It's time to make February about Black 'heritage' — not history — say 2 organizers

After a turbulent 2020, Black heritage groups in Guelph and Kitchener are changing how they mark Black History Month.

'Kitchener does not have a very good reputation for hate crimes,' says Lannois Carroll-Woolery

More than 8,000 people attended the Black Lives Matter march in Guelph in June, 2020. (Submitted by: Ward1studios)

Growing up, the only Black history Denise Francis remembers learning at school was about slavery, Harriet Tubman and the narrative of the Underground Railroad. 

She says it's time to move past exclusively looking back at that history during the month of February, and instead turn our gaze forward and start celebrating Black heritage.

And, she says, there's no better time to start than right now.

"You know, 2020 was a watershed year for our community. Social justice initiatives moved to the forefront," said Francis, who is President of the Guelph Black Heritage Society. 

"What we want to do is not only honour and remember our past but acknowledge the great things that are happening in our community right now and also look toward the future as well."

The display of allyship from people outside the Black community was significant in June, 2020, in both Guelph and Kitchener. 

Black Lives Matter marches took place in both cities. Francis says more than 8,000 people marched in downtown Guelph. In Kitchener, the number was estimated to be between 12,000 and 20,000.

History of hate crimes

The recognition by white and ally communities that racism exists in Canada — not just south of the border — has been a turning point, said Lannois Carroll-Woolery, president of the Caribbean Canadian Association of Waterloo Region.

"Kitchener does not have a very good reputation for hate crimes or race-motivated crimes," said Carroll-Woolery.

In 2017, Kitchener, Waterloo and Cambridge ranked third in the country for its high rate of reported hate crimes, according to Statistics Canada.  

The report ranked 34 census metropolitan areas. Thunder Bay was at the top with a rate 22.3 reported hate crimes per 100,000 people. 

Kitchener-Waterloo-Cambridge had a rate of 9.4 per 100,000.

"Prior to the events of 2020 there were perhaps five per cent of the population that were actively working to end anti-Black racism," said Carrol-Woolery. "That small minority was coming up against another small minority that actively worked to promote anti-Black racism." 

The result of 2020's demonstrations, said Carrol-Woolery, is the vast majority of people between the two extremes have "suddenly woke up."

"They realized they needed to be anti-racist and they needed to liaise and work and partner with the five per cent who have been fighting for equality and equity for decades."

Carrol-Woolery believes that is the missing component that will allow the Black community to move out of the past and into the future. 

"That shift is what will allow the community to move past racist histories and racist pasts and put solutions in place for the Black community that will ensure equity into the future," he said. 

Francis and Carrol-Woolery encourage people to spend the month of February unlearning the myths and biases they've acquired over time. 

"The narrative needs to change and we need to take an active role in educating ourselves and educating our families about Black history — and as Denise says — Black heritage," he told CBC. 

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from CBC's Melissa Galevski


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