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Honouring Canadian Black History Now And Into The Future

02/01/2016 11:26 EST | Updated 02/01/2017 05:12 EST
Keith Beaty via Getty Images
CANADA - MAY 02: Generous victor: Scarborough North Liberal candidate Alvin Curling calls for his jublicant supporters to acknowledge defeated Progressive Conservative Carole Noble after she offered her congratulations during the Liberals' celebration at East Court in Scarborough. Curling won by more than 8,000 votes. (Photo by Keith Beaty/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the official observance of Black History Month across Canada. The first official celebrations started in 1996, following its federal recognition in 1995.

In the United States this is the 40th anniversary of the official recognition of Black History Month, following federal recognition in 1976. That is not to say that Black History was not celebrated earlier in Canada and the United States. It is noted that as early as 1926, Carter G. Woodson started what was then known as Negro History Week in the United States.

I believe that it is important to remember and honour Black Canadian history by people of all diversities. This is perhaps the only time of the year that we make a conscious effort to incorporate into all areas of life the achievements and contributions of African peoples, from the building of early Canada to contemporary Canadian culture.

Through a month of telling our stories through exhibits, special events, media specials, cultural performances, assemblies, posters, art shows, curriculum focus and concerts, opportunities for a greater learning mindset on the contributions we have made are fostered.

Recently, I began thinking of the ways that public institutions honour Black History in Canada. Canada Post issues a special edition stamp each year. This year's Black History Month Special edition stamp features the No. 2 Construction Battalion, a military battalion formed in 1916 during the First World War that consisted of black Canadian soldiers who fought in Europe.

I know that the Ontario Heritage Trust has ensured that historic people and sites are recognized with plaques, including Harriet Tubman; Richard Pierpoint; Thornton and Lucie Blackburn; Mary Ann Shadd; Dr. Anderson Abbott; Uncle Tom's Historic Cabin in Dresden, Ont.; the Banwell Road Black Settlement in Tecumseh, Ont.; the Queen's Bush Settlement in Windsor, Ont.; Negro Burial Ground in Niagara, Ont. and many others.

In Toronto and across Ontario there are public schools and programs named in honour of black Canadians including Toronto's Alvin Curling Public School, Jean Augustine Girl's Leadership Academy and the Leonard Brathwaite Africentric Program. Outside the city exist the Lincoln Alexander Secondary School in Mississauga and the Harold Brathwaite Secondary School in Brampton, among others.

My sight then turned to the CN Tower lighting calendar to see if the lighting of the CN Tower has any dates on which the tower is lit with colours associated with Africa and Africans in the diaspora. There were none. I intervened and received a positive response to my request from the CN Tower.

As a result, a historic moment in Canada was observed on Jan. 31, 2016 when, for the first time ever, the CN Tower was lit in the colours of Black History Month -- the red, black and green of African peoples and the African diaspora. The illuminating of the CN Tower certainly had local and international resonance to the global presence of African peoples in Canada and the world.

I believe that Black History will continue into the future as there is still much more work to do to ensure that all institutions develop an inclusive mindset that incorporates the contributions of black Canadians. It is important that our new generations of Canadians remember the role of black Canadians in the past, present and future of events, voices, accomplishments, activities and contributions that built this nation into a modern and prosperous 21st Century state beyond its 150th anniversary celebration in 2017.

Did you know?

In 1992 and 1993, when Cito Gaston, the first black manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, led the team to back-to-back World Series Championships, he invigorated the pride and joy of residents of the city. Looking ahead to the future, in 2016 major league teams in Toronto such as the Toronto Raptors are helmed by African peoples with Raptors President and General Manager Masai Ujiri, and Head Coach Dwayne Casey being persons of African descent. Toronto is host to the NBA All-Star game in 2016.

In 1952, when Wilson Brooks become Toronto's first black public school teacher in the Toronto Board of Education (now Toronto District School Board), he shifted mindsets to the importance of educators reflective of the diversity of the city. Now over 60 years later, there are education workers from custodians to secretaries, from directors to superintendents of education, from teachers to principals, from coaches to community support workers who are Africans in the diaspora leading student learning.

In 2016, our national poet laureate in Ottawa, George Elliot Clarke, has historic roots to the rural Black Loyalist community of Three Mile Plains in Nova Scotia

Africville in Nova Scotia was a historic black community in Nova Scotia that was destroyed by the government in the 1960s to build a highway. It has now been recognized as a national park. There are many historic black settlements in Canada in Buxton, Chatam, Owen Sound and across the 10 provinces of Canada.

Historic black settlements and places of early black settlement existed in Toronto. A walk along King Street East from the St. Lawrence Hall to Inglenook School, where Lucy and Thornton Blackburn were residents, will demonstrate the early tapestry in the making of a vibrant and diverse multicultural city. The same can be said of areas along Eglinton and Oakwood, Bloor and Bathurst, College and Spadina, Kensington Market and other neighbourhoods of Toronto.

In 2011, G98.7FM Radio in Toronto was founded by black Canadian Fitzroy Gordon. The radio station on the FM dial helps to close the gap in the diversity of black voices and perspectives in the media. Progress is being made, and there is evidence of more black Canadians on radio and television anchoring primetime shows and news that are heard locally and across Canada through new media technologies including live streaming.

Caribana, now called Toronto Carnival, was founded in 1967. Fifty years later, this cultural festival brings over a million people to the streets of Toronto to dance, showcase costumes and reunite with friends and family during the Emancipation Day weekend which is observed as the Simcoe Day Civic Holiday in Toronto.

The success and achievements, adversities and resilience, optimism and hope, along with the unbridled futurism of African peoples illustrate that Black History Month will serve as a great opportunity to connect with people, places and things that capture the full and rich diversity of the African presence in Canada.

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Gary Pieters is a former member of the Toronto Star Community Editorial Board, Immediate Past President of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and an Educator.

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