Silent victories, Hidden realities

Bringing black Canadian history out from the shadows

The recent designation of Viola Desmond as the first woman to grace a Canadian bank note is historic. But her story of refusing to sit in the segregated section of a movie theatre in Nova Scotia in 1946 was unknown to most Canadians.

Afua Cooper is not surprised. Throughout Canadian history, “black history was erased or marginalized. It did not constitute ‘real’ history,” she says. “Mrs. Desmond articulated a strong civil rights position… but given that Canada did not have a race problem, Desmond’s story could not be true or real.”

“It does not surprise me that many Canadians did not know of Viola Desmond or her stance, because Canada has been in denial about its racist past, and black people and their experiences have been marginalized or rendered invisible,” she says.

Cooper is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University, an author, and the James Robinson Johnston Chair in black Canadian Studies. A recent recipient of a SSHRC Connection Grant, Cooper is working to “promote and elucidate the struggles and activism of black Canadians in our question for dignity, freedom and self-actualization.”

She created a new interdisciplinary minor in black and African diaspora studies at Dalhousie that debuted in fall 2016. In it, she hopes to connect all the threads of the black fact in Canada throughout the years.

One way is to celebrate the work of black Canadians, such as Henry and Mary Bibb. On January 1, 1851, their newspaper, The Voice of the Fugitive, rolled off the presses in Windsor, Ontario.

“The Bibbs were black abolitionists and civil rights activists who used the paper to promote Canadian black rights and denounce American slavery. The black Canadian press thus has a long history,” says Cooper.

And, Richard Pierpoint, who settled in the Niagara region of Ontario in 1783 after having been a slave in New York state. When the War of 1812 broke out, he proposed the formation of an all-black militia to fight alongside the British. He went on to serve in this 40-member corps of black soldiers that played a key role in the British victory against the Americans in the Battle of Queenston Heights.

With Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation upon us, it is a time to reflect on who we are as a country, and to remember the people throughout our history who helped shape this identity. Afua Cooper is shining a light on black Canadians in our history’s shadow, and keeping it there.