“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
– George Santayana. The Life of Reason (1905-06)
No matter how new and exclusive something may appear, it carries with it a legacy of the past, for everything that exists in the present has emerged from the past. Therefore, the more we understand about the past the more we will know about the present.
For one month annually Canadians condescend to pay attention to Black History in the most perfunctory manner possible. For many, it is all about the Underground Railroad, and how progressive Canada the Savior is.
At present, the Black History being taught in schools is what has been colonized and edited to make it palatable. At its best, Black History Month is casually thrown into the curriculum and not intended as part of yearlong learning. At its worst, it is used to brush aside or outright erase the past, historical omission in civic remission.
An incontrovertible fact is that many adult Canadians are not even aware that slavery was legal in Canada, and that the first purchased Black slave Oliver Le Jeune was brought to Canada in 1628.
When Canadians speak about slavery it is always about the Underground Railroad, for it allows Canada to position itself as being morally superior to America, due to the fact that African-Americans escaped slavery in the U.S. by moving to Canada.
No one wants to discuss slavery in Canada, or everything that happened before or everything that happened after. As long as Canada defines itself discursively as “Other” in relation to the United States, she will never have to deal with her own bad deeds.
Despite a presence in Canada that dates back farther than Samuel de Champlain’s first voyage down the St. Lawrence River, people of African descent are often absent from Canadian history books. Additionally, not many Canadians are aware of the many sacrifices made in wartime by Black Canadian soldiers (Black Corps or Runchey’s Company of Colored Men) as far back as the War of 1812. Towards 1812, the probability of an American invasion presented a major threat to the liberties enjoyed by some Black Canadians, leading many Black men to join the militia. Most of them understood that an American victory could lead to a state of re-enslavement.
Although free Black men had served in the militia since its organization in 1793, the formation of an independent company consisting entirely of Black men was not proposed until the eve of the War of 1812, when Richard Pierpoint, also called Captain Dick, offered to raise a corps of Black men in the Niagara region. And yet the War of 1812 had a powerful, invigorating influence on what would become Canada. Indeed, had the struggle been lost, this country likely would not exist.
Speaking to the point, Canada (putting aside its safe haven status) could not have become what it is today without the vital contributions of Black communities, whose history span over four centuries and flourishes in pivotal moments. Their determination in the fight for freedom, perseverance throughout World Wars 1 & 2, the victories achieved during the Civil Rights Movement are some examples that should serve as an inspiration for us all.
There still remains much more history to be examined relative to Blacks in Canada, but viewing it only through the spectrum or prism of Black History is a perplexing part of the problem, as in actuality it should really be seen as part of the larger Canadian context.
Black history provides the binary opposite to all traditional histories. One needs traditional history to engender a common culture; one needs Black history to engender a clearer and more complete culture. The focus on the past should ultimately be a way of looking for a better future.
Future generations in the history books should look to ensure that the omissions are no longer in remission. Black History is not so much about Negro History as it is of history influenced by Negroes. Nor is it a time to promote propaganda, but to counteract it by popularizing the truth, not a tendency to eulogize the Negroes or to abuse his enemies. But instead with the sole primary intent to emphasize important facts, clinging steadfastly to the belief that facts properly set forth will speak for themselves.
Black History should no longer be a mystery, for each and every contribution by Blacks must be kept on track.
The greater Canadian community needs to know a history of Canada that includes all of the founding and pioneering experiences in order to work from reality, rather than from perception alone. There must be fairness in the awareness.