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Maple Leaf Roots: a salute to Black History Month

Toronto's Necropolis Cemetery is a good place to start on a search for Canada's Black history. The tombs of Dr Anderson Ruffin Abbott, the first black Canadian-born doctor, who attended Abraham Lincoln on his deathbed, and Mr Thornton Blackburn, born into slavery, who founded Toronto's first cab company, which eventually became the TTC, can be found here amongst the remains of the city's great and good.

Black communities have been established all over the country, but Nova Scotia and New Brunswick are home to some of the oldest settlements. As we learned from Lawrence Hill's epic novel, The Book of Negroes, former slaves who were loyal to the British Crown settled in Birchtown, near Shelburne, given land and freedom in return for service during the American Revolution. It was not a simple exchange: the British did not always deal in good faith in spite of what they promised to induce slaves to take the dangerous step of leaving their American masters to fight. And some white Loyalists brought their slaves with them to Canada, not freeing them until they were obliged to. Upper and Lower Canada had abolished slavery in the late eighteenth century, and on August 1, 1834, the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 took effect, ending slavery everywhere in the British Empire. Emancipation Day is still celebrated on August 1st in many Canadian provinces, although not always under that name.

In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln agreed to allow Black men to fight in the US Civil War, which would determine the fate of the American slave-owning states. Of the 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors who saw action, more than 1,000 came from the provinces of Canada. The war began in 1861 but it was not until the summer of 1864 that Black and white soldiers were paid equally, and this arrangement increased the numbers of Black recruits.

Black communities grew up in the Canadian West as well, with settlers coming north from Oklahoma to Saskatchewan and Alberta in search of freedom from the racism of the white pioneer settlers. Unfortunately, Canada wasn't much more welcoming: in 1911, the Prime Minister, Wilfrid Laurier, was persuaded to sign an Order in Council barring black immigrants from Canada because they were considered "unsuited" to the climate. The Order didn't last long and wasn't widely publicised, but immigration interviews and medical examinations were used to deter Black would-be settlers. The ones who stayed and made a success of life in Canada were the forebears of Black communities throughout the Prairies today.

There was a welcome in some places: Canada's role as the end of the Underground Railroad, smuggling escaped slaves north to freedom, is well known and a source of pride to most modern Canadians. Of the 100,000 people who used the railroad, some travelling south from Florida to Cuba or from Texas to Mexico, several thousand made it over the border to Canada. The "railroad" operated in stages, each run by a "conductor" who knew that particular stage but no other, so that the whole railroad could not be compromised.

The Black community in Canada has a long and fascinating history, with personalities and stories to rival any from the better-known American history. Businesswoman Viola Desmond, arrested because she refused to sit in the segregated balcony of a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia cinema, would be as well-known as Rosa Parks if she were American. Willy O'Ree, the first black player in the NHL, would be the subject of at least one Hollywood film if he'd been born in Flatbush, New York instead of Fredericton, New Brunswick. William Hall, the first black man to be awarded the Victoria Cross, was born in Nova Scotia and served with distinction in the Royal Navy, decorated for his bravery in defending the garrison at Lucknow in India.

Canada's entire post-Contact history is one of waves of immigrants from all over the world arriving to seek success or freedom or just a fertile piece of land to farm. Those early Black settlers from the United States were followed by people from the Caribbean, from Africa, and from Latin America. Life here has not always been easy, and there is still a long way to go for many Black Canadians, especially newcomers, but maybe the experience of Michaelle Jean, an immigrant from Haiti who became Governor-General, can be an inspiration instead of an exception.

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