Christening the Federation of Black Canadians with an impromptu electric slide was an “emotional” moment for Justice Donald McLeod.
That’s how the National Black Canadians Summit, held in Toronto in early December, concluded — with as many as 800 attendees cutting a rug like they were at a long-overdue family reunion, said McLeod, who helms the newly minted organization, the likes of which hasn’t existed in Canada for decades.
“You would hear very interesting and intense discussions — yet on the last day we were dancing,” said McLeod, speaking as the federation’s chair, not an Ontario court judge. “It’s emotional to see the narrative change, to see the lens we’re looking through become less about ourselves and more about the collective . . . It was transformation.
Until now, community campaigns and grassroots activists operated in “silos,” advocates say. The Federation of Black Canadians (FBC) — officially launched at the three-day summit organized in partnership with the Michaëlle Jean Foundation (MJF) — aims to bring them together to amplify and empower their causes.
More specifically, the FBC and MJF are drafting a strategic policy plan to be released in February based on feedback from the summit and nationwide community consultation.
It’s being whittled down to key areas that it will push government and stakeholders to reform, including mental health, corrections and education. Democratic engagement, access to justice, community safety, wealth, affordable housing and representation in the media were also on the docket.
Among others, the federation has already met with all three levels of government and major parties, as well as top brass in the correctional system and at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health.
McLeod helped spark the process more than a year and a half ago with a group of advocates that became known as the “Toronto 37.” They were roused by the 2016 shooting death of pregnant woman Candice Rochelle Bobb in Etobicoke, and the subsequent death of her premature son, Kyrie.
After reaching out to Black communities across Canada they noticed “universality to our issues” and “unveiled you can only deal with this community in a holistic fashion,” he said. And the Federation of Black Canadians was set in motion.
A formal, countrywide Black association hasn’t existed since the mid-1980s, when the National Black Coalition of Canada dissolved due to internal strife and funding issues. It was founded in 1969 by civil rights crusader Howard McCurdy, the NDP’s first and Canada’s second Black MP.
In recent years Black Lives Matter has rejuvenated that activism. The grassroots campaign — and Toronto’s faction in particular — has applied the power of disruption, often described as “street heat,” to command the ears of decision-makers and influence policy from outside the political machine.
Meanwhile, the FBC is fighting for reform within the system.
For Black Lives Matter Toronto co-founder Sandy Hudson, it’s too early to tell if the FBC will be effective. She said a national gathering is “always a good thing” for a community that’s increasingly mobilized. But she’s also wary of political posturing to any Black association working through traditional channels.
“We’ve been so politically active — maybe in non-traditional ways — in the last three or four years, and in a very, very visible way, where perhaps it hasn’t been quite so visible before,” Hudson said. “Politicians and political parties are seeing this as an opportunity to galvanize support from our community. I would be cautious about that (and) about having our political movement be co-opted.”
Velma Morgan of Operation Black Vote Canada (OBVC), a non-profit dedicated to electing more Black politicians, said organizing has been “fragmented” and she’s looking forward to gaining advice and support from fellow advocates.
“We’ve been organizing, but we’ve been organizing in silos. There are so many communities within our community and . . . a lot of the efforts have been duplicate,” Morgan said. “We now understand there’s power in unity and power in numbers.”
Morgan also expects more Black people to get involved with provincial, municipal and federal elections scheduled over the next two years after seeing heightened interest in OBVC events tailored to youth and women’s engagement. Seeing people who reflect the community in positions of power is also a motivating factor, she said.
In 2015, Canadians elected a record number of visible minority MPs — 47 out of 338, or roughly 14 per cent of seats in the House of Commons — of which six, or 1.7 per cent, of all MPs, identify as Black. That still doesn’t match the population — Black Canadians make up about 3.4 per cent of the country’s population, representing the third-largest visible minority group.
But more diverse voices at the table does not automatically translate to meaningful policy or societal change, said Brittany Andrew-Amofah, policy and research manager at the Broadbent Institute, a progressive think tank.
“Organizing is never enough,” she said. “We need to make sure we are critically analyzing the ways in which anti-Black racism has operated in this country and how it manifests within political parties, within our policies — and how difficult that is to unravel.”
The stark overrepresentation of Black youth under protective care and in the jail system are just two examples underscoring a need to push against “status-quo policies and politics that seek to silence and prevent the experiences, particularly of Black Canadians, from seeping through,” Andrew-Amofah said.
The FBC’s greater challenge will be staying in tune with the diverse Black Canadian community, said Tiffany Gooch, an advocate, political consultant and secretary of the Ontario Liberal Party.
“I don’t think it’s any one organization’s place or job to speak on behalf of the Black community . . . The community as a whole is never going to agree completely on what tactics we should be using to get things done.” The federation won’t replace their work, but help align it, Gooch said.
Source: Toronto Star