Every February, we honour Black History Month by reflecting on the past and present contributions and challenges faced by Black people in Canada. Amidst a landscape of resistance and resilience, Black leaders throughout history have paved the way for the many societal gains we enjoy today.
The month arose out of the work of scholar Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who himself was the son of freed African slaves in Virginia. Much of the American commemorations of Black History took roots in Canada because of the Black Sleeping Car Porters. Their work crossed borders and made it easier for Canadian movements to organize parallel celebrations to the ones taking place in America.
Today, every member receives equal access to membership but in 1908, the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway Employees (CBRE) constitution specifically excluded Black workers. It wasn’t until 1917 that the Order of Sleeping Car Porters (OSCP) was formed as the first Black railway union in North America. These actions of resistance and resilience led to the lasting impacts of equal rights throughout labour history.
On the political front, the work of the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected to parliament, led to the 1995 official recognition of February as Black History Month (BHM) in Canada.
Provincially, while BHM is celebrated across the country, it’s not proclaimed in every province or territory. In fact, it wasn’t until February 16, 2016 that Ontario proclaimed BHM through Bill 159, following years of advocacy from the Ontario Black History Society and municipal designations of BHM arising since 1979.
In Quebec, it was the work of Yolande James, Quebec’s first Black female Member of the National Assembly (and community coalition groups) that led to the adoption of Bill 39, and the eventual recognition of BHM on February 1, 2007.
In Nova Scotia, it wasn’t until January 26, 1996, that Premier John Savage declared February as African History Month, with much provincial programming led by the African Heritage Month Information Network. Among other notable provincial actions across the country, in 2017, under the leadership of then Premier Rachel Notley, Alberta first declared BHM, and in 2021, Saskatchewan declared February as African-Canadian/ Black History Month.
Presently, as we work together to advocate for an equitable post-pandemic recovery, let us continue to reflect on the inequities of our past as we do the critical work to combat anti-Black racism. Let it also serve as a reminder that labour’s resilience rests on the shoulders of giants and those who led resistance movements in the fight for social progress.
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