By Lincoln DePradine
Lots of documented evidence exists of the long presence in Canada of people of African descent. It has led to repeated appeals for a museum dedicated to African-Canadian history. The call was repeated last Sunday at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) by educator Natasha Henry, president Ontario Black History Society (OBHS).
“I hope that we can count on you in our efforts to actualize a Black history museum and cultural space here in Toronto, which would be a great addition to the many markers of a Black presence here…there is an urgent need for such a space to become a reality,’’ she added. “This initiative needs community and public support. Such a space is an important educational resource.’’
Henry, also an historian and author, was one of the guest speakers at a free public exhibition titled “Black History is Canadian History’’ at the ROM, 100 Queen’s Park. A second viewing of the exhibition, jointly put on by the ROM and OBHS, and funded by the government of Canada, will also be on display this Sunday, September 29.
The exhibit, which includes videos, audio, newspaper clippings and artifacts, is a presentation of “aspects of the over 400-year presence of Blacks in Canada’’, according to the OBHS.
“It is approximated that 5,000 African people were enslaved here in Canada over 206 years,’’ said Henry, who is completing a PhD. in history at York University.
Henry, one of the contributors to the exhibition, said it’s aimed at “encouraging conversations’’ on issues such as “the notion of Canada as a white country’’; “Black racism and all its serious manifestations’’; “educational experiences and outcomes of Black youth’’ and the “lack of employment opportunities’’.
“These issues lead us to a conversation about racial justice,’’ Henry argued. “And these conversations are for all Canadians to engage in, not just members of the Black community.’’
In the discussions, Henry said that “we must talk about how systemic and structural barriers are as much a part of the Canadian narrative for Black people as opportunity and possibility’’.
The conversations that the exhibit generate must “spur action’’, including community members “going out and exercising your right to vote’’, Henry said.
The first African on recorded as being enslaved in Canada was a young boy in 1628.
Historian and archaeologist Dr Karolyn Smardz Frost told visitors that the African-Canadian presence includes Black people who were involved in whaling in the Arctic 500 years ago, as well as a “very vibrant working class neighbourhood’’ in what was then “St John’s Ward’’ in Downtown Toronto.
Smardz Frost, who also is an author and university professor, pointed out that some Jamaican Maroons had made Africville in Halifax their home, before they left to take up residence in Sierra Leone.
A once-prosperous community, Africville was “intentionally destroyed’’ by the City of Halifax and residents were “deprived of the help to rebuild,’’ said Smardz Frost, who has lived in Halifax.
Smardz Frost’s publications include an award-winning non-fiction, “I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad’’.
In 2017, she released “Steal Away Home’’ that tells the true story of an enslaved woman named Cecelia Jane Reynolds. She was just 15 when she arranged her own escape to freedom via Niagara Falls.