Black History Month & Resistance
“Now let us begin. Now let us re-dedicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world.” -- Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
As I said this time last year, I hope that one day we will not have to celebrate Black History Month, that our society, discourse and school curricula will be redolent with the contributions and experiences of Black Canadians, that Black students in our schools will be proud of who they are, that they will see their history and culture in the ecology of their school experiences, and that they will not suffer the legacy of prejudice and racism as previous generations. This is not the case yet, so we must work purposefully to make it so, and celebrating Black History Month remains an important step in that direction.
While I continue to honour the genesis of Black History Month in the United States, I also want to acknowledge its presence all over the world, and here particularly in Canada. Some of you may know that every year since 1928 each Black History Month has had a theme. For instance, last year’s theme was Health and Wellness, and focused on the legacy of Black scholars and medical practitioners in Western medicine, as well as other ways of knowing (e.g., birth workers, doulas, midwives, naturopaths, herbalists, etc.) throughout the African Diaspora. This year’s theme is Resistance and honours the various ways that Black people have resisted historic and ongoing oppression, in all its forms, from injustices in access to fundamental rights in education and healthcare to the racial terrorism and violence of lynchings.
At first blush, the idea of resistance may seem out of place, particularly for an observance dedicated to uplifting the numerous contributions of Black people. But if you are a student of history, you will know that many of the freedoms that we now take for granted would not have been realized without advocacy, struggle, protest and resistance. While there have been numerous circumstances where governments and other civic institutions have been moved to serve Black communities out of conscience, there have also been numerous situations in history where Black citizens have had to fight to obtain basic freedoms afforded to other citizens. When Nelson Mandela famously said, “The struggle is my life!” he was speaking of a life dedicated to resistance in the name of equity, dignity and justice. Hence, I think it useful in 2023 to recognize the efforts of those who came before us as they used resistance to help bring about the better world in which we now live.
So how do we honour and celebrate Black Resistance in Canada, and in BC in particular? Courtesy of the BC Black History Awareness Society, I offer below a few Canadian milestones which speak to the significance of advocacy, struggle and resistance.
- 1833: While the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed through the British Empire in 1833, across Canada, this freedom did not arrive immediately for Black slaves. In British North America this law initially applied only to children under the age of six. Their parents were required to repay their emancipators by working as “apprentices” for forty hours per week, without pay. It was through resistance that government finally relented in 1838.
- 1860: Following a series of attacks on Black residents, theatres in Victoria began publicly stating that Black patrons could only be seated in the gallery. Black residents petitioned the governor for several years until the practice eventually ceased.
- 1872: Black residents in Victoria presented a petition to the Legislative Assembly requesting their names be added to the official list of jurors in the community after being denied access due to white citizens objecting to sitting beside Black men. Months later the newspaper reported that “the first colored jurors who have sat in the province since 1860, were empaneled yesterday. Another blow at prejudice.”
- 1911: The Canadian Government issued an Order in Council to limit Black immigration to Canada. The purpose of the order was to ban Black persons from entering Canada for a period of one year because, it read, “the Negro race…is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” After much objection, Cabinet repealed the order later that year.
- 1916: The No. 2 Construction Battalion, the first and only Black battalion in Canadian military history was authorized, with headquarters initially in Nova Scotia. While enduring significant mistreatment, they served with distinction but received no formal recognition for their service. After years of petition from their descendants, a national apology was delivered by Prime Minister Trudeau on July 9, 2022.
- 1930s: Railway porters played a major role in the struggle for Black rights in Canada. Through their unions, such as the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, they gained recognition for Blacks within the labour movement. After the Second World War, the porters made important contributions to the campaign for human rights, particularly through their struggle to end discrimination in railway employment.
- In April of 1941, Vancouver Newspapers began reporting on the “Crystal Pool Controversy”; where the Vancouver Parks Board imposed a colour ban limiting the use of the pool for Blacks and Chinese only on Tuesday mornings. After four years of protest, the “colour line” was lifted in 1945.
- 1958: The BC Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, the first racially oriented, and non-violence/activist organization was formed. It provided a community voice and support for self-definition through census taking, supported/liaised with other Canadian and American organizations, endeavoured to influence the curriculum in B.C. schools, as well as provided support for individuals facing discrimination in areas such as education, housing, and the justice system.
- 1960: Vancouver City Council approved a “redevelopment plan” that called for the demolition of nearly all of Strathcona , where most Black Vancouverites had settled, resulting in the suspension of regular city maintenance. No new construction was permitted and property values plummeted. Owners were forced to sell and finally houses were expropriated. Some years later the Hogan’s Alley Society (HAS) was formed to advocate for Black Vancouverites who have endured the legacies of urban renewal.
- 1974: Valmond Romilly, a Smithers lawyer was arrested by three Vancouver city policeman. The police claimed that Romilly was a suspect wanted for questioning, based on the claim that the suspect, like Romilly, was Black. Romilly was not released even after the police realized that they had made a mistake about his identity. Instead, he was questioned further and police even phoned immigration authorities to make enquiries about him. Romilly sued the police for false arrest and was later awarded $300 damages plus court costs.
- 1975: Victoria’s Black People Society formed sometime in 1975. They focused on providing cultural and social activities and encouraging their children to learn about their history. They had an estimated 90 households as members.
- 2020: George Floyd is murdered in the US, sparking protests around the world. Here in British Columbia the protests accelerated the government’s commitment to an K-12 Anti-racism Action Plan which was released in January 2023.
Despite tremendous progress towards equity, and particularly here in Canada, resistance has been and continues to be an integral part of the pathway to justice for Black people around the world. Resistance in its various forms is not futile, but rather tells the story of an arduous journey to a greater humanity filled with hope. We have all benefited from the resistance of those who came before us. Resistance gives today’s students the confidence to speak up in the face of injustice. As the late US congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis advised, “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year. It is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”