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Black History in Canada

The month of February is federally recognized as Black History Month in Canada, honouring the contributions of Black Canadians since before the Confederation of our country. Black History Month provides the opportunity for Canadians to learn more about the story of Black people and allows us to acknowledge the discrimination Black people have faced. The inception of Black History Month was championed by the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS). In 1978, the OBHS was founded and petitioned the City of Toronto to declare February as Black History Month; the City of Toronto formally proclaimed Black History Month in 1979. Following the local success of their petitioning, the OBHS addressed the government of Ontario in 1993. The OBHS president, Rosemary Sadlier, introduced the idea to have February federally recognized as Black History Month. In 1995, a motion introduced by the first Black woman elected into parliament, Honourable Jean Augustine, was passed unanimously to proclaim February as Black History Month in Canada. Since the early 1600s, Black Canadians and their communities have shaped the national identity of Canada. The arrival of Mathieu Da Costa in 1604 marked the beginning of Black history in Canada; Da Costa was brought to Canada by French explorers as a multilingual interpreter. As a speaker of English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Pidgin Basque (the language of the Algonquian peoples), Da Costa was a valuable asset to early colonizers. Later, in 1628, the first enslaved African arrived in Canada: Olivier LeJeune, whose actual birth name is unknown. LeJeune was taken from Africa as a young child and given the name of the priest who purchased him. This grim arrival marked the start of the enslavement of African people in Canada, which lasted for over a century. Throughout the 1700s, African people were forcibly removed from their homes and enslaved as labourers in the British Empire and the United States. A prototypical liberation came during the war of American Independence (1775-1783) when the British Empire offered enslaved Africans freedom if they joined the British troops. The Black loyalists were welcomed into the British Empire, creating communities in the Maritimes; nevertheless, Black individuals encountered discrimination and low wages within the British colonies. In 1793, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada penned a law titled An Act to Prevent the Further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude, effectively freeing enslaved people over the age of 25 and prohibiting the introduction of new slaves to Upper Canada. The Act on the Abolition of the Slave Trade in The British Empire became law shortly thereafter in 1807. In the 1800s, newly freed African people founded historic Black Communities across Canada. Between 1800 and 1865, over 30,000 Black individuals fled to Canada via The Underground Railroad. These populations established communities in Ontario (such as Windsor, Owen Sound, and Toronto), the Maritimes (including Halifax and Dartmouth), and Vancouver Island (in Victoria and Salt Spring Island). Moving into the 20th century, these Black communities fought for the reform of discriminatory immigration policies against immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean islands. Arguably, the Black communities fighting for inclusive immigration policy started the multicultural framework from which our current government operates. Black Canadians have been instrumental in the inception of Canada as an inclusive, diverse country. During this Black History month, I encourage you to learn (or unlearn) what you can about the contributions of Black, African, and Caribbean peoples in our country and across the world. Furthermore, I encourage you to take action to tackle racism and racial prejudice within your communities.

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