Black Excellence, A Heritage to Celebrate; A Future to Build
February is upon us, a month that honours the ongoing legacy of Black people in Canada – from the untold stories of many achievements and triumphs, to early settler struggles against anti-Black racism that continue today. The 2024 theme for Black History Month is “Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; a Future to Build.” First presented in 1979 by Dr. Daniel G. Hill and Wilson O. Brooks, founders of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), to have February formally proclaimed as Black History Month; it wasn’t until 1995 that the month was recognized across Canada by the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament. What some are now calling Black Futures Month nods to the past to bring Black histories to the present and into the future.
Black excellence can be found throughout the history books. In 1858, B.C. saw the arrival of around 800 Black settlers who went on to become politicians, teachers, artists, poets, and entrepreneurs–forming the foundation of the province we know today. There was Mifflin Wistar Gibbs, a businessman and leader of the Vancouver Island Black Community, who in 1866 became the first Black person elected to public office as a Victoria City Councillor representing the James Bay District. As well as one of Canada's first Black female poets, Rebecca Gibbs, who also owned property on Fort Street, Victoria.
To look towards a more just future for Black Canadians however, we must not obscure the past. Although there is often thought to be no history of slavery in Canada, in 1689 King Louis XIV authorized colonists to enslave both Africans and Pawnee Indigenous people in New France. While in 1775 to 1783, freedom from slavery was offered to enslaved Africans in exchange for service in the British army during the American War of Independence. Black war veterans, settling in various provinces across Canada, faced systemic discrimination at all levels including, social, economic, political, and environmental. For instance, often Black veterans met challenges in the land granting process, even having no land awarded despite early pledges, which would have significant adverse impacts for generations to come.
Considering this year’s theme, it is vital to at once recognize Black Canadians' intergenerational trauma and transformation through impossible circumstances of oppression, survival, healing, and a hope for a thriving tomorrow.
Chief Operating Officer, Legal Operations