Black History documentary reveals Canada’s hidden past – By Yvonne Sam

Black History documentary reveals Canada’s hidden past – By Yvonne Sam

Displays of historical omission in civic remission

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana. The Life of Reason (1905-06)

The recognition of Black History Month has created controversy about the continued usefulness and fairness of a month dedicated to the history of one race.  Now February 28 has come and gone carrying in its wake Black History Month. Simply put it means that we will go back to not talking about black issues until next year, or until something in the news makes it applicable again. For one month each year Canadians deign to pay attention to Black History in the most perfunctory manner possible.    

For many, it is all about the Underground Railroad, and how progressive Canada the Savior is. At its best, it is casually thrown into the curriculum and not intended as part of yearlong learning. At its worst, it is used to brush aside or outright erase the past—A blatant case of historical omission in civic remission.

Once Black History month became a national celebration, the chief aim was to raise awareness of black history in Canada, which up until then had been virtually ignored in school curriculum and in the media. Despite a presence in Canada that dates back farther than Samuel de Champlain’s first voyage down the St. Lawrence River , people of African descent are often absent from Canadian history books. In addition, not many Canadians are aware of the many sacrifices made in wartime by black Canadian soldiers (Black Corps or Runchey’s Company of Colored Men) as far back as the War of 1812. The focus on the past should ultimately be a way of looking for a better future.

Canada needs to remember.  Today in Germany young children learn about the Holocaust, the concentration camps are museums where the horrors that were carried out are laid bare. Visitors take tours through select German camps, such as —–Bergen-Belsen Memorial, Dachau. …Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, to view the horror of the past, in the hope that the enlightened will never allow another Holocaust.

One may ask, are the details of what allowed for slavery, and what it caused taught in our schools? Where are the monuments to the abused, enslaved, tortured and the dead? As long as people seek shelter behind, “oh it all took place so long ago”, and “my grandparents were upstanding people”, the door is open wide for these abuses to take place again. As long as Canada defines itself discursively as “Other” in relation to the United States, it will never have to deal with its own bad acts.

Black History Month is not a time to eulogize Blacks or to abuse their perpetrators, nor is it a time to promote propaganda but instead to counteract it by popularizing truth. There still remains much more history to be examined relative to Blacks in Canada, but viewing it only through the spectrum or prism of Black History is a perplexing part of the problem as it should be seen as part of the larger Canadian context.  Black history provides the binary opposite to all traditional histories. One needs traditional history to engender a common culture; one needs Black history to engender a clearer and more complete culture.

The National Film Board documentary Speakers for the Dead lays bare some of the hidden history of Blacks in Canada, that have failed to find place in any history book. Desecration at its prime is also revealed.  African Canadians veterans of the War of 1812 settled in the area near Priceville, a tiny village east of Durham and south west of Flesherton. The rolling topography, the meanderingSaugeen River and the well preserved and restored old buildings add to the village’s attractiveness.

These veterans were promised lands by the Canadian government, but were forced to squat elsewhere when Whites were given deeds to the same lands. Eventually the Black community disappears, but a cemetery serves as a link to this past, which sadly was later converted into a potato patch by a local farmer who also buried the tombstones.

Descendants of the original settlers both Black and White united in the 1980’s in an effort to restore the cemetery, but once again Blacks faced an obstacle—the sundown laws.  The sundown laws in effect hindered Blacks from attending meeting as in many Ontario communities it required them to be off the streets at night. There are references to sundown laws existing, but the historians themselves are not furnishing empirical evidence.

The story of Priceville, Ontario epitomizes the story of racism in Canada and digs beneath a stereotype of racial intolerance. Canada did not officially have segregation yet there were places that Blacks could not go, so we cannot be too self-righteous about Canada’s place in history when it comes to racism.  As Canadians we of times saunter around saying,” Americans are so racist, Look at the segregation down South, or Look at the lynchings. However, let us also remember that it was just as bad in Canada.

Carter Woodson the father of Black History Month contended that if a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world and it stands in danger of being exterminated.  Omissions should no longer be in remission, as the true story should be told via the history books where everyone including the future generation can look.  No longer can Black History remain a mystery, for each and every contribution by Blacks must be kept on track.

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  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 03/02/2018 at 1:10 pm

    Excellent post. Yvonne Sam raises several valid points for reflection.

    A Moroccan Jewish woman I met years ago at a writers’ group meeting told me that the Holocaust was the greatest crime ever committed against humanity. What about African slavery, I asked her. Slavery existed from earliest times, she told me. End of story.

    Black and brown human bodies – we must not forget the indigenous peoples of the Americas – have less value that white ones. Instead of working to correct this injustice, our white brothers and sisters prefer to bury and distort the past. As the writer notes:

    “As long as people seek shelter behind, “oh it all took place so long ago”, and “my grandparents were upstanding people”, the door is open wide for these abuses to take place again.”

  • Bernard N. Singh  On 03/03/2018 at 12:18 pm


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