About Black History Month
During Black History Month, Canadians celebrate the many achievements and contributions of Black Canadians and their communities who, throughout history, have done so much to make Canada a culturally diverse, compassionate, and prosperous country.
Black history in Canada
Black Canadians and their communities have been a part of shaping Canada’s heritage and identity since the arrival of Mathieu Da Costa, a navigator, and interpreter, whose presence in Canada dates back to the early 1600s.
The role of Black Canadians and their communities in Canada has largely been ignored as a key part of Canada’s history. There is little mention that some of the Loyalists who came here after the American Revolution and settled in the Maritimes were people of African descent, nor the fact that many soldiers of African descent made many sacrifices in wartime as far back as the War of 1812.
Few people in Canada are aware of the fact that African people were once enslaved in the territory that is now known as Canada, or of how those who fought enslavement helped to lay the foundation of Canada’s diverse and inclusive society.
Black History Month is a time to learn more about these Canadian stories and the many other important contributions that Black Canadians and their communities have made to the history and continued growth of this country.
Recognizing Black History Month in Canada
The commemoration of Black History Month in North America dates back to 1926, when Harvard-educated African American historian Carter G. Woodson proposed setting aside a time devoted to honour the accomplishments of African Americans and to heighten awareness of Black history in the United States. This led to the establishment of Negro History Week in 1926. Celebrations of Black history began in Canada shortly thereafter. During the early 1970s, the week became known as Black History Week. It was expanded into Black History Month in 1976.
In December 1995, the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month in Canada following a motion introduced by the first African Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Honourable Jean Augustine. The House of Commons carried the motion unanimously.
In February 2008, Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Senate, introduced the Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and February as Black History Month. It received unanimous approval and was adopted on March 4, 2008. The adoption of this motion completed Canada’s parliamentary position on Black History Month.
A British Columbia, and more personal, perspective – Written by Miriam Hayek, a staff member in the Granville Island office
We wanted to touch on the history of black people in British Columbia, because Black History is not something I was taught in school. I didn’t learn about prominent black figures in Canada, or the town of Africville in Nova Scotia, or even Hogan’s Alley, right here in Vancouver. I recently attended a lecture presented by BC Black History Awareness Society, hosted by Dr. June Francis, who spoke about racism towards black people, and one of the things that she mentioned was that black kids who chose black Canadians as the subject of reports were often told by teachers that they’re not relevant enough; that they’re not Canadian enough. Well, here is some insight into the history we weren’t taught, about relevant Canadians:
In order to avoid Americans from claiming territory in BC during the Fraser Gold Rush, Governor James Douglas sent an invitation to the black population of San Francisco to come live in the British Colony of Vancouver Island, where unlike in California, they could own land, vote and sit on juries, enjoy protection by the law, and eventually become citizens. Over 800 black Americans accepted the invitation, and became an integral part of society, owned businesses, and in the case of Mifflin Wistar Gibbs who was the first black person to be elected to public office, participate in politics. In the Lower Mainland, most black Canadians also emigrated from the United States, hoping for better treatment from white citizens and the government. The eastern end of False Creek was the racialized part of the city, inhabited by large populations of Chinese and Japanese Canadians. The city made it difficult for black Canadians to find homes in Vancouver by creating a law stating that “no home shall be rented or owned by a person of African descent”, so Hogan’s Alley was established. Most businesses and homes were owned by black Canadians, and there was a great sense of community; a place where black people could feel welcome. Zenora Hendrix was instrumental in establishing this community and helped found Fountain Chapel, a church that was considered its cornerstone, where members could gather and celebrate their culture and heritage. In the 1950s, when the City of Vancouver made plans to construct the Georgia Viaduct, they began to bully the inhabitants of Hogan’s Alley by refusing to collect garbage or maintain sidewalks and streets, then garnering support from the white population by advertising that it was a dilapidated slum, teeming with crime and blight that needed to go. Businesses closed, families moved, and by the 1970s, the neighbourhood had been destroyed.
CMHC was instrumental in the destruction of Hogan’s Alley, providing 75% of funding for “community urban renewal”. 50 years later, CMHC is working towards reconciling its crimes of the past and helping to build a neighbourhood that will include rental housing, supportive housing, space for small businesses, non-profit organizations and a cultural centre for People of African Descent. CMHC has committed to working with the Hogan’s Alley Society and other partners in order to maximize the housing and community outcomes for the Black community in Vancouver.
Did you know: the name “Hogan’s Alley” originates from late 19th century cartoonist, Richard Felton Outcault? There was a character in his comic strip known as “the Yellow Kid”, who represented inner city poverty and lived in the fictional “Hogan’s Alley” – Vancouver inhabitants probably imagined that that is what Hogan’s Alley must have looked like. You can learn more about Hogan’s Alley on the Hogan’s Alley Society website at hogansalleysociety.org.