Blacks at Canada’s 150th Year
By Ewart Walters
The federation of former British colonies Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick, came into being on July 1, 1867 with the semi-independent Dominion of Canada. Over the ensuing century and a half, Canada has seen many territorial changes and expansions, resulting in the current union of ten provinces and three territories. And so this year, citizens of Canada are celebrating their 150th anniversary.
Citizens belong. Citizenship implies belonging. The majority of Canadians don’t even have to think of belonging; they just belong. They go about their daily lives without having to face stress sparked by others who would question or deny their belonging.
Minorities? Not so much. And black citizens of Canada – who comprise the most visible grouping of minorities – continue in this 150th year to struggle with belonging. Struggle, then, does not embrace the notion of celebration.
Blacks have lived in Canada from before Confederation. Mathieu da Costa, a free Black who lived here from before 1603, translated Mi’kmaq for Samuel de Champlain, the French explorer and founder of New France and Quebec City. However, the determination to keep Canada a white country was carved in the rockstone of immigration laws and regulations for centuries. It was a combination of factors and leaders that shattered the rockstone.
First was World War II which brought men from the Caribbean to work in the Canadian army and Air Force, some of whom remained in Canada.
Then, after a discussion with Jamaican parliamentarians in the mid-1950s, Tory Prime Minister John Diefenbaker authorised the domestic workers scheme, a government to government measure to meet unemployment in Jamaica and domestic worker needs in Canada, brought single women to work in Canadian homes (and raise generations of Canadian children). By the time it began, the scheme also included women from Guyana and Barbados. These women could become landed immigrants after working in Canada for one year.
In 1960, Black Diplomats at The UN admonished Canada for its racist immigration policies. Two years later Diefenbaker launched Canada’s Bill of Rights, a measure that removed Race and Country of Origin from Canada’s immigration points system.
Up to five years later, Canada had still been somewhat hazy about its own nationhood. But this changed big-time with the celebrations of the century year of 1967. Several things marked this milestone. In Ottawa, the National Arts Centre was constructed and so was the Brewer Park swimming pool. But the really big thing was Expo 67 in Montreal.
The 1967 International and Universal Exposition or Expo 67, as it was commonly known, was a general exhibition, Category One World’s Fair staged from April 27 to October 29, 1967. It is considered to be the most successful World’s Fair of the 20th century with the most attendees to that date, and 62 nations participating. It also set the single-day attendance record for a world’s fair, with 569,500 visitors on its third day.
Expo 67 not only brought the world to Canada, it even more importantly awakened Canada’s own sense that it was a full nation in the world.
The year also brought Liberal Pierre Elliott Trudeau into focus as Canada’s Justice Minister. The next year, he became Prime Minister and set about building what he called “The Just Society.” With great force of and his political acumen in preserving national unity against the Quebec sovereignty movement, he fostered a pan-Canadian identity, implemented Canada’s two outstanding social policies – multiculturalism and official bilingualism. Then in 1982 he ushered the patriation of the Constitution and established the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.
All of which cemented citizenship and belonging, and welded them into law.
But this did not prevent the anti-Black racism at Sir George Williams University that exploded in 1969 with a fire at the university’s computer centre. Nor did it prevent the thirty-something police shootings of unarmed Blacks in Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa between 1978 and 1998.
In between Diefenbaker and Pierre Trudeau there was Lester Pearson who, as a Canadian diplomat, set Canada on the map in 1956 with his proposal to form a UN peacekeeping force as a means of easing the British and French out of Egypt during the Suez Crisis, for which he was rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1957. That and other diplomatic initiatives of his helped to clear the way for measures in Canada that would help reduce racial prejudice which happened largely under Trudeau the first.
Under Tory Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Clark, Blacks were given recognition and promoted to high office.
Noting that political parties were not exactly promoting Blacks as candidates for election, Mulroney used the route of Governor-In-Council Appointments to help correct the imbalance. In a raft of Black appointments mainly to the Immigration and Refugee Boards, he made three unforgettable appointments here in Ottawa. Dr. Glenda Simms was appointed President of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, Gilbert Scott was appointed Commissioner of the Federal Public Service, and Julius Alexander Isaac was appointed Chief Justice of the Federal Court of Canada, where his portrait still hands to this day.
And there it mainly ended. Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chretien, pushed by white Quebec women, abolished the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women. His Liberal successor Paul Martin Jr, appointed Canada’s first and only Black women, Michaelle jean, as Governor-General, but was also the man who removed former Multiculturalism Minister Jean Augustine (the first Black woman in the Federal Cabinet) from her riding in order to make way for that failure Michael Ignatieff who did not even know what multiculturalism was.
The less said about Tory Prime Minister Stephen Harper the better. Employing every ploy to stay in power, including two proroguements of the Commons, and noting that the Liberals had been losing their grasp on the Visible Minority vote by abandoning Multiculturalism, he sent Jason Kenney to Visible Minority ridings in Ontario and British Columbia to pick up the slack, and thus earned another remain Prime Minister.
Truth is, Blacks have not yet learned how powerful their vote is!
And so to Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, son of the man who, through Multiculturalism and the Charter of Rights and The Just Society, launched belonging. Justin’s recognition of the four groups enshrined in the Employment Equity Act is not in doubt. He promotes Women by having 50% of his Cabinet female; He has probably already done more for Aboriginal Peoples than any other Prime Minister. He has appointed a Disabled person to the Cabinet. His other appointments have included a Visible Minority to National Defence. But the only Black, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen, came to the Cabinet in Justin Trudeau’s reshuffle on January 10 this year after Trudeau began taking some flak for that neglect in his original set of appointments. And he still does not appear to have fully grasped the Black situation.
And so Blacks have still struggled. The racist denial of rental housing that was rampant in the fifties and sixties has declined significantly. However, while several commercial entities led by the banks have opened employment avenues to Blacks, the federal government and especially the police, are much slower with recruitment, retention and promotion.
The resistance in the federal Government does not flow from the members of parliament. They know need the people’s votes. I believe the resistance comes mainly from francophone elements who continue to see Multiculturalism as a thorn in the side of the never completely dead goal of francophone sovereignty.
The police across Canada have resisted embracing the Charter of Rights and Freedoms because it arrests the lawless practices many of them had come to accept as simply doing their job. The current illegality of carding, which is mostly used against Blacks, is a prime example.
Carding to me is an unconstitutional, systemically ingrained police practice which will only be undone but more likely “modified” and given another name. A year ago I wrote:
“We are living in a time when, in an effort to try and avoid the troubling issues around a word or entity, we simply change the name. This process is called ‘political correctness.’ If Shakespeare was right when he wrote ‘a rose by any other name is just as sweet;’ if Nettleford was right with his ‘A Bhutto in a Benz is still a Bhutto;’ if, as the little boy in his simplicity declared, ‘the emperor has no clothes,’ then, whether you want to call racism ‘racial profiling,’ ‘carding,’ or the benign ‘street checks,’ it is still racism. And what is more, under our Canadian Constitution, it is all illegal. It is a cynical assault on the rule of law when officers who are sworn to uphold the law are allowed to continue breaking it. Police Service Boards must put an end to this criminal activity or resign.”
Retired Ottawa Deputy Chief Larry Hill agrees:
“I absolutely despise the manner in which this once useful device has evolved. In my day… we had suspect cards. These were filled out and entered police files only if officers checked a person who had a criminal record, or was on probation or parole. They were an effective tool in putting a person (who had a documented criminal history) in a particular place at a particular time. Many new investigative leads were generated as a result. The cards were never used for anything else that I was aware of.
“What the system has morphed into is a general documentation of anyone the police may feel is suspicious. That subjective suspicion varied greatly with each individual. And the system has no fair, objective process for individuals to have the ‘suspect card’ record removed or nullified. The most nefarious outcome is the use of these carding records in the vetting process for people who are seeking background checks in order to volunteer in our community.”
An Ottawa police recruiting system that was begun in the 1990s to increase the numbers of Black officers has withered on the vine with the help of former Chief Vern White, now Senator. And so have the steps of retention and promotion. The remedy of achieving a critical mass of Black officers has been promoted to the police by entities such as Black Agenda Noir, a small unified group of Ottawa Blacks unique in the fact that its members come from all over the Black Diaspora and include, for the first time, the Somalis. Until Blacks constitute at least 30 per cent of the police force police discrimination against Blacks will continue, and the Just Society will recede further into the abyss. Current Chief Charles Bordeleau, still struggling with his predecessor’s actions, has been slow to pick up the slack.
It was Former Ontario Lt. Governor Lincoln Alexander, the first Black Canadian to sit in the House of Commons, and Minister of Labour in the Joe Clark administration, who summed up the position of Blacks in Canada. Speaking at the second Harambee Black Orpheus Ball at the National Gallery in 1989, Alexander said there had been some progress for Blacks in Canada but that there was a long road ahead.
In 2017 not much has changed. We are still on that long road. In fact, we have regressed. The Black agenda has disappeared from the national radar. It is the goal of groups like Black Agenda Noir to re-establish Blacks and our issues high on the national agenda. As Shakespeare said,
“To exist in a huge sphere,
and not to be seen to move in it,
are the holes where eyes should be,
which pitifully disfigure the face.”
Put another way, if we are ignored we do not belong. Nor does a perpetually invisible status command celebration.
About the writer
Ewart Walters is a journalist, author and former diplomat. He is a recipient of numerous awards including the Order of Ottawa.