February is Black History Month across Canada and many of us are taking the time to understand, take stock, and act to address anti-Black racism. This month of education, reflection, and action provides Canadians with the opportunity to consider how all aspects of identity, including race, inform Black History in Canada.
It is common to talk about different aspects of identity as if they stand alone. But in reality, people’s identities co-exist in one’s life and one aspect of their identity informs another.
For example, the history of African Nova Scotians is informed by the history of enslavement in Canada, and the anti-slavery movement that was led by many African Nova Scotian leaders like Richard Preston. His movement to address racism and promote community well-being was grounded in his Christian faith. Under his leadership, churches became sites of community gathering. In Ontario, Sandwich First Baptist Church, constructed in 1851 as part of the Underground Railroad, is one of the oldest active Black churches in Canada. Designated a National Historic Site in 2000, the church highlights that Black history in Canada is part of Canadian history. These stories demonstrate how race, religion, citizenship status, and community well-being are all intertwined when we discuss Black history in Canada. Other examples include the First Baptist Church in Toronto and the role of Viola Desmond’s Christian community in her stand against racism.
The whole person
Race, religion, and spirituality continue to be interconnected for many people. Singling out one aspect of their identity misses out the richness and complexity of understanding the whole person.
The past shows us that laws and social norms segregated people by race. They informed how Black Canadians were excluded or lacked access to education, jobs, suitable housing, citizenship rights, among other things. In response, many Black religious communities supported the well-being of the Black community.
Today, institutional slavery no longer exists but segregation continues in behaviour and attitude. These behaviours and attitudes maintain anti-Black racism in the larger society (seen in education, justice system, access to jobs, etc.) as well as religious groups (seen in some Prairie Christian churches, some Montreal Muslim mosques, and some Jewish communities) across Canada.
As Canadians work together to promote equity and eliminate hate and discrimination, we need to understand the complex reality of how race, religion, and spirituality, among many other aspects of identity, are interconnected. When we do so, we are able to fully engage with Black History in Canada.
By: Dr. W. Y. Alice Chan and Dr. Margie Patrick
To read other ways to use religious literacy, check out other Thought Corner contributions here: https://ccrl-clrc.ca/religious-literacy-resources/thought-corner/