Beyond Multiculturalism – Putting the Black Agenda on the National Radar
Keynote address by Ewart Walters at the Martin Luther King Jr DreamKeepers Ceremony January 15, 2018
In September 2016, I was invited by the Atlanta Chapter of my high school alumni to speak at their annual gala. While in Atlanta, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. Centre. It was a strong reminder of the long and often brutal struggle… for civil rights… voting rights… equal rights and justice… for Black Americans.
With delight, I found myself walking in the footsteps of heroes at the International Civil Rights Walk of Fame, This was not Hollywood Boulevard and its stars. This was the only walkway to feature authentic shoe prints of civil rights pioneers the world over. I was impressed all over again by Dr. King’s insistence on non-violent resistance to improve the lives of Blacks. But I stood horrified, in gut-wrenching disbelief, when I saw the unbelievably long list… of laws that were used to suppress Blacks and maintain racism. If ever you have the opportunity I would encourage you to visit the King Centre.
Today we honour Dr. King, his work, his accomplishments, and his legacy of strong… disciplined leadership. A Baptist Minister, he was young, only 36 when he was murdered // almost 50 years ago. For millions of people around the world he was a hero and a mentor. After many years of lobbying, his birthday is now celebrated as a national holiday across the USA.
Many people remember that speech he gave in Washington in 1963. The dream speech. It was his dream… for freedom… and justice…, for an end to colour prejudice, and for brotherhood across races. Yes, he spoke his dream… but he was no dreamer. Dr. King was a down-to-earth man. As an excerpt from one of his sermons illustrates, Dr. King was always concerned about the daily condition of people. I quote: “Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the gospel… And what I’m doing in this struggle grows out of my feeling that the preacher must be concerned about the whole man. Not merely his soul… but his body. It’s all right, to talk about heaven. I talk about it because I believe firmly in immortality. But you’ve got to talk about the earth. “It’s all right to talk about long white robes over yonder. But I want a suit… and some shoes… to wear down here. It’s all right to talk about streets flowing with milk and honey in heaven. But I want some food to eat, down here. “It’s even all right, to talk about the New Jerusalem. But one day we must begin to talk about the new Chicago, the new Atlanta, the new New York, the new America.” And, let me add…. We must begin to talk about the new Ottawa.
We in Canada, who were witness to his life, and invigorated by his work, do well to teach about his costly personal stand for civil rights and justice. Dr. King is revered now, but we easily forget he was the object of aggression and hatred when he was alive. He was jailed 36 times. The media … was hostile. The Washington Post said he was irresponsible. The New York Times chastised him for going beyond civil rights, which they felt was the allotted domain of Black leaders. TIME said his anti-war stand was the slander of a demagogue. Of course, some things have changed. None of them would say that now. Around the time Dr. King was assassinated, Multiculturalism was offered to Canadians as the national policy to secure equality and a levelling of Canadian society. It would take us far beyond the two solitudes of English and French, and make us one nation. Half a century later, it has not happened.
Recognising this, Black communities across Canada have taken new resolve. Uninhibited, and unfettered by terms like Visible Minorities, they are nailing the Black Agenda back onto the Canadian radar. Black Ottawa has realised, that, for us, Multiculturalism has not been the social leveller it was set up to be. We see others getting recognition and support, but nothing for Blacks. Consequently, there has been plenty activity in the Black communities over recent years. For Ottawa, the judiciary made visible strides with the appointment in February 2017 of Madame Justice Marlyse Dumel… and in November, of the first ever… Black Justice of the Peace – His Worship Paul Harris. Your Worship, please stand and be recognised…
Six other developments have taken place:
- To get to the heart of complaints, about illegal police activities like carding, the Province of Ontario, through Attorney-General Yasir Naqvi, sent Mr, Justice Tulloch of the Ontario Court, to tour Ottawa and four other cities. He listened to people, and published his Independent Review of Police Oversight. It had 129 recommendations – and most of them are already enacted into law.
- In the meantime the Ontario government…
- created the Anti-Racism Directorate in a way that prevents another government to dump it, as happened before
- it launched Ontario’s 3-Year Anti-Racism Strategic Plan – A Better Way Forward
- passed the Anti-Racism Act, 2017, which enshrines the Anti-Racism Directorate in law, and legislates an evaluation and renewal of the strategic plan every five years
- launched the Ontario Black Youth Action Plan, a four-year, $47-million commitment to help reduce disparities for Black children, youth and families
- recognised the United Nations International Decade (2015-2024) for People of African Descent to formally acknowledge that people of African descent represent a distinct group whose rights must be promoted and protected
- The police killing of Abdirahman Abdi here in Ottawa. This sparked
- Ottawa’s Black Lives Matter Movement
- The formation of the Justice for Abdirahman Committee, and
- The formation of Black Agenda Noir
- In addition, the Young Leaders Advisory Council was formed
Beyond that, another judge, Mr. Justice Donald McLeod, launched The Federation of Black Canadians, a national, organization, driven by Black organizations across the country, and linked it to – the Michael Jean Foundation. You didn’t get that, did you? Let me say it another way. A national organisation of Black Canadians has been formed. It is led by a judge. And a former Governor-General. This is new ground. So the Ontario Government has been actively with Black issues. But the Federal Government remains largely silent…
A Working Group of Experts from the UN Decade for People of African Descent, visited Canada October 16-21, 2016. It found several grave problems. In particular, the group said this:
“Despite Canada’s reputation, for promoting multiculturalism and diversity, and the positive measures (we have seen), we are deeply… concerned… about the human rights situation of African Canadians.” (Pause)
In her inaugural address Sep. 27, 2005, our Black Governor-General Michaelle Jean spoke of Canada’s “two solitudes.”
“Il est fini”, she said. “Il est finis le temps des ‘deux solitudes’ qui a trop longtemps défini notre approche de ce pays.” “It is finished – the period of the ‘two solitudes’ that have defined our approach to this country for a long time.”
She was speaking about something more than English and French – about the full bloom of multiculturalism, which, in its original intent, is simply equality // and full citizenship for all Canadians… But Blacks… have still been left behind.
My brothers and sisters, the Government of Ontario has stepped up to bat for Black Ontarians. The Black Agenda is now firmly set on the Provincial radar. The Federal Government is lurking in the shadows. It is up to us to drag them out into the light. Nothing is going to happen… unless we push for it. So let the call ring clear… to all of us… to take a stand for justice, and equality, to give voice to the voiceless. And that includes ourselves in the Black communities.
The cause endures. The dream will never die. Let the word go forth: we are taking up the cudgel. Let us be inspired by Dr. King as we seek to build the new Canada, the just society, with rights and justice for all.
About the writer
Ewart Walters is a journalist, author and former diplomat. He is a recipient of numerous awards including the Order of Ottawa.