In Gwen Robinson’s yellowing photographs, the blacks pose self-consciously for the camera, prosperous and proud. There is James (Gunsmith) Jones, the son of a slave, who moved to Chatham, Ont., in 1849 and who won prizes for his firearms at a Montreal exhibition in 1860. There is Jones’s daughter, Sophia, solemn and self-possessed, who went to Michigan to study medicine. There are the members of the Chatham Knights Templar, a 19th-century Masonic society of black community leaders, who stand in a row, shoulders thrown back beneath capes, the plumes of their hats floating in the breeze.
But as Robinson, 53, thumbs those photographs, she also sees reminders of the brutal discrimination of the past—and the subtle racism of the present. “We blacks have been largely eliminated from the history books,” declared the Chatham hairdresser and amateur local historian. Added her husband John, 59, a postal clerk: “Blacks have been left out of the Canadian mosaic.”
Racism: That conviction was echoed by many black Canadians across the nation last week as, along with American blacks, they struggled to assess how far they have come—and how much farther they have to go. As the United States prepared to celebrate a new national holiday named after America’s pre-eminent modern black leader, the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., many Canadian blacks told Maclean's that overt discrimination is lessening. Many added that they drew comfort from the fact that black communities in 1986 face challenges and opportunities that seemed impossible only a generation ago. But many also stressed that subtle discrimination—in schools, housing and the job markets— confines thousands to the role of secondclass citizens. “This country has changed dramatically—Canada is doing quite well on civil rights,” said Windsor, Ont., New Democrat Howard McCurdy, the nation’s only black MP. “But there is still not a single black in this country who has not been subjected to racism.”
Their tales of pride and of prejudice also underlined the fact that blacks in Canada are united only by their color—and by their desire for the new generation to achieve success. Indeed, the current black community is one of the least cohesive of Canada’s minority groups. And unlike its American counterpart, it still lacks political strength and a firm political agenda. Some blacks, including Gwen Robinson, trace their Canadian roots back into the mid-19th century. Others, including Lincoln Alexander, Ontario’s new lieutenant-governor, are the children of more recent immigrants from the Caribbean. “The only thing we have in common is that we are black,” Alexander told Maclean’s. Added McCurdy: “We are talking about different cultures, different backgrounds.”
Complaints: One measure of those differences is that Statistics Canada does not know the number of black Canadians—because the category “Black” was not listed in the 1981 census. That survey did indicate that there are about 240,000 blacks in several categories: 31,000 Haitians, 160,000 of other Caribbean origin and 48,000 African and Canadian-born blacks. But government officials admit that large numbers of Canadian-born blacks—especially those in Metropolitan Toronto and Nova Scotia—were simply overlooked if they did not write the word “Black” on the census form. This year’s scheduled census corrects that omission by adding the category “Black” under a question about ethnic origin. But until that census is tabulated there are only rough estimates of the size of Canada’s three largest black communities: 30,000 in Nova Scotia, the vast majority Canadian-born; 115,000 in Montreal, including 35,000 Haitians, 35,000 West Indians and 40,000 Canadian-born; and at least 70,000 in Toronto, the majority from the West Indies.
The three communities feature different ethnic and cultural strains but share disturbing complaints of discrimination. The most accurate reflection of that discontent appeared last summer when pollster Martin Goldfarb interviewed 200 Toronto blacks about their experiences in Canada. Although 76 per cent said they were “very satisfied” with opportunities for their children in Canada, roughly 65 per cent declared that they have less opportunity than other Canadians to obtain senior positions in business or to win election to political office. And almost as many blacks felt that prejudice is increasing as believed that it is decreasing.
Indeed, Toronto’s Urban Alliance on Race Relations and the Social Planning Council of Metro Toronto released a study last year disclosing that white job applicants receive three offers for every one obtained by blacks. A followup survey showed that only nine per cent of 199 Toronto employers in firms with more than 50 employees believed firmly in racial equality. Fully 28 per cent said that nonwhites lack the ability to compete, 13 per cent viewed them as threatening and seven per cent expressed “outright contempt” for them.
Drinking: Many blacks told Maclean’s that they feel—and fight—racism in every facet of their lives. In Nova Scotia last week the provincial court referred to the judicial council a dispute over comments about blacks by Digby provincial court judge John Nichols. The remarks followed a four-day trial last October when an all-white jury acquitted a 29-year-old white, Jeff Mullen, on a second-degree murder charge for the shooting of Graham Jarvis, a 32-year-old black. Last month Nichols, the presiding judge at Mullen’s preliminary hearing, told The Toronto Star that he would not have sent the case to trial if he had known all the facts. Said Nichols: “You know what happens when those black guys start drinking.”
Blacks also say that discrimination spills into the educational system. Iona Crawley, the program director at a senior citizens’ home in Windsor, N.S., is a single parent who has raised four children—a vocational school graduate and three university graduates. But she notes that there are no black high school teachers or guidance counsellors in Halifax. And for his part, Halifax lawyer H.A.J. (Gus) Wedderburn credits his career to the role models and motivation in his native Jamaica. Declared Wedderburn: “If I had been born here, I doubt if I would be a lawyer today.”
Even students who do not perceive overt discrimination cite examples of racial stereotyping. Guyana-born June Ann Nobrega, 19, says that her Toronto teachers have always pushed her to go further than the Grade 12 academic course in which she is enrolled. But black males, she conceded, are encouraged to devote more time to sports than to academic work. “I remember another thing that seemed strange to me,” Nobrega told Maclean’s. “They put me straight into the choir—no auditions like the other kids. I wondered how they knew that I could sing.”
Stereotyping often pursues blacks into the job market. Gwen Lord, 50, is the black principal of Montreal’s Northmount high school, a school with a 55-per-cent black population. Frequently—and candidly— she tells her students about the problems of discrimination. “I tell them that they are going to be treated differently than other people,” she explained. “Traditionally, we are the last hired and the first released.” Montreal’s Tommy Kane, 22, has a four-year athletic scholarship in football to Syracuse University in New York. After he graduates, Kane intends to remain in the United States. Employment opportunities for blacks, he says, are better. “All my [Montreal black] friends are doing is getting older,” he said.“For them, time is just passing. I try to encourage them, but they just see a straight tunnel to nowhere.”
Slavery: Indeed, the history of blacks in Canada is an extraordinary chronicle of dashed hopes and brave spirits. The first recorded black resident of Canada was a six-year-old slave from Madagascar, Olivier Lejeune, who arrived on a British ship in New France in 1628. LeJeune was a rarity, since the law of France officially forbade slavery. But in 1689 King Louis XIV permitted his New France colonists to hold slaves as field hands and household servants. By 1749 the British were using black slaves to build Halifax. And after their conquest of Quebec in 1760 the British hastily assured the residents that they could keep their slaves. During the American Revolution the British offered to free any slaves who would join their forces. When the war ended in 1783 many of those blacks fled or were transported to Canada: about 10 per cent of Nova Scotia’s 30,000 United Empire Loyalists were black. And many of the 10,000 Loyalists who settled in Central Canada held black slaves. The slavery system was gradually phased out as first the British and then the Americans after the Civil War abolished it, but the social stigmas that attached to it linger even now.
Southern Ontario’s history is rich with their sagas. Among them: Dresden’s Rev. Josiah Henson, the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s powerful antislavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin; American abolitionist John Brown, who planned in Chatham to overthrow the governments of the slaveholding states and was hanged for treason in 1859 after leading an attack on the U.S. federal armory at Harpers Ferry in West Virginia; and Harriet Tubman, the underground railroad’s organizing genius, who funnelled hundreds of escaped slaves into St. Catharines.
In the wake of the U.S. Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation, many blacks returned to the United States. The result was a net loss of black citizens until the start of the First World War. The 1921 census showed about 18,300 blacks in Canada, a population that remained stable for the next 30 years. That pattern changed with the first surges in migration from the West Indies. Between 1950 and the mid 1960s Canada’s black population doubled to about 40,000, with approximately 90 per cent of the new arrivals from the Caribbean. Since then about 10,000 West Indian immigrants have arrived each year. And the number of African immigrants has occasionally reached an annual high of 5,000. Most of the new immigrants possess educational and professional skills surpassing those of the Canadian-born blacks. And those gaps have added to the strains between communities.
Other experts say that what blacks need are better schools, a coordinated job strategy and more support for black business ventures. Halifax physician Anthony Sebastian came to Canada from St. Kitts in 1968 and is still astonished by the passivity of Canadian-born blacks. He says blacks I must push harder to get an education and into local politics. “Blacks are their own worst enemies here,” Sebastian told Maclean's. And in a speech last fall Rick Joseph, executive director of Nova Scotia’s Black United Front, cautioned, “If we do not move quickly, we will see our grandchildren trying to fare well on welfare.”
Strength: That sense of urgency is tempered by the knowledge that the black community has come a long way in a short time. Thirty-four years ago Chatham’s Robinson could not eat in the dining room of a local hotel—even though her place in the community could be traced back to her great-great-grandfather, Abraham Shadd. Toronto senior public school principal Wilson Brooks, 61, recounts that when he applied for a department store job 30 years ago, “I was told to my face that they did not want blacks waiting on their customers.” Now, racists are more subtle, and blacks are more determined. Ontario Housing Minister Alvin Curling, who came to Canada in 1965 from Jamaica, told a black audience last month to seek—and find—unity. “When one man pulls, he has only the strength of one,” Curling said. “But when two pull together, they have much more than the strength of two. And when all of us, hundreds of thousands of black people, pull together, our strength shall be a strength beyond any human measure.” That lyrical prayer is the challenge—and could be the salvation—for Canadian blacks.
Enjoy more great stories from The Maclean’s Archives. Start your 30-day free trial today.