When you think of the history of black people in Canada, what names pop into your mind?
Most of us think of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and other iconic African-American figures.
February marks the 15th anniversary of Black History Month in Canada. Although we’ve been celebrating black history since 1996, most of us don’t know how black people have shaped this country.
The triumphs and struggles of blacks in Canada is a hushed topic, and February doesn’t do much to reverse that.
This year, the Canadian government is honouring four black people in Canadian history: Carrie Best, John Ware, Ferguson Jenkins and Jarome Iginla.
A historical plaque in the honour of Mary Ann Shadd Cary has also been erected at 143 King St. E., where Shadd Cary started publishing a newspaper in 1853 to denounce exploitation of freed slaves.
But for many, Black History Month is more than reciting history. Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society, says Black History Month has to exist for many reasons.
“African-Canadian students need to feel affirmed, need to be aware of the contributions made by other blacks in Canada, need to have role models,” she wrote on the OBHS website.
“[They] need to understand the social forces which have shaped and influenced their community and their identities as a means of feeling connected to the educational experience and their life experience in various regions in Canada.”
But can one month of celebrations every year affirm African-Canadian youth and teach them about their history?
Black History Month may provide an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of blacks in this country, but it cannot fill the void in a system that waits for February of every year to empower black youth.
With an alarming dropout rate for male students, and students of African and Aboriginal backgrounds, it is clear more needs to be done year-round to make sure young people in this country are inspired to do more.
In 2008, the TDSB approved the Africentric Alternative School. While the effort to bridge the gap is laudable, African-Canadian students should not have to go to special schools to get culture-sensitive education.
What we need is a systemic change to make sure every child has the support and guidance they need to make their own history. This means improving living conditions, helping create better self-images and stopping the drop-out trend.
The history of black people in Canada dates to 1605, when the first black person, Mathieu Da Costa, arrived in Canada. Black history is part of Canadian history, and empowered African-Canadian youth are empowered Canadian citizens. Understanding their history and realizing their significance in Canada should be a part of everyday life.
February festivities should not mask the inequality, racism and lack of leadership faced by black people. Real solutions are needed and standing on street corners handing out black history flyers isn’t going to do the job.