Why Black history is an essential part of Canadian history

"As Black History Month draws to a close, I thought it would be prudent to share a few thoughts," says Winnipegger Neil Davis. "When the foundations and history of Canada are discussed, Black history deserves recognition."

'In every way, Black history predates what would have become Canada,' says Winnipegger Neil Davis

Viola Desmond is an integral part of Black history — and Canadian history. (Still Standing/CBC)

As Black History Month draws to a close, I thought it would be prudent to share a few thoughts. 

Black History Month is a period of time devoted to understanding, open dialogue and celebrating the contributions of Black culture, without diluting the hardships and perpetual barriers that still exist and affect racialized people.

Historically, it is essential to identify and bolster a truly inclusive telling of Canadian history. As a country, the act of debating our fundamental essence runs as old as Confederation itself. 

Canada means different things to different people, depending on a myriad factors. Is Canada fundamentally defined along the French-English duality that was almost enshrined during the failed Meech Lake Accord? 

Black history stretches deep into the fabric of Canada- Neil Davis

Do the foundations of Canada actually reflect a multilateral partnership between French, English and Indigenous peoples?

Is Canada nothing more than a collection of inherently equal and mostly autonomous provinces? 

Does the dominance of multiculturalism and the theory of a post-nation state make all of the previous questions outdated and irrelevant?

Defending the country

Within this debate, it is essential to recognize that Black history stretches deep into the fabric of Canada. 

Black Loyalists settled in the Maritimes around the time of the American Revolution. Black soldiers fought, defending what would become our country, during the War of 1812 (most notably in the Battle of Queenston Heights.)

During the First World War, Black patriots battled discriminatory recruitment practices as they fought for the right to defend this country, with their efforts ultimately culminating in the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion (also known as the Black Battalion). 

Members of the No. 2 Construction Battalion line up in Truro, N.S., before departing for England and France in the First World War. (Submitted by George Borden)

In the ongoing fight for greater civil liberties and the battle to stamp out systemic racism, the stand Viola Desmond took against segregationist practices in 1946 Nova Scotia continues to inspire to this day. 

In every way, Black history predates what would have become Canada and will continue to enrich it going forward. When the foundations and history of Canada are discussed, Black history deserves recognition and Black people deserve a strong voice at the table.

In Manitoba we have a lot to celebrate within our Black community, including the 40th anniversary of the Black History Manitoba Celebration Committee

Winnipeg introduced Canada to its first Black chief of police in 2012. 

Notably, we've made inroads in politics, including at the municipal and provincial levels of government.

It is essential to push for more substantive change- Neil Davis

In 2014, Stonewall elected its first Black municipal councillor, who was elected in 2018 as the first Black mayor in Manitoba. 

Additionally, in 2018, Winnipeg elected its first Black city councillor. 

The following year, we elected three Black members of the legislative assembly (MLAs). 

The Black community is also central to shaping Manitoba's economic, social and multicultural identity. 

Small businesses form the backbone of many local and vibrant communities, and as I look across my community, I see firsthand the economic impact made by Black entrepreneurs across Manitoba. 

Work to be done

While we've made a lot of progress at the individual level, it is essential to push for more substantive change. 

It is problematic to look at these accomplishments with a pride that colours our current vision of life as a Black Canadian today. 

The act of diversifying our leadership is symbolically powerful and inspiring. But it is simply not enough to have a diverse collection of leaders administering the same systems and overseeing the same intractable problems. 

What is required is for an increasingly diverse leadership to begin the hard work of reforming and augmenting existing systems, to the betterment of all marginalized people. And it must be done through a collected and inclusive voice. 

Canada and Manitoba have made a lot of progress that must be celebrated, but we cannot forget the work still to be done.

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.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.