely on the Fathers of Confederation and what they accomplished, or their stories and process, it would leave out all the developments, all the stepping stones, all of which went before to facilitate the rise and consolidation of Canada as a multicultural country from the very beginning, and a country that values freedom.
For example, George Brown, a Father of Confederation and founder of The Globe and Mail newspaper, may well have become prime minister, but George Brown was also involved in an incident in Toronto that changed him forever, when his life was saved by a black man. William Peyton Hubbard's act of heroism resulted in an ongoing friendship that saw Hubbard become Toronto's first acting mayor, the first person of African descent to do so.
It may serve to raise and answer the question of who and what a real Canadian is, along with their experiences and contributions to the building of this country. What is the national narrative that informs what stories are collected, preserved, and deemed necessary? What is Canada for those who are of African descent? What role does our interpretation of history have in reinforcing white privilege? What do we want Canada to become? And how do we see our teaching of history moving us in the appropriate direction and teaching in the formal and informal ways?
I have a quote from His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, which we all are familiar with, but what I emphasize is that he wants us to build “a smarter, more caring nation”.
Similarly, Minister James Moore sees the 150th as a time that will remind us of the important events, key battles, significant people, and major accomplishments that shaped our great country and our identity.
To begin this discussion, it is important that we are working from the same general black history background. Black history is as much a part of Canadian history as African history is to world history. The disciplines are connected and mutually reinforce each other.
To begin to discuss this, we might ask ourselves how it is that we have managed to further a part of a Canadian narrative that has excluded Canadians who were here from the earliest times. If we were including black history in a regular and routine way, why was there a need for the creation of an African Canadian historical organization, or even more currently, a need for an Afrocentric school?
African Canadians are unique due to the loss of their culture due to enslavement, and the loss not only of the ways of knowing their religions, their foods, but most significantly through the loss of their names. Researchers in the broader community are often challenged to consider that a veteran or a community icon or an inventor might be of African origin.
The celebration of Canada's 150th is a time to embrace the diversity that is Canada through underscoring and showcasing the long-term presence, achievements, and experiences of Canadians of African origin who define Canada's multicultural reality.
The OBHS has already developed a business plan for the creation of a centre for African Canadian history and heritage, to provide a space for Canadians to learn and share more about the long-term and contemporary accomplishments and challenges faced by this founding culture that has shaped and added to the wealth of Canada from the beginning. And we could go on. It will continue to shape and add to the wealth of Canada in the future.
History is about recognition. It reflects, reports, and influences our understanding of justice. It results in the fair development of communities based on an adequate understanding of their contributions and achievements. History raises awareness while creating our national story, and we channel that story to those we inform.
We do not celebrate that Canada is 150 years old. We celebrate that Canada has moved from one multicultural reality to another. This is the right moment in time for Canadians to deal with their past as they prepare for their future.
For Canada's 150th, the dedication of a centre for African Canadian history and heritage, and/or the creation of a memorial, a monument to honour African Canadians, both for the benefit of the local and global communities, is vital to our survival as the Canada we say we are.