On Feb. 16, the CBC published an article on its website: “Preserving a memory” about “great old houses” in New Brunswick. The caption under a photograph of a home in downtown Fredericton included: “The right side of the house was used to house Odell’s slaves.” The slaves or the lost memories of living in the master’s house were not mentioned in the article itself.
During a snowstorm in Fredericton the previous evening, Funké Aladejebi, a new assistant professor of History at the University of New Brunswick, presented the third annual Black History Month lecture, “Blackness at the Intersections, Examining History and Black Identity in 20th Century Canada.”
Aladejebi posed a question to her audience: “What are the first two questions black Canadians get asked?” Answer: 1) Where are you from? and 2) No, where are you REALLY from? She displayed images of African-Americans who are well-known in Canada and black Canadians who made significant achievements but are unknown by most white Canadians.
Those questions and responses to the imagery assume that black Canadians are not from here, and if they were from here, memories of them have been erased. Canada’s history is replete with “willful attempts to make black people invisible,” Aladejebi said. Based on her extensive historical scholarship, her lecture was the story of black activism and resistance to erasure in Canada.
White Canadians have created a dominant narrative that slavery and oppression of black people happened south of the border, and that that Canada is the country at the end of the freedom railroad, where slaves became free. On the contrary, since the 1600s and until 1834 when slavery was abolished across the British empire, many people of wealth in the French and British colonies owned and traded slaves. As evidenced in the recent CBC article, slave owners and their slaves lived in “great old houses” still serving as family homes in New Brunswick.
One of Aladejebi’s central arguments is that the forced labour of black people in Canada was concurrent with the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, and the two narratives must be understood in relation to one another in order to recognize that white supremacy is the common feature in both stories. However, those intertwined narratives are complex and sometimes contradictory.
Historically, the experiences of black women and black activists are complicated by shifting patterns of migration and education. Segregated schools were common across the country. In Nova Scotia, the last segregated school closed as recently as 1983. Ontario, where Aladejebi conducted most of her historical research, at one point was home to 60% of the black population in Canada. Schools became a place for negotiating identities and forming alliances that sought to resist racial discrimination.
Aladejebi recounted that the 1960s was a period of black cultural renaissance and activism in urban centres in Canada; particularly in Montreal, Toronto and Halifax. Much of the activity happened in universities. Aladejebi described the social, cultural and political importance of key gatherings at universities including, in Montreal, the Black Writers Congress in 1968 and the Sir George Williams protest in 1969.
At McGill University, the Black Writers Congress was organized during a time of cultural shifts in both the US and Canada. Congress participants included Stokely Carmichael, the American leader of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and later the Black Panther Party, and intellectual leaders such as Walter Rodney, Guyanese activist, historian and author of the influential book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.
Aladejebi described the 1968 Congress as a precursor to events the next year at Sir George Williams (now Concordia) University. Six black biology students accused a professor of racism for giving all his black students failing grades. They organized a sit-in at the computer centre that became the largest student occupation in Canadian history. After a month, the occupation ended with a fire that caused extensive and expensive damage.
The events at Sir George Williams catalyzed a shift in consciousness, creating a space for increased black activism in Canadian cities. Historically, universities have been spaces for both activism and repression of activism. Aladejebi explained that black faculty members had to carefully negotiate their responses to white supremacy, standing as insider-outsiders. Some became activists and joined student protests and others had to distance themselves from these ‘radical’ demonstrations. Among white professors, there were allies but many others actively attempted to quell the activist impulses of their students.
The shift in consciousness was a realization that problems facing the black community in housing, in education and in policing were not merely social problems that needed political solutions but rather political problems in themselves – the institutions are sites of power and control.
In 1971, the federal government introduced Canada’s Multicultural Policy and made funding available to different cultural groups. That policy created divisions in the black activist movements, although there was also recognition of unity among differences. Divergent approaches developed, both radical actions and more traditional processes of working within the systems of oppression.
Some groups, such as the Black Education Project (BEP) that began in 1973 in Toronto, accepted government grants. Government funding forced the BEP to comply with administrative procedures that stifled their energies. Aladejebi called these funding requirements “state agendas of control.” She said that “policies of multiculturalism muted radical voices.”
Aladejebi ended by highlighting the life of Viola Desmond, the black Canadian woman on the new $10 bill. Desmond was a woman who directly challenged the system of white supremacy in Canada. “Anti-black racism is a global problem not confined to the US,” Aladejebi reminded her audience.
Following her talk, in response to a question from the audience about the situation in New Brunswick, Aladejebi explained that her research in the province is just beginning but already she found that “it’s quite easy to be erased in this space” where there are so few black people. In her searches to date, she has learned about black leaders in New Brunswick but the memories of them have been almost erased.
One of the last questions was: “Where do we go from here?” Aladejebi responded that she thinks about this question all the time. She believes the big project moving forward is to form alliances to attack the broader processes of white supremacy. “We need to understand the mechanisms by which white supremacy operates.”
Forming these alliances will be challenging, Aladejebi said. We need to be thinking about intersectionality, coalitions and community survival. Disrupting settler colonialism should include having conversations about white supremacy because “it’s fundamentally important to do the two together.”
Funké Aladejabi is Assistant Professor of History, and Gender and Women’s Studies, at UNB. Her article, ‘We Got Our Quota’ Black Female Educators and Resistive Pedagogies, 1960s-1980s,’ can be accessed here. The NB Media Co-op story on her presentation at the UNB Faculty of Education in January about the hidden curriculum can be accessed here.
Susan O’Donnell is a member of the NB Media Co-op editorial board and the principal investigator of the UNB RAVEN project.