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A history of racial history months in Canada

Maureen Mugerwa
Contributor

Since its expansion from a week to a whole month in 1976, Black History Month has been controversial. Some people think it’s good –  honouring the past is important, especially the past of historically oppressed people. Others, including prominent figures like actor Morgan Freeman, think there should not be one month set a side for a culture’s history; rather, black history should be treated as an integral part of a nation’s history.

For now, though, the month of February continues to celebrate Black History Month in both Canada and the United States.

Black History Month has its origins in 1926, when historian Carter G. Woodson announced a week in remembrance of important black historians who influenced the social conditions and lives of African-Americans. He chose the second week of February because this celebrated the birthdays of both former president Abraham Lincoln and black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

In Canada, the Ontario Black History Society, formed in 1978, was the first organization to lobby for a Canadian Black History Month. The society petitioned the City of Toronto and lobbied the federal government to have February declared Black History Month by 1979. However, Parliament took until 1995 to officially recognize Black History Month.

Many people are not aware of Saskatchewan’s black history. In the early 20th century, for example, a number of emancipated blacks from the United States came to Saskatchewan for free land and were met with civil unrest.

In 1910, many families came to Saskatchewan to take advantage of the push to settle Western Canada, in which the federal government offered free land to anybody willing to settle in Saskatchewan. A number of black Baptist families from Oklahoma took advantage of the offer and settled about 30 kilometres north of Maidstone. Their church, the Shiloh Baptist Church, was such a central part of the community that they came to be known as the Shiloh community. The building itself, a one-room log cabin that, today, is a municipal heritage site was honoured with the Architectural Heritage Award of Excellence in 2008.

The only thing that remains of Saskatchewan’s early black history is the church, a cemetery, and a few descendants, some of whom have been trying to work on saving it. Reuben Mayes is one of the most famous Shiloh descendants. He was born in North Battleford and later became an NFL star.

Black History Month isn’t the only month Canada sets aside to celebrate other cultures’ histories. Although many Canadians may not know it, the month of June was chosen as Aboriginal History Month. It was to honour the contribution, heritage, and cultures of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. As well, June includes Aboriginal-centric holidays; for example, June 21, the summer solstice, coincides with National Aboriginal Day.

Del Anaquod, an Indigenous studies professor at the First Nations University of Canada (FNUniv), thinks commemorating Aboriginal history is important.

“History has been used to justify one version of the world,” he said. “It minimizes what really happened.”

Anaquod added that some of the Aboriginal schools have an Aboriginal week which, depending on the school, usually happens during the spring.”

However, he said that race-specific history months “have lost their effectiveness.”

Margaret Cote, the Salteaux Language and Cultural Advisor at the Aboriginal Students Center, believes Aboriginal History Month is relevant.

“Yes they should have a First Nations History Month,” Cote said. “This is their land, they were here first.”

Black History in Canada

Canada’s black people, like their counterparts in the United States, have their own rich, complex, and often difficult history. Here are some notable moments.

1605: First Recorded Black Person in Canada
The first named black person to set foot on Canadian soil was Mathieu Da Costa, a free man who was hired as a translator for Samuel de Champlain’s 1605 excursion.

May 12, 1785: “Negro Frolicks” Prohibited
Officials in Nova Scotia ordered “50 Handbills [to] be immediately printed forbidding Negro Dances and Negro Frolicks in [the] town of Shelburne.”

July 1791: Slave Case Heard at N.S. Court
Freedom for Canadian blacks was elusive, regardless of the promises made by the British at the end of the American War of Independence. Enslaved woman Mary Postell took her  “owner” Jesse Gray to court twice for stealing her children. He was found not guilty, even though he had sold her and her daughter. 

1807: Upper Canadian Slave Rejects Freedom
Black escapees were used to help defend Detroit and served in their own military unit. In 1807, Upper Canadian slave-holder John Askin sent George, a black 15-year-old, to Detroit on an errand. Black soldiers offered George a weapon and freedom. George considered staying, but returned to Upper Canada and his master.

Nov. 21, 1892: Canada’s First Black Physician Named Aide-de-Camp
Anderson Abbot became Canada's first black physician in 1861.

March 10, 1913: Heroine of the Underground Railroad Dies
Harriet Tubman, heroine of the Underground Railroad, died in New York in 1913. Her work helped 300 slaves to freedom in Canada.

1939-1945: Blacks Accepted into Canadian Services in WWII
Initially, the Canadian military rejected black volunteers, but as the war continued, many blacks were accepted into the regular army and officer corps. By the end of the war, hundreds of black Canadians served alongside whites in Canada and Europe.

Sept. 25, 1963: First Black Legislative Member
Leonard Braithwaite became the first African-Canadian in a provincial legislature when he was elected as the Liberal member for Etobicoke, Ont. in 1963.

Aug. 4, 2005: First Black Governor General
Prime Minister Paul Martin announced the appointment of Haitian-born Michaëlle Jean as Governor General of Canada.

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