Continuing the Fight: 1960s – 2000
A Changing World
The nationalist and independence movements which took place in the 1950s and 1960s in Africa and the Caribbean had huge repercussions in the United States and Canada.
The latter governments realized that if they were going to have relations with these new Black nations, they had better clean up their own back yards. However, although Canada had its own fight for civil rights, it had been a relatively quiet affair, compared to that which took place in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the American civil rights movement had significant reverberations around the world, which in turn, impacted on movements for equal rights everywhere.
After decades of lobbying and criticism, the Canadian government finally addressed the problem of its racist immigration policies with the 1962 and 1967 Immigration Acts, which allowed unsponsored Caribbean immigrants to enter Canada for the first time, based on their skills and education. The families of prospective immigrants could now sponsor their relatives as well. As a result, between 1967 and 1996, over 300,000 from the Caribbean immigrated to Canada. At least another several thousand have emigrated from the continent of Africa each year since 1966.
Breaking New Ground
Ultimately, the fight for freedom and justice here at home and abroad began to bear fruit. Whether they were new immigrants or had been here for generations, African Canadians began to move into the mainstream of Canadian industry and the job market.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom of a flow of development resources from the North to the South, teachers from the Caribbean – primarily Trinidad – were recruited to fill a teacher shortage in Hamilton in the mid- to late-sixties. This South-North flow of human resources from Africa and the Caribbean to Canada has been felt across the province in a wide variety of fields. The passports of Roger Ferreira and Gary Warner (below) are representative of the thousands of people of African descent who came during this period and forged successful lives.
Continuing the Fight for Equity
African Canadians have been at the forefront of the struggle for employment equity, reform in the education system and in policing, and in the overall fight for justice in society. They have pushed for greater representation in unions and formed human rights committees to address problems of racism in the workplace.
Black Community Today
The Black community of the 21st century is as diverse and multicultural as Canada itself.
Primary Symbols of Kwanzaa:
The straw mat, or Mkeka (M-Kay-cah), on which all the other items are placed is a traditional item and therefore symbolizes tradition as the foundation on which all else rests.
The candle-holder, or Kinara (Kee-nah-rah), holds seven candles and represents the original stalk from which we all sprang. It is said that the First-Born is like a stalk of corn which produces corn, which in turn becomes stalk, which reproduces in the same manner so that there is no ending to the people.
The seven candles, Mshumaa (Mee-shoo-maah), represent the Seven Principles (Nguzo Saba) on which the First-Born set up the society in order that African people would get the maximum from it. They are Umoja (Unity); Kujichagulia (Self-Determination); Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility); Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics); Nia (Purpose); Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith).
The ear of corn, Muhindi (Moo-heen-dee), represents the product (the children) of the stalk (the father of the house). It signifies the ability or potential of the offspring, themselves, to become stalks (parents), and thus produce their own offspring -- a process which goes on indefinitely, and ensures the immortality of the Nation.
The Unity Cup, or Kikombe cha Umoja (Kee-coam-bay chah-oo-moe-jah), symbolizes the first principle of Kwanzaa. It is used to pour the libation for the ancestors, and each member of the immediate family or extended family drinks from it in a gesture of honour, praise, collective work and commitment to continue the struggle begun by the ancestors.
Language is not Neutral
Coming from a wide mix of cultures, languages and nationalities, there is no one African Canadian national identity. Rather, the African Canadian identity, as reflected in its music, literature, art and dance, may be defined by its heterogeneity.
Despite their diversity, African Canadians of all stripes have been on a four-hundred-year quest for racial justice and equality. African Canadian cultural expression has symbolized that quest, and it has done so, whether consciously or unconsciously, by tapping into the wellspring of the African creative genius.
Afua Cooper Dub Poetry
My piece, I want my piece
I want my piece
I want my piece
I should have gotten it in 1838 but did not
Now, I want it for my people
We are the only people who came to this part of the world involuntarily
We were the unwilling migrants, dragged here in chains
And when the chains were unlocked from our hands, necks, and feet
Our masters were given twenty million pounds as compensation for the loss of their property
While the property, after centuries of enslavement, received nothing
We have worked so hard for nothing and now we want reparations
Germany is still paying reparations to the Jews
The Canadian Japanese have waged a fight for reparation, for the loss of their property, lives, and dignity, and what…[fades out]
Intro to Grace Edward Galabuzi
The passage of anti-discrimination legislation and human rights codes in Ontario and across Canada was an important milestone in Canadian history, however, this did not mean that racism had ended. As recently as 2001, Professor Grace Edward Galabuzi published Canada’s Creeping Economic Apartheid for the Centre for Social Justice in Toronto. His research showed that old patterns of discrimination had been quite persistent and that the relegation of racial minorities to lower job levels and pay is still going on.
Part 2- Grace Edward Galabuzi
In many ways, although I’ve had that background of working on issues of racial discrimination and employment, I think that we are further behind now than we were in the beginning of the ‘90s partly because there are two processes that are underway.
One is the historical process of racial discrimination. Overlaid with that is the broader restructuring in the Canadian economy which meant two things: one is that those who are most vulnerable ended up being the most vulnerable to these new processes.
Two is that on a general level, there was a greater vulnerability amongst working people, whether they were people of colour or not because of the demands for greater flexibility in the workplace because of the competition that many producers were forced into, global competition that they were forced into because they had to compete with low wage production in other places in the world and many multinational corporations were quite happy to pick up and go to some other place. And so they used that as a way to drive down wages, to drive down working conditions and to force conditions that were not favourable for workers. And of course, because of that, those who were likely to first lose their jobs or who were likely to encounter the worst of those conditions were people of colour because of racial discrimination in employment. And that is partly why we see the disproportionate representation of these groups in low-end jobs, in part-time casualized work, temporary contract type jobs, and jobs where there is, in many cases, no benefits, or if there are benefits, they are very limited in terms of what they cover in workplaces that are not very safe.
Intro to Black Nurses’ Fight
One of the successful campaigns waged in the 1940s by Black groups in Ontario was to allow Black nurses to train and work in Canadian hospitals. Black nurses had been previously denied this opportunity and if they wanted to realize their dream of becoming a nurse, had to train and work in Black colleges and hospitals in the United States. But the entry of Black nurses into Canadian hospitals in the ‘40s did not mean that racism against nurses was over.
Tireless labour organizer June Veecock was involved in a case in the 1990s with the Northwestern General Hospital in Toronto on behalf of ten Black nurses who charged the hospital with systemic racism
Part 2 - June Veecock
Well, it’s interesting how I got involved. One nurse called me, Sharon Palmer (sp?), African Canadian born nurse who, I believe she’s from Nova Scotia initially, always wanted to be a nurse, left Nova Scotia, went to Montreal, studied, trained there, became a nurse, came to Toronto, was working at Northwestern when I met her. She called me and was quite hysterical. She was ranting and raving. She was mad at the world. She wasn’t getting any help from any place, she felt that her union wasn’t properly representing her, she tried a number of community people seeking help for her situation. So Sharon and I talked, as I talked to her more I realized she was being victimized. And I said to her, if this hospital, I remember saying to her, is as bad as you say it is, there have got to be other nurses, other Black nurses there. It can’t be you alone, Sharon. So do me a favour, I’ll try to help you, but you’ve gotta help me. So you go off, talk to people, talk to other nurses and find out what’s happening. Well, I remember clearly Sharon calling me weeks later and said, June I’m high as a kite, I said what are you on and she said I phoned two nurses that within the last six months they have been dismissed and I’m going to bring them, and they said they know of others, well that’s how the ball got rolling as they say.
I arranged a meeting here at my office and that time I think it was ten Black nurses and one Filipino nurse came to that meeting, Black Action Defence was involved in that meeting and essentially we took it from there. It was quite a struggle, quite a battle to to get the commission to investigate the complaints as a systemic complaint, and Akua Benjamin who is now head of the Social Work Department at Ryerson was also involved through the Congress of Black Women, I called her and asked her to help.
The problem I saw with the individual approach to what I saw as a systemic problem is that so many cases were clear, very clear, and others were not so clear, you had to peel the layers away, but from my experience from all the reading I’ve done on these issues realized it was systemic, so we had quite a fight with the Commission, it actually was a political fight, Zanana Akande was in the House at the time and I spoke to Zanana, she was quite helpful. After they filed the compliant and after we forced the Commission to, literally forced, the Commission and had a press conference, at the ? University at the time, challenged them and got a lot of publicity, they reluctantly agreed to a systemic investigation. They had consultants and their investigators into the hospital, and the evidence showed essentially what the nurses were alleging was correct, which was racial discrimination, in terms of hiring, in terms of scheduling of shifts, in terms of where they work. Let me give you an example, they got the worst shifts, they worked primarily on heavy chronic (?) Floors. They were not in critical care units, for the most part they were not in Emerge. Because of how they were scheduled to work, there were very little opportunities to participate in training because those are primarily done during the day.
And what the Commission’s investigation showed, the discrimination started before they were hired. For example, a nurse, for a white nurse, they would call maybe one reference, maybe two. Black nurses, the references were three, four. They were disciplined for minor incidents that white nurses weren’t disciplined for. They were disciplined if they came to work 5 minutes late. There was a letter that they didn’t know existed until the Commission looked at it. I later learned that one Commission staff said it was after a time it was easy to identify a Black nurse because the file would be so thick, and they would say oh, that’s gotta be a Black nurse, that’s a Black nurse immediately because they were just piling and piling and piling papers on. So essentially, what the investigation proved, was what the nurses were alleging was correct. We got a lot of support from the community, people I remember Beverley Armstrong calling me and said June, you know, this has been going on for years and years and at Northwestern Hospital. Initially we got a settlement which the nurses accepted. It was quite a struggle. What bothers me, or what pains me, is that some of those nurses are so severely damaged by that experience that, Sharon Palmer, the whistleblower as I call her, she chose not to go back to the hospital and has never been able to work as a nurse again.
Intro to Joe Rhodes
May,1994, the Ontario Human Rights Commission brought down a landmark decision. They agreed that Northwestern General Hospital had allowed both systemic and individual acts of racism at the hospital.
Another issue that remains of concern is that of Black children in the school systems. Hamilton community worker and activist Joe Rhodes explains how he came up as a young person in the Hamilton school system.
Part 2 - Joe Rhodes
You see, we had a school system set up that you could go to group one, two, or three in high school, so if you go to group one, you’re only allowed to go to Grade Ten. If you go to group two, you were to Grade Twelve, and group three, you went on from there. Well, you know where they put most of the Blacks, right? And they put a few of them on to Grade Twelve because it was all technical trades and they needed them to do a lot of the technical work.
Those of us who did end up going to university later, a lot of us had to go through the back door, you know, by doing the adult education, you know, doing the adult exam and then moving in through there, which I had to do. I had to go through writing the mature student exam and then going in and doing my degrees after that.
I went to four different high schools in Hamilton and they were all pretty well the same. In public school it was a war because, you know, there was, I grew up in this city and there was like, maybe, one Black person in each class and I never even heard of Black teachers. And the only history that I ever learned about Black history then was people like ‘Little Black Sambo’ and, you know, right, and Uncle Tom, which was a negative thing too when they taught it in the schools. And I didn’t learn anything else until when I went back to university, which I did in 1980, I went back on my own because 1970 it was terrifying and I just, after I year I said, forget it. In 1980 I went back and then is when I started to learn about people like Marcus Garvey.
Intro: More on the Educational System
Likewise, people of African descent immigrating to Canada in the 1960s and ‘70s began to realize that their children too were being streamed into non-academic courses in high school. Guidance counsellors were advising Black students away from universities and post-secondary education, and children from the Caribbean were being placed into grades lower than their training warranted once they immigrated to Canada. It was clear that whether you were a fifth generation African Canadian or one recently arrived, the school system had low expectations for Black students, and as a result, they were dropping out at a higher rate than other students.
Black parents and activists organized around the school system in Toronto and centres around the province and lobbied government and the school boards about these issues. They also established Black heritage programs after school or on Saturdays to teach African heritage and lift the self esteem of young kids coming up in the Canadian system.
Part 2 - Eleanor Rodney
Eleanor Rodney, a passionate advocate for Black students in Hamilton, talks about one of the programs she initiated in the Hamilton Separate School Board:
So what we did here in Hamilton, what I did here in Hamilton is approach my school board, the Separate School Board, and asked if we could start an African heritage class. We had to choose a language because at that time that’s the only venue we had for getting Black kids together. We couldn’t say it was to do Black history because it wouldn’t be funded for that, so we started this heritage class and we did Swahili language. Gary Warner got somebody from McMaster University come and do the Swahili, so we did that for about fifty percent or thereabout of the time. But for the rest of the period, what we did is told kids about their Black history, and I must say that it improved their self esteem, their self worth, and we found the kids blossomed. And as a matter of fact, I would say about half a dozen of those kids who passed through our system, later on became leaders in their schools. Both Lisa-Marie Perrotte and Annamarie Ssemanda, they later on were leaders in their own schools, as I saw saying. They also won trustee awards, they won the John Holland awards and there were other kids who did well in the arts and so like Andrea Henry who became a popstar, and there’s Kamali Powell (sp?), he was one of those who passed through our hands too, he won the first Mathieu DaCosta national award for Black History Month.
Intro to Itah Sadu
Issues faced by people of colour in Canada have inspired many Black artists who deal with the question of racism, injustice, and inequality in society. Itah Sadu, well-known storyteller and children’s author, has given a voice to these issues from the perspective of children.
In her book, A Touch of the Zebras, published by Women’s Press, Itah tells the story of a mixed race girl who comes down with a mysterious illness and cannot go to school.
Itah Sadu Reading
The doctor listened to Chelsea’s heartbeat again, “Yes…Uh huh…uh….huh. Tell me, Chelsea, do your head and chest hurt more in history class? Do your legs hurt when you have to choose a group to work with? Do you sometimes feel like a certain animal at the zoo?”
Chelsea opened her eyes wide, she was in shock. This doctor was smart!
“How do you know? How do you know about the zebras?” Chelsea whispered.
“I too had a case of the zebras in Grade Two,” replied Dr. Lorimer.
Chelsea looked at the doctor. The doctor had grey-greenish eyes. Her hair was thick and wavy, and her skin was tanned. Chelsea could see herself in the doctor. They shared the same looks.
“Are you telling me that to make me feel better?” Asked Chelsea.
“Yes,” said Doctor Lorimer, “When I was a little girl, I was teased out of games and made to feel all mixed up. One day people told me I was Black, and another day they told me I was white.”
“That’s exactly what happens to me!” Chelsea responded, “Some days I wish I was back in Kindergarten.”
“Why is that?” Asked Dr. Lorimer.
“Because in Kindergarten, you can play with everyone,” Chelsea replied, “How did you get rid of the zebras?” asked Chelsea, “I hate having to choose sides.”
Dr. Lorimer said, “One day at recess, I was standing alone watching the other kids play my favourite games, like tag, jump-rope, and double Dutch. I was feeling pretty miserable. Just then my teacher, Miss Sullivan, walked by me and whispered, ‘rainbows come in all colours, Tara. Always be proud to be of two cultures.’ I thought about what Miss Sullivan said and I knew that recess would soon be over. I dried my tears and I rushed over to play jump-rope. From that day on, I chose friends who liked me for being me. Yes, rainbows come in all colours, and I am a mixture, and I’m proud to be of two cultures.”
Conclusion: Afua Cooper
[Narration layered over top of Afua Cooper’s dub poetry]
We end this audio program with dub poet and historian Afua Cooper. Her poem, entitled “My Piece” speaks of the growing call for reparations for five hundred years of slavery, colonialism, and systemic racism against African people.
We hope you have enjoyed this audio component and that it has added to your experience of the exhibit, …And Still I Rise: The Story of African Canadian Workers in Ontario in the 20th Century.
Thanks for listening.
[Afua Cooper’s dub poetry fades in]
“…and the other blood suckers. But I say, this little island was nothing. Can they ever repay us for the genocide, for the slavery, and the colonialism? I want my piece. I want it for my people. I want to build a school as a monument for Queen Abena Of Jamaica, who, even though exiled, returned to her home island to rekindle the flame of revolt."