A groundbreaking, four-part series is set to air on the History Channel this weekend, exploring the untold stories of Black history in Canada.
BLK: An Origin Story takes Canadians on a nationwide journey of discovery into the people, communities, and never-before-heard stories of Canada’s Black population.
Executive producers Jen Holness and Sudz Sutherland crossed the country, listening to stories and putting together a series “that resets the understanding of Black history in Canada,” said Holness.
Viewers will learn about Canada’s unfiltered Black history in four hour-long episodes that focus on communities in Nova Scotia, Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec.
The show’s narrative is helped along by familiar names: George Elliot Clarke, Lawrence Hill, Charmaine Nelson, El Jones, May Q Wong, and Stephanie Allen all help tell the stories.
Omission and erasure
The show’s first episode is set in Nova Scotia, uncovering some of the myths and misconceptions about the history of Black communities on the East Coast.
Viewers are in for some shocking revelations when they realize how much of this history was omitted from their school curriculum.
“When we were kids, the only mention of Black history was during Black History Week — it wasn’t even a month then, just a week,” Sutherland told Global News.
“At that time teachers told us: ‘Black people used the Underground Railroad to get to Nova Scotia and then they lived happily ever after.’ That was it. It was like a real-life fairytale, when that wasn’t even close to the truth. There was no agency, no resistance in those stories. It was just this story that Black people were liberated by Canadians.”
And that’s just the tip of the omission iceberg.
Holness points to a segment in the first episode that shines a light on the terrible treatment of Black people in Nova Scotia, which they eventually escaped by the boatful to return to their home countries or, in many cases, where they were first enslaved.
“The conditions must have been so bad,” she said. “And you can’t chalk it up to: ‘Well, these people were going back to be with their families’, because why would anyone leave an opportunity? Why would anyone leave land, and property, and space to go back to a country that, for the most part, had Jim Crow and even more entrenched segregation?”
Shocking history, even for the creators
Sutherland says he and Holness were surprised — and even shocked — at some of the discoveries that came to light during their research for the show.
“One of the things that shocked us was learning that one of the first non-Native settlers on Vancouver Island were Black,” said Sutherland.
“The fact that James Douglas (the first Governor of the Colony of British Columbia) was bi-racial was very surprising, even to us. We had no idea about this stuff, no one talked about this stuff.
“I didn’t know that the Black Loyalists and the Black refugees were two entirely different groups altogether. People conflate them,” added Holness.
The series also looks at the bonds between Black Canadians and the Indigenous people living on the land.
“At a certain point in our history it becomes impossible to just talk about Black contributions without acknowledging and exploring how Indigenous people worked with Black people,” said Sutherland.
Black and non-Black Canadians will benefit
Sutherland and Holness told Global News their show is for all Canadians, and anyone who watches will learn something news.
“Yes, there is a lot in the series that non-Black Canadians will be surprised to learn about, but there’s also lots of information that even Black Canadians don’t know,” said Sutherland.
“So many people think Canadian history is so boring, but it isn’t — it’s just been sanitized for 200 years. So much of this history happened in our lifetimes, it’s not that long ago. ”
The time is now
Holness says the docuseries comes at a perfect time.
“While there have been other films and shows that tackle Black history, what makes our series so important, I believe, is it’s now the time,” she said.
“It’s the time when the nation of Canada is actually ready to accept its history, its complacency. It’s the perfect time to start questioning what we’ve understood and show some of the erased history — these are facts, we’re not creating narratives. These are erased or marginalized facts.
“For the everyday Canadian, these series show you how this country has harmed Black people, despite Black people being so instrumental in helping to build this nation.”
BLK: An Origin Story, premieres Saturday, Feb. 26, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on The History Channel.