February is Black History Month.
Black History Month invites us to recognize, celebrate, and honour the lives of Black people who transformed the fabric of our society. Black Canadians’ stories, experiences, and accomplishments span hundreds of years. These include the histories of African, South American, Caribbean, European, and American people.
Yet, Black history is complex, and much of it isn’t easy. Canada exists because of the contributions and labour, both forced and paid, of Black people. From the gruelling 17th century to today, here is one small glimpse into the long history of some of Canada’s first workers.
early canadian history
Mathieu de Costa was the first Black person—on record—to arrive in Canada in 1608. The European explorers liked De Costa because he could understand the Mi’kmaq language to the governor of Acadia.
The thousands of Black people who arrived after him were not so ’privileged’. Like in many countries during this time, the First Black workers in Canada were enslaved. Although the Underground Railroad led many Black Americans to a safe place in Canada, Canada did more than witness the slave trade.
A trade triangle developed across the Atlantic from the late 16th to early 19th century. European merchants travelled to Africa to exchange goods for enslaved people. They were then transported to the Americas under inhumane conditions.
Many individuals were sold to North American slave owners to produce raw goods that could be transported back to Europe (in this, enslaved African people played a crucial role in developing North America’s economy.)
Some of them were forced to sign contracts that committed them to a certain number of years for unpaid labour. This was in exchange for food and shelter. Their contracts left them in cruel and exploitative conditions. But, once their contract was over, they were free.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that attitudes toward slavery began to change. Although various places in Canada began to abolish slavery in the early 1800s, slavery was only made illegal in the British Empire in 1834.
the industrial revolution of the 20th century
Black Canadian workers were essential to the Canadian economy throughout the 20th century. Their contributions to war efforts took many forms. Despite racial discrimination and segregation in the military, they created the first black military unit.
In the early 20th century, the arrival of Black Caribbean people to Nova Scotia brought a new workforce to Canada.
Although many came to work in Cape Breton’s steel mills, they hired many Black men to work on the railway and in sleeping cars. The railway connected Canada’s coasts and represented national achievement and economic growth. But it also harboured severe racial inequality and cruel labour practices.
Black men were seen as a source of cheap and abundant labour during this time. These porters did work that was often demeaning and in poor conditions. They were also treated differently from white porters, who received promotions and joined unions. The fight for legislative change began with growing frustration within the Black community.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black railway union in North America, was created. Soon after, branches started popping up across Canada. This led to improved working conditions and agreements to increase wages and offer more time off. The decisive actions of Black porters reflected the struggle of all Black workers in Canada, which began a movement for change.
civil rights movements in the post-war era
The 1940s brought forth a period of legislative change in Canada, beginning with Ontario’s Racial Discrimination Act in 1944.
This historic act was Canada’s first anti-discrimination legislation, banning the display or publication of discriminatory matters based on race or religion. This was followed by:
- british Columbia’s Social Assistance Act in 1945,
- saskatchewan’s Bill of Rights in 1947,
- and the universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.
It was also in 1948 that the Canada Elections Act was passed, which prohibited Canadians from being excluded from federal elections based on race. After decades of hard work, civil rights activists led lawmakers to pass a federal law prohibiting discrimination and promoting equal opportunity.
Still, it wasn’t until the 1960s that Parliament passed the first Canadian Bill of Rights to protect freedom of speech, religion, and equality.
Half a century of political change created an important place for Black workers in Canada. However, social change is often harder. Even though discrimination is prohibited and Black Canadians legally have equal access to opportunities, the reality of being a Black worker in Canada today is much different.
modern-day Black Canadians at work.
Today, black workers face a very different set of challenges. Canada has made progress in becoming more equitable and inclusive. However, Black workers face significant gaps in the labour market regarding promotion, pay, and opportunity.
There is still a lot of work to do to help reduce anti-Black racism in the workplace. Many still want to see more from their employers, make stronger commitments, and establish targets for hiring and promoting more Black Canadians. This needs to be done with clear and measurable outcomes and accountability mechanisms. We could also see more of these items in today’s companies:
- appoint more Black Canadians to the board of directors and/or senior management ranks
- more anti-racism education and training for employees and management
- senior leadership teams need to ’walk the walk’
- make reducing anti-Black racism a bigger human resources priority
- a major culture change
While many Black Canadians have noticed improvements in their professional lives over the past century, they have also seen that progress is slow.
This progress also doesn’t affect everyone equally, as women are still paid considerably less and have less positions of power. Black women still have many hurdles to overcome, and we can help to encourage women of colour to become leaders of tomorrow.
The intersection of racial and gender bias has had a significant impact on Black women’s experiences in the labour market, all too frequently diminishing their work and limiting their chances. There is still work to be done, and it needs to be done.
read about 8 everyday challenges that black canadians face that you might not have considered.read the article