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African and Caribbean Canadians in Canada

  • Profile

    The term African and Caribbean Canadians usually refers to persons self-identifying as a black visible minority, who number 662,210 according to the 2001 Census, comprising about 2.2 per cent of the total population of Canada. In the 2001 Census, 503,805 people identified themselves as of Caribbean origin (of whom 211,720 are of Jamaican origin, 82,405 Haitian, 51,570 Guyanese, 49,590 Trinidad and Tobago), while 294,705 identified themselves as of African origin (some of whom may be non-black, notably many immigrants from Southern Africa). About 60 per cent of black African and Caribbeans live in the country’s most populous province, Ontario (411,095). As of 2001, Toronto, Montreal, Ottawa, Vancouver and Halifax were home to approximately 78.4 per cent of all African and Caribbean Canadians. Montreal, in the French-majority province of Quebec, is home to a sizeable and dynamic Haitian community.

    Blacks of Caribbean origin form a much larger proportion of the black community in Canada than in the United States. A sizeable number of black Canadians descended from freed American slaves can still be found in the province of Nova Scotia and parts of south-western Ontario.

    African and Caribbean Canadians typically self-identify as African Canadian, Jamaican Canadian, Haitian Canadian, or Black/black.

    The month of February is officially recognized as Black History Month in Canada.

    Historical context

    Most African and Caribbean Canadians immigrated since the 1960s, when immigration rules were eased for non-white individuals. But black people have been in Canada since the days of the earliest European settlement, and black community leaders argue that Canadians have not sufficiently acknowledged the rich contributions of the country’s pioneering black citizens.

    Mattieu da Costa, an African translator and navigator fluent in the Mi’gmaq Native language, arrived in Canada in 1606 and served as an interpreter for French explorer Samuel de Champlain. Later, thousands of freed black slaves remained loyal to the British, fighting alongside British forces against the Americans in the War of Independence and again during the war of 1812. In the mid-1800s, a black militia unit, the Victoria Pioneer Rifle Company, was the only organized defence force in British Columbia’s capital city.

    Canada was also a base of operations for the organizers of the ‘underground railway’, a clandestine network that assisted black slaves attempting to flee the USA. In 1853, Mary Ann Shadd, a black teacher, was the first woman in North America to start a newspaper, the Provincial Freeman, which she used to fight slavery. The famous American novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is believed to be a depiction of the life of Josiah Henson, a black man born into slavery in the USA in 1789 who faithfully served his master for years until he escaped to southern Ontario. There, he helped found the Dawn Settlement, a colony where black people could study and live. Approximately 10,000 black people came to Nova Scotia between 1749 and 1816 and there remains today a strong community of African Nova Scotians.

    Until Britain abolished slavery in 1834, Canada had its share of slaves, too, many owned by prominent Canadians. One of the most famous was Marie-Joseph Angélique, who in 1734 set her mistress’s house on fire in an attempt to escape. The fire spread, causing fire damage to half of Montreal, Canada’s largest city at the time. Angélique was caught, tortured and hanged.

    Until the 1960s, the number of people of African and Caribbean descent in Canada did not exceed 25,000 due to popular pressure on the government to restrict immigration of black people and other minorities. When these policies were changed, the black population expanded more than tenfold in the space of two decades.

    Current issues

    A 1995 study found that black men born in Canada earn 16 per cent less than Anglo-Saxon men; black men born outside Canada earn 21 per cent less. Until changes were made in the 1960s, school officials, employers and landlords were legally permitted to discriminate and segregate on the basis of race. Today, de jure discrimination has in most cases been eradicated, but more subtle de facto discrimination is still prevalent. Federal and provincial charters of rights that outlawed racial and other forms of discrimination have often proved ineffective. According to the Ethnic Diversity Survey released in September 2003, nearly 50 per cent of blacks said that they had experienced some form of racial discrimination or unfair treatment sometimes or often in the five years prior to 2003, as compared to 34 per cent of South Asians and 33 per cent of Chinese.

    For the most part, Canadians of African and Caribbean descent have been marginalized in poorly remunerated and insecure sectors of the economy. Unemployment and poverty rates among African and Caribbean Canadians are much higher than the national average: child poverty is about 44 per cent for blacks, compared to 19 per cent for the general population. Black people remain under-represented in higher education institutions, professional fields, police departments, the civil service and politics.

    In certain fields, such as law enforcement, the representation of black people is so low it has contributed to social unrest. A lack of black officers in all major police departments across Canada has contributed to a problem of police racism against black people, particularly against black youth, who often are targeted for stops and searches, surveillance, questioning and harassment. Fatal police shootings of young black men appear to be occurring more frequently in large urban centres like Montreal and Toronto, often in questionable circumstances and amid evidence of police negligence and cover-ups, and even police racism. Effective independent monitoring of police procedures has not been instituted. Racist incidents affecting black people and other minorities, and support for a clamp-down on immigration, persist. The African Canadian Legal Clinic has stated that this perceived racial profiling is directly related to the enactment of the Canadian Anti-Terrorism Act (ATA).

    A new generation of young African and Caribbean Canadians is responding to these obstacles. These individuals are renewing pride in their community’s accomplishments, taking leadership roles inside and outside their communities, renewing Black cultural forms and media, and moving into fields where people of African descent have been under-represented.

    In 2003, Nova Scotia became the first (and only) province in Canada to set up a separate department and minister dedicated to the needs of people of African descent: the Minister and Office of African Nova Scotian Affairs. Nova Scotia also was the first, and so far only, province in Canada to set aside local school board seats for African Canadians. There are 48 distinct African-Canadian communities in Nova Scotia with a total population of 19,670. African Nova Scotians have lower employment and earnings rates than other Nova Scotians and are poorly represented in the public service. In 2002, the federal government declared Africville in Halifax a national historic site, expressing regret over the day the city evicted black residents from their homes. In the 1960s, Halifax took over the land and bulldozed the neighbourhood to build a bridge across the harbour. African Nova Scotian advocates still ask that Halifax settle land claims with the people who used to live in Africville. Africville was a small, close-knit community that had existed for about 150 years. Their situation was raised in the 2003 country report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Racism.

    In April 2006, a Quebec government task force recommended a wide series of reforms to stem racism, curb unemployment and improve the public image of the province’s 152,000 blacks. The report by the Task Force on the Full Participation of Black Communities in Quebec Society makes a series of recommendations but provides no timetable or budget for action. The Task Force held public consultations in November and December of 2005 with more than 275 groups and individuals. Among the recommendations are: the Quebec government should adopt an official policy to fight racism and racial discrimination, and advertise it in a province-wide campaign; the government should reform the Quebec Human Rights Commission, criticized for not handling enough racism complaints; and the Quebec civil service should consider hiring quotas and entry exams reserved for blacks and other visible minorities. The jobless rate among blacks in Quebec is 17 per cent, about twice the Quebec average, even though blacks are more likely to have a university education than the general population.

    In 2005, Her Excellency the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean became the first black woman to be Governor General of Canada. Michaëlle Jean was born in Port au Prince, Haiti. As a young child, in 1968, she fled her country with her family and sought refuge in Canada.

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