Celebrating Black History Month Should Just Be The Beginning

Over the last few years, I’ve been glad to see people in Canada rightly begin to shake off a smugness about the experiences of black people in this country compared to in the United States.

For example, for far too long, white Canadians believed our country doesn’t have the same sort of outright racism as the U.S. We boasted about how American slaves once tried to escape to freedom by making their way to Canada. We try to tell ourselves that right-wing populists are more of an issue in the U.S. than here.

I’ve known many Canadians who seem to have conveniently forgot that Canada once had slaves, too, and that the Ku Klux Klan once had chapters here, as do other far-right groups.We shake a finger at the U.S. over Rosa Parks being denied a seat on a bus, but fail to teach our children about Viola Desmond’s similar stand at a Nova Scotia movie theatre.

I could go on. I know from my own experience growing up in Canada that we have traditionally not been told about the history of black Canadians or their contributions to the development of the country. When I went to school we learned about pre-Confederation Canada, and the Underground Railroad; we didn’t learn about our own history of slavery.

While this is starting to change, the change is coming too slowly.

In Toronto, the public school board’s Africentric Alternative School, which teaches students about the experiences and history of people of African and Caribbean descent, is celebrating its 10-year anniversary. For the students, the school has had the intended results.

“I can walk out, wherever I am, no matter who’s around me, confident in my skin and confident in who I am,” grade eight student Kyeron Banton, who started at the school in September 2009, told CBC.

Such a strong statement of identity and confidence is certainly good to hear, but the sad fact is that the school remains the only one of its kind in Canada.

I believe there’s an appetite for learning the history of black Canadians and other racialized groups. Just look at all the interest in Desmond and the history of black Canadians that we saw when it was announced that she’d be on the new $10 bill.

However, there’s no denying that many of the problems faced by Desmond persist to this day, even if they are not as obvious as segregated movie theatres.

There remains a great disparity in wages based on race in Canada, with black Canadians earning just 80.4 cents for every dollar earned by white Canadians. The situation is often worse for Black women.

As well, racial profiling by police continues to be a problem across Canada. Despite some progress on the issue, such as the Toronto police chief acknowledging that racial profiling and racism exist within the force, and Montreal police committing to tracking the issue, black Canadians continue to be more likely to have interactions with police.

This sort of systemic racism needs to stop, and one way that can happen is by ensuring all Canadians have a better understanding of this country’s history. I’ve seen this in action on a smaller sale in the workplaces my union represents. As people become more educated about such issues, their tolerance for systemic racism declines, and they push for change.

Yes, let’s celebrate Black History Month, but let’s also commit to learn, and to do more.

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