Canadian cultural institutions have silenced Black voices for years. Can we write a new chapter?
Fighting the power comes at a cost. To better support today's activists, take a lesson from history
Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.
Realizing that you are living through history — the kind of history that ends up in textbooks — is a bizarre and somewhat disconcerting feeling. In the midst of a global pandemic, millions of people around the world are taking to the streets, risking their lives to express their anger and fight police brutality and anti-Black racism.
It feels at once familiar and entirely unprecedented. Ideas that were once deemed too extreme, like defunding the police, are now mainstream topics of debate. And companies that couldn't tolerate a single player kneeling during the anthem are now jumping on the #BlackLivesMatter bandwagon. (Yes, I'm looking at you, NFL.) In the final edit of those future history textbooks, I hope that a cultural reckoning for institutions and corporations is included alongside the protests and petitions.
Days after the premiers of both Quebec and Ontario denied and downplayed the existence of systemic racism in Canada, social media platforms were flooded with narratives that painted a very different picture. In a wave that echoes of the #MeToo movement, Black folks from across the country are sharing numerous personal testimonies that call out specific businesses, institutions and organizations for their anti-Black practices. These stories are moving and enraging, affirming and disappointing, inspiring and devastating. And they've powerfully undermined and challenged many organizations' public statements of solidarity to the struggle.
Seeing this overwhelming wave of courage, I have been reflecting on the risk involved. Each individual who steps forward faces potential consequences if/when the momentum of this moment passes. Black artists and activists in Canada have a long history of speaking truth to power and calling out anti-Black racism, from its most overt forms to its most passive micro-aggressions. But their acts of bravery reveal a history of institutionally enforced silencing, erasure, defamation and suppression.
Right now, Black folks are being asked to speak, to teach, to share and to instruct non-Black people on "how they can help." It's exhausting, exploitative and derivative. (All the information is out there if you want to find it.) And these requests rarely consider what is at stake for the Black folks who speak up. This is particularly true in a country that is quick to shut down any evidence that challenges its well-curated image of benevolence. If history has taught us anything, it's that Canadian institutions and companies do not welcome the truth when it comes to the realities of systemic racism. They often do one of two things in response: 1) they systematically shut down those who disrupt the status quo, or 2) they symbolically acquiesce, but make only surface-level changes. This ultimately enables systems of power to change in appearance, but stay the same in function. As Esi Edugyan recently wrote in Maclean's: "The weight of change shouldn't rest on the shoulders of Black people." Only an organized, contextualized and strategic effort will ensure that this generation is not subjected to the consequences faced by those who came before.
Here are four moments from history where members of the Black community attempted to challenge anti-Black racism. In each instance, the institutional backlash was swift and substantial. By examining these case studies, I hope we can better defend and support those who are bravely continuing the legacy of speaking truth to power today.
The people vs. the Royal Ontario Museum
In 1989, a group of Black artists, activists and students came together to protest Into the Heart of Africa, the first exhibition of African art held at the Royal Ontario Museum. In the words of Dr. Afua Cooper, the exhibition was presented through a colonial lens that saw "Africa as childlike, primitive, savage and in need of European tutelage." The Coalition for the Truth About Africa (CFTA) was formed in response, and they began devising a list of demands that included the closure or re-staging of the exhibit and the hiring of Black people in curatorial and key leadership positions. The CFTA wrote letters, created petitions, met with members of the ROM and eventually organized weekly pickets of the exhibit.
Their activism drew police attention and media backlash. Consequently, several members' lives and careers were damaged. Following one confrontation, 11 protestors were arrested and charged. According to Pride magazine, one demonstrator, Adisa Oji, faced the following repercussions: "[he] was imprisoned for six months, could not travel to the U.S. and had his teaching career stymied." Another member, Ras Rico, was one of several individuals placed under surveillance by Toronto Police Services. This case reveals how activism can be criminalized in this country.
The protests successfully prevented the exhibit from touring, but it took 27 years for the museum to finally issue an official apology. Change comes slowly to an institution, as this story reveals. And change is never over. A quick glance at the Royal Ontario Museum's current leadership reveals that Black voices and perspectives are still notably absent.
The Sir George Williams Affair
In early 1969, Canadian newspapers warned readers about a group of radical students in Montreal: they were looking for trouble and guilty of destruction of property. It was an exercise in fear-mongering — one that started a national debate on racism. And the incident that sparked it would go down in history as the Sir George Williams Affair.
Students at the biology department of Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) claimed that their professor, Perry Anderson, was deliberately failing Black students. They lodged an official complaint with the school's administration, but after realizing their concerns would not be adequately addressed, the students organized a rally. Ultimately, a group of more than 200 diverse students occupied the university's computer lab for two weeks.
Although controversial, the protest was a peaceful sit-in until it was disrupted by police. During the standoff — as activists were beaten and police officers were hosed — a fire engulfed the lab. In the midst of it all, a crowd of spectators gathered outside. Some chanted: "Let the n--gers burn!" In the aftermath, 97 people were arrested, including one of the purported leaders, a postgraduate student and rising activist from Dominica named Roosevelt "Rosie" Douglas. He was sentenced to 18 months for arson.
Upon his release, Douglas moved to Toronto, and rather than step back from activism, he became an even more powerful mobilizing figure. According to the short film Rosie, the Fearless Rebel, Douglas was a key player in the creation of community institutions such as Caribana, African Liberation Day and the Black Education Project. His advocacy also led to the creation of the Transitional Year Program at the University of Toronto. All of this made him an inspiring community hero, but to others, his activism and outspokenness had long been deemed a threat. In an extreme effort to ensure his silence, Douglas was deported back to Dominica in 1975. He later became prime minister of the island.
The critical lesson to be drawn from this case: one's connection to the state can be called into question when your activism challenges the foundational myths of this country.
The case of the 'disappeared' writer
M. NourbeSe Philip's recent book Blank is a painful examination of how the author — one of this country's most brilliant poets and critics — was gradually pushed out of the Canadian literary scene. Her crime? Challenging the status quo.
One of the most famous examples took place in 1989. At the time, Philip was protesting PEN Canada with the activist group Vision 21. This band of artists (which also included TIFF's current co-head, Cameron Bailey) was protesting PEN's lack of BIPOC writers. Outside PEN's annual general meeting, June Callwood — the celebrated journalist and incoming chair of PEN Canada — told Philip to "fuck off." Rather than unanimously rallying around Philip, the Canadian literary community was split in their response regarding both Philip's activism and Callwood's verbal attack.
Philip's ongoing activism included protesting the Toronto staging of the racist musical Showboat, and because of her perseverance and public profile, she was targeted in further verbal attacks. In 1995, for example, radio host Michael Coren accused Philip of being a woman who had "done nothing but defecate upon this country."
Beyond the slurs, Philip's activism was punished in a more pernicious and long-lasting way: the Canadian literary community erased her.
Outside of the country, Philip has been awarded the Casas de las Américas prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship and most recently the PEN/Nabokov Award for Achievement in International Literature. But within Canada, celebration of her work has been significantly lacking. Writing for the Walrus, Paul Barrett says that Philip's 2008 collection Zong! "was mostly ignored by Canadian critics despite being praised around the world." And her relevant critical works have not been referenced in recent debates around cultural appropriation and anti-Black racism in Canadian literature. Barrett writes: "While many of her contemporaries have taken up comfortable positions as creative writing instructors or editors in publishing houses, Philip has yet to find prominent footing in the larger CanLit scene." It is heartbreaking but not surprising then that Philip describes herself in Blank as a "disappeared writer."
Philip's experience is a frustrating illustration of how Canadian institutions and industries work to silence certain voices. Rather than a sudden violent intervention, this is an example of the long game, where subtle methods are deployed to discredit and disappear those who disrupt the status quo.
Desmond Cole quits the Toronto Star
In 2015, Desmond Cole's award-winning cover story for Toronto Life became a national talking point. The piece poignantly outlines the experience of living as a Black man who had been stopped by the police more than 50 times. With an explosion in social media followers, countless speaking requests and a weekly column in the Toronto Star, Cole used his expanded platform to highlight incidents of injustice and decry the myriad forms of anti-Black racism in Canada.
After protesting a Toronto Police Services Board meeting in 2017, Cole was called in to speak with his editor at the Star. He was told his actions had been a violation of the newspaper's rules on journalism and activism. Later, the paper made a public statement: "It is not appropriate for Star journalists to play the roles of both actor and critic."
Although there was no overt disciplinary action against Cole, a message was clearly being sent. Prior to meeting with his editor, Cole's weekly column had been cut in half. (He says "budget struggles" were cited as the reason.) Cole also says that during a meeting with the chair of Torstar Corp. a year earlier, he was told he was "writing about race too often." At that time, it was suggested that he "diversify" his topics.
Cole ultimately decided to leave the Star, writing on his blog: "If I must choose between a newspaper column and the actions I must take to liberate myself and my community, I choose activism in the service of Black liberation."
His profile as a dedicated activist, combined with social media savvy, enabled him to find other platforms. For five years, Cole has hosted a weekly radio show on Newstalk 1010 radio. His work is featured in a CBC documentary and, perhaps most notably, he published his first book (a national bestseller) earlier this year. Both are titled The Skin We're In.
Cole's experience with the Star is a stark illustration of how journalists, and storytellers in general, are told to censor their perspectives and voices. It is also a reminder of the new tools we have at our disposal. Social media provides new and powerful channels to create alternative narratives and pockets of mobilization.
It's time to write a new chapter
It's important to reflect on these lessons, especially this week. So many organizations have been called out for systemic anti-Black racism: the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Ballet of Canada, The Drake Hotel, Global News and ET Canada. The hashtag #inthedressingroom, which is led by Black artists from the Stratford Festival, invited a conversation on systemic racism in Canadian theatre. The hashtag #PublishingPaidMe sparked a conversation about pay disparities across racial lines in the North American publishing world. As I write this article, the hashtag #BlackintheNewsroom is gaining traction thanks to a tweet from one of my own CBC colleagues.
There are many more examples, but I'm drawing attention to these ones because they involve powerful gatekeepers. These companies contribute greatly to how we understand ourselves and this country. As such, it is imperative that we hold them accountable for the ways that they have remained complicit in perpetuating anti-Black racism.
The people who called them out have intimate knowledge of these institutions. They include former staff members and students. Many of their experiences have been tucked away for years, only shared with friends or trusted colleagues in whispers. Speaking privately with fellow Black media professionals within the CBC and across multiple outlets over the past couple of weeks, it has been disheartening to realize how much fear we all carry and how much silencing we've been forced to endure. Whether our concerns are casually dismissed or weaponized to justify the limits of our career mobility, the message is consistent: these truths are not welcome here.
Social media has shifted the balance of power in fascinating ways. Institutions and outlets that once held all the reins in defining and shaping the public narrative are now scrambling to remain relevant in a world where news breaks on Twitter. Movements can mobilize virtually, borders have lost much of their relevance and audiences can be built without publicists and promoters. In this new age, the ability of institutions to silence individuals has been fundamentally undermined. And the moment of reckoning has arrived.
For all the non-Black folks still reading this article, rather than leaving sympathetic notes in the comments and shaking your head over the woes of the world, now is the time to strategically leverage the moment. Now is the time to demand more from institutions. Now is the time to hold them accountable to their mandates and public statements. And now is the time to protect the whistleblowers who have put it all on the line. If these things happen, this chapter will definitely make it into the history books.