By: Kelsey Adams
I remember the first time I heard about Africville, a small, primarily Black community in Nova Scotia. Its residents were made up of migrants and formerly enslaved people who were promised freedom and land in Canada following the American Revolution. What they found instead was discrimination and displacement.
White settlers viewed them as inferior and didn’t want them in their communities, so settlements like Africville were created. They had no clean water, no sewage systems, no garbage disposal—they were left to live in squalor by the municipal government. The city built a prison, a dump and an infectious disease hospital in their community, further positioning Africville and its residents as undesirable. Then, to make matters worse, when the city decided it wanted the land for industry in 1964, they displaced all the residents and forced them out of their homes.
Africville was a tight-knit community, disregarded by the city of Halifax for over a century and then destroyed when the city wanted the land for economic gain. Many of us, especially outside of the Maritimes, have never heard this history.
Canada has a crisis of memory. Erasure of the more monstrous aspects of Canadian history makes it easier to see ourselves as the liberal, forward-thinking and multicultural foil to America’s prejudiced, cruel divisiveness.
I would say the constant comparison of being at least better than the United States does us a great disservice. When we focus on the violence, police brutality or systemic injustice down south, we absolve ourselves of having to do the crucial work to dismantle systems of injustice in our own country.
Omissions from Canadian history have framed this country as a sanctuary. We’re proud of the Underground Railroad and learn stories of Black people fleeing American bondage for Canadian freedom. The history we're not taught tells another story. Take the 1911 Order-in-Council signed by Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier that, for one year, prohibited the entry of “any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.”
Decrees like this have similarly impacted Chinese Canadians, with the head tax that prohibited Chinese immigration between 1923 and 1947.
And the amount of legislation written into law to disenfranchise and destabilize Indigenous peoples across this land go back to pre-Confederacy and could take up their own entire book.
With a history that has never been reconciled, tensions are going to boil over. It’s an inevitability. But when the majority of the country is blissfully unaware of the historical and modern ways racialized people have been oppressed by the Canadian state, they can be dismissive of the fight for equality.
I feel something in the air. It’s pulsing, waiting, biding its time. We are poised for a moment of true reckoning. It feels like people are genuinely ready and willing to reflect on the structures that hold our social and economic hierarchies in place. Which may mean that we can finally dismantle them.
I was having a chat with one of my white friends, someone I’ve known since I was in middle school. She’s currently doing a lot of anti-racism reading and having to confront her privileges head on has been a difficult and uncomfortable process for her. Dismantling your entire worldview is not simple, it’s not linear and it’s not static. Unlearning ingrained ideologies becomes a lifelong endeavour.
I mentioned to her that it’s equally uncomfortable for young Black children to grow up in a world that they are implicitly and explicitly told doesn’t care about them. The inherent nature of racism is that it is systemic, structural and largely unseen, but it is always felt.
As my friend was confronting the ways she benefits from the privilege of being born white in a country and a world that favours whiteness, I wanted her to consider what it would feel like to be constantly aware of this inequity. To know the cards are stacked against you, to know that you will likely have to work twice as hard for half the level of respect, to know that there are people who don’t believe your life matters.
To live in Canada as a Black person is to live at the intersection of several anxieties. This is related to something American sociologist, historian and civil rights activist W. E. DuBois called “double-consciousness.” It essentially means that Black people move through the world wholly aware of how the dominant, hegemonic forces view them, trepidatiously being aware of how our Blackness can be used against us. It’s why young Black boys are taught that there are some things their white friends can get away with that they can't, like playing with a toy gun. It’s why Black women will temper their rightful anger or frustration to not be painted as the stereotypical “angry Black woman.”
On top of daily micro-aggressions and racism experienced in schools, the workplace and in public spaces, Black Canadians are regularly told to be grateful we have it better than Black Americans.
I think the resilience of Black, Indigenous and other racialized people is rooted in an inherent optimism. To persevere within the confines of white supremacy is to believe that things can and will change. It’s clear now, after months of civil unrest worldwide, that this change will only come about collectively. Seeing so many people take the streets, from all walks of life, was deeply inspiring.
Structures of oppression are not set in stone. They have been in place in the economy, medical and scientific industries, academic institutions and governments for centuries and that is how they have solidified their stranglehold on humanity. All of these racist impediments were created by humans, reinforced by generations—that doesn’t mean we must accept them as fact.
If there’s one thing I believe every Canadian should do to start to challenge the ways we’ve been taught to think about our country, it’s to read Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives. Her 2017 book should be required reading in high schools across the country and it gives an in-depth and comprehensive look into the history of anti-Black racism in Canada. From slavery—yes people owned enslaved people here, too—to segregationist divisions in the 20th century. From anti-Blackness in public schools to the overrepresentation of Black people in the country's prisons and the criminalization of poverty. She touches it all.
Reading and gaining awareness are the first steps. If you read a book about anti-racism or the school to prison pipeline, it doesn’t mean you’re now an anti-racist or a reformist. Just like you wouldn't be suddenly able to mountain climb because you read a book about mountain climbing.
But, you are one step closer. So much of the progress we seek lies in practice. Daily changes, big and small, are how we will bring about change.
Have difficult conversations with your friends and family, raise your children to think critically about how our society is structured, redistribute wealth and resources where you can, always lead with empathy and compassion. We are at a precipice, the cracks are starting to show and the reality is on display for all to see. Don’t look away, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.
The only way forward is together.
Kelsey Adams is an arts and culture journalist from Toronto whose work explores the intersection of art, film and music with a focus on the contributions of marginalized cultural producers. She is a staff writer at NOW Magazine and has also written for The Globe and Mail, CBC Arts, The FADER, i-D, the Toronto Star and Canadian Art.