Newly-elected U.S. congressional representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently said, “Until America tells the truth about itself, we’re not going to heal.”
There’s reason to hope that America will heal. For instance, it’s very encouraging to see several Democratic presidential hopefuls include recognition of the impact of the slave trade and subsequent racist policies against the African-American community as part of their platforms.
It’s very easy for Canadians to look self-righteously at these developments and say, “Yes America. Get your act together. We told the truth about ourselves when Stephen Harper stood up in Parliament and apologized for the residential schools way back in 2008.”
While there’s some truth to this, we have a long way to go in following the recommendations of the 2015 Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
And there’s another very ugly chapter of Canadian history that’s rarely discussed.
Canada has rightly made reparations to Japanese Canadians and many others, but we’ve largely ignored the sufferings endured in New France and British North America by Africans and their descendants. We also largely ignore the history of racist laws in our country.
The fact is, the United Nations Human Rights Council, upon studying the issue, has recommended that we create a federal department of African-Canadian affairs.
We speak proudly about the Underground Railroad and the Book of Negroes, but these only tell part of our story.
The Underground Railroad helped tens of thousands of slaves escape to British North America after slavery was abolished in the British Empire. It’s also true that thousands of black people in the American colonies who were loyal to Great Britain were granted freedom in the British Empire after the American War of Independence.
However, loyalist slave owners who immigrated to Canada at the same time were allowed to bring their slaves with them.
We can’t forget that slavery was legal in New France and in British North America until 1834.
While there were no cotton fields or sugar plantations in Canada, the treatment of slaves was no better than elsewhere. Their life expectancy was very low, and Canadian slave owners were just as apt to be cruel as their counterparts in the United States and the Caribbean. There was even a time when slavery was abolished in certain northern states and slaves would try to escape from Canada in order to be free.
We would also be doing the discussion of slavery in Canada a great disservice if we didn’t acknowledge that slaves were not only of African descent. Many of them were Indigenous Canadians.
What’s the legacy of slavery in Canada?
The CBC radio program Ideas did a thorough investigation on the topic recently. As with our Indigenous population, social statistics reveal that there’s a problem. Black Canadians are more likely to be stopped and searched by police, their children are more likely to be in foster care, and despite higher levels of education, black women in Ontario are more likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population.
While it’s disturbing to look on past policies that would consider Viola Desmond (featured on the new $10 bill) as less than other Canadians simply because of the colour of her skin, we need not fear looking honestly at history. The truth allows us to see who the real heroes are. It’s not the slave owners and those who supported racist laws; it’s those who responded to them with true courage.
We also need to remember that we not only study history, we’re making the history that our descendants will study. Let’s make them proud of the generation that told the truth about the past, thus allowing Canada to heal.
Troy Media columnist Gerry Chidiac is an award-winning high school teacher specializing in languages, genocide studies and work with at-risk students.