It is not common knowledge, but it should be: there is a centuries-long and ugly history of slavery north of the 49th parallel.
The Underground Railroad, a secret network that brought 30,000 enslaved men, women and children to relative freedom starting in the mid-1800s, is often associated with slavery in Canada.
However, slavery here predates the Railroad by at least 200 years. It’s a trauma dating back to the settlement of New France, in what is now Canada, and one that continued well after Britain’s conquest of New France in 1759.
“The enslavement of African peoples, the enslavement of Indigenous peoples, took place in this country in the same way it did in the United States, in the Caribbean and across Central and South America,” says Dr. Andrea Davis, a historian at York University.
“And that historical presence of chattel slavery has continued to inform the ways in which people of African descent are both constructed and received in contemporary society.”
Like in the United States, slavery in Canada was about violence and brutality, about social control, and treating an entire group of people as subhuman. It’s a trauma that has infused all aspects of society, creating an enduring pain for Black people around the world, according to Davis.
“One of the things that is common among most Black people in the world is that suffering piece,” says Asante Haughton, a human rights activist who speaks about the intergenerational trauma Black people experience, from centuries of systemic violence.
Systemic racism is about a history of trauma, he told Global’s Farah Nasser, on Living in Colour: Being Black in Canada.
“It is sometimes said that trauma is passed down through generations, and what that means is that if I experience a trauma, and I’m affected with my mental health, there are going to be impacts in my social life, my family life, my economic life,” Haughton added.
That history of trauma is no different for Black people in Canada, and continues to the present day.
Africville was a vibrant Black community on the outskirts of Halifax. Yet, for decades, the city of Halifax refused to provide residents access to clean drinking water, garbage disposal or sewage services, despite the fact Africville’s residents paid their share of taxes.
Instead, the city built a prison, garbage dump and infectious disease hospital near the community. And when residents were finally relocated, starting in 1964, some were moved using garbage trucks.
The 1960s were the era of Civil Rights struggles. In 1969, students at what was then Sir George Williams University in Montreal, now known as Concordia, barricaded themselves in a ninth-floor computer room, after months of inaction by the university following accusations of discrimination.
The students accused a biology professor, Perry Anderson, of discriminatory grading practices. The university agreed to investigate, but after months of inaction, students finally decided to occupy the computer room. Dozens of students were arrested; the accusations against the professor were dismissed.
In 1992, there was an uprising in Toronto over the police shooting death of a 22-year-old Black man, Raymond Lawrence. The incident coincided with riots in Los Angeles over the acquittal of four police officers caught on tape beating Rodney King.
The legacy of trauma continues to this day, with the over-targeting of Black and other racialized communities in Canada, as in the United States. A 2018 Ontario Human Rights Commission report found that, between 2013 and 2017, a Black person in the City of Toronto was 20 times more likely than a white person to be killed in a shooting involving the police.
Black people, who represented just 8.8 per cent of the population in Toronto, also made up approximately 30 per cent of police use-of-force cases in that period.
The statistics reflect the lived experience of many Black people. More than ever, there is an urgent need to tell a different narrative about over-targeted communities, one that focuses on possibility and potential, instead of just on suffering.
“I look at education and I think about, why aren’t we teaching children about Blackness in Canada, historically?” says Haughton. “Why aren’t we teaching children about the Black experience around the world, historically? And why are we only talking about Black folks historically through their suffering, and not their greatness?”
Leo Edwards, a clinical therapist in Toronto who works with people suffering from trauma, says it is “really important to celebrate Black joy” because “Black is indeed beautiful and powerful.”
Edwards says that companies, corporations and educational institutions in Canada can make a huge difference by making a sincere effort to hire more people of colour, and promoting them to higher ranks of institutions.
“Hire Black and Brown teachers, hire folks in leadership. Often the board of directors is very white, higher management is very white,” he says.
Political and other leaders are also ill-informed about the legacy of slavery and racism in Canada, which is unacceptable, according to historian Andrea Davis.
“I think that our leaders don’t really have that excuse of saying, ‘well, I wasn’t taught this in school’ because it’s their responsibility to know the histories of the people they represent.”
Yet, last week, Ontario Premier Doug Ford and Quebec Premier François Legault both downplayed the severity of systemic racism in Canada.
“I don’t want us to compare ourselves to the United States. We have not experienced the slavery and history of the United States,” Legault said.
Both later conceded that systemic racism exists.
–With files from Alley Wilson, Farah Nasser