16 February 2011- Canada – Ottawa : Every year in February, Black History Month fills me with pride and renewed vigour for advancing the interests of Black Canadians. It is a time to reflect and to remind Canadians of the profound and enduring contributions of Black Canadians to our country.
It was American educator and historian, Carter Woodson, who conceived the concept of a Black History Week 85 years ago.
He felt that by encouraging people to learn more about Black history, Blacks would feel proud of their heritage. He also hoped that it would eliminate prejudice. He saw Black History Week as a unifying force.
In Canada, Black History Week was first officially recognized in the early 1950s when the Canadian Negro Women’s Association successfully petitioned the Toronto city council to acknowledge the week.
This later led the newly formed Ontario Black History Society to successfully persuade Toronto’s city council to declare February as Black History Month in the late 1970s.
But it was only sixteen years ago that it received national recognition. In 1995, the House of Commons adopted a motion to have February recognized as Black History Month.
The Senate needed to adopt a similar resolution. And so, three years ago, I tabled a motion to officially recognize Black History Month which was unanimously adopted by all Honourable Canadian Senators.
In spite of these significant contributions, most Canadians remain woefully ignorant about the enduring contributions of Blacks to Canada’s history.
Few Canadians are aware, for instance, that Blacks have been a part of Canadian history since its earliest times. The first Black man arrived in Canada in 1605. He was a Portuguese navigator and explorer who accompanied Samuel de Champlain. His name was Mathieu da Costa.
In Canadian history books, there is also little mention of the fact that slavery once existed in the territory that is now Canada, or the fact that many of the British Loyalists who came here after the American Revolution were Black.
Most Canadians don’t know that segregation was accepted in many parts of this country well into the 1960s. They believe the myth of a Canadian tradition of tolerance because most history books gloss over, or ignore the overt racism that has afflicted Blacks in Canada throughout our history.
I know from personal and often painful experience that the myth of Canadian tolerance is just that … a myth.
This needs to be demystified.
Though we should look back with pride on yesterday’s achievements, we must also acknowledge today’s problems, such as racism, and, above all, look forward to tomorrow with vision and hope.
Black History Month offers us an opportunity to speak out against racism … the racism that still affects Blacks and other people of colour … the racism that continues to impede our progress and to stall the growth of Canada as a truly diverse, inclusive and progressive society.
Above all, February is a time to discuss solutions for ending discrimination and to look forward with hope to a time when all Canadians, regardless of colour, have access to the same chance to learn, advance and lead in Canadian society.
It is pertinent that we acknowledge the existence of racism. This is the first step to achieving real change in our society. And change is crucial.
As a society, we have a difficult and challenging task ahead of us because racism that exists today is far more insidious and therefore, all that harder to combat. But we are fortunate to have before us a huge opportunity– an opportunity of historic proportions. Canada can become a shining example to other countries world-wide of what it is to be a tolerant, progressive and inclusive nation.
What is more, this year is the United Nations’ International Year for People of African Descent. 2011 offers us a unique opportunity to increase awareness on African heritage and the many contributions of Blacks to Canadian society. And above all, it provides an opportunity to promote the many benefits of Diversity and Pluralism.
The time to strengthen and promote respect for all visible minorities across our nation is now. Let’s spread our vision of a diverse and inclusive Canada. Let’s achieve our country’s full promise. Let’s bring new hope to all Canadians — of every colour — for a better tomorrow.