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The History of People of African Descent in Canada

In this podcast, Dr. Isaac Saney discusses and explains the history of people of African descent in Canada and the long struggle for freedom and self-determination.

Duration: 05:32
Date: March 18, 2021

Transcript

The History of People of African Descent in Canada

Narrator: You are listening to an excerpt from the event on "Understanding Anti-Black Racism and How to Be an Ally". This podcast is part of a micro-learning series based on this event. This event was the first in a series organized in collaboration with the Federal Black Employee Caucus. We thank you for joining us in this space, as we explore the meaning of anti-Black racism and allyship in Canada throughout the micro-learning series.

The following talk features Dr. Isaac Saney, director of the Transition Year Program at Dalhousie University. Dr. Saney holds a PhD in history, from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and a Juris Doctor from Dalhousie's Schulich School of Law.

Music Cue

Dr. Isaac Saney: What I would like to begin with, as a historian, in my brief remarks, is to underscore the history of people of African descent in Canada. I think it's important to understand that the two primary victims of colonialism in Canada or "the Canadas" have been obviously the Indigenous peoples in their various nations, as well as people of African descent.

There has been a long presence of people of African descent, but also accompanying that, a long struggle for freedom for self-determination. We have a long history of slavery here that is often not acknowledged. While we often associate slavery with something being in the United States, and that is part of the Canadian conceit, that somehow Canada is the endpoint of the Underground Railroad and that slavery, brutalization, Jim Crow segregation, all of these things, are something that has taken place in the United States. So, the explosion of protests over George Floyd's murder comes, not simply because his represents a long litany of crimes against people of African descent, but also in Canada and across the world, we've had solidarity demonstrations precisely because some of those things have happened here in Canada and those countries as well.

I think one of the things that's shocked people was the fact that we can point to a history of slavery in Canada. We can point to a history of Africans being sold. We can point to the brutalization of Africans and the stories I've collected speak of this brutality. So while slavery may never have achieved the numbers and perhaps the economic weight that it had in the United States, it established a constellation of values, dynamics and practices that have continued to shape, profoundly, the trajectory of people of African descent. So, when we talk about this history, when we talk about the history of people of African descent, we're not just simply talking about an accidental or conjectural fortuitous appearance within the Canadian historiography, it was also the denial of their citizenship right. It was not just simply a denial of their rights; it was a denial of the very idea that they could have rights. And I think this has profoundly shaped the Black experience in Canada and it's profoundly shaped the institutional racism, the systemic racism and the racism embedded in the state structure and practices that continue to have this deleterious impact on people of African descent.

One of the key points is that, underscoring all of this, from the existence of slavery to the establishment of Black organizations to deal with the conditions they faced, to the struggles of the 60s and even onwards, is the idea that Black oppression, Black marginalization, Black exploitation, disenfranchisement is central to the foundation of the Canadian state, the Canadian colonial settler state. And as we face this outpouring or protest as we've witnessed, shall we say, the very profound demands for justice, the very profound demands for fundamental social change, what people are calling out, which is obvious, is beyond simply rhetoric, beyond simply the acknowledgement of the Black presence in Canada, but real concrete deployment of resources, changes in policies and state structure to address this marginalization of people of African descent.

So we are faced with a profound task, but our consciousness has been raised that unless we address this fundamental issue of anti-Black racism and understand its specificity, understand that it is central to the foundation of the Canadian state, then the problems and the protests against these injustices will continue. As Mumia Abu-Jamal once said, it's only through struggle that we can transform the dull realities that we live in. So, when I look at the various protests that have taken place, when I've talked with students who have taken my courses, when I've seen people speaking out and when I've seen people acknowledging this long history of oppression and pain, I am optimistic, but my optimism is tempered by the fact that we must go beyond rhetoric. We must go beyond action in order to remedy and rectify these historical injustices and this historical pattern of disenfranchisement and marginalization.

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Narrator: That was Dr. Isaac Saney, director of the Transition Year Program at Dalhousie University. Dr. Saney is a long-time community activist in the anti-war movement and anti-racism struggle. His roots lie in the Caribbean and the Black Nova-Scotian community. He is the author of Cuba: A Revolution in Motion, and he is currently finishing his next book, Africa's Children Return: Cuba and the Global Black Liberation Struggle.

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