Thursday, 4 May 2017

Conference to Examine Canada's 150th Birthday in Relation to Black Canadians

By Neil Armstrong

Dr. Barrington Walker, Associate Professor, Department of History, at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.    Photo contributed

Some leading black scholars, community advocates, and activists will gather in Manitoba this month to consider the history and contemporary issues of African Canadians as Canada gets set to mark its 150th anniversary of Confederation.

The 2017 Black Canadian Studies Association biennial conference will be held May 11-13 at Brandon University in the province under the theme, “Blackness, Indigeneity, Colonialism, and Confederation: 21st Century Perspectives.”

Organizers note that: “The government of Canada intends to mark the nation’s 2017 sesquicentennial as “the grandest national birthday in a generation.” What, however, does this celebration mean for African Canadians once enslaved or free?”

The conference will explore the achievements, challenges, contributions, histories and futures of African Canadians at Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Historians, Dr. Afua Cooper, James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Dr. Barrington Walker, associate professor at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, are the keynote speakers.

Dr. Afua Cooper, James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Chair of the Black Canadian Studies Association.
Asked about the word “indigeneity” in the theme, Professor Walker said in this context it refers to the people who are here before non-Indigenous contact.

“And part of the challenge I think in this context is thinking through what the relationship of people of African descent is, the people who were here first, in terms of the long histories and in terms of our relationship with the colonial state.”

The professor said, like some, he struggles with the historical significance of the 150th birthday of Canada.

“I think on the one hand there are some people who will point to – people firmly in the kind of a nation-building camp of Canadian history – and they will say that what’s really significant about the birthday for people of African descent is that we have a place in the long story of Canada’s founding as a nation. And, that there have been people of African descent who have made important key contributions to that nation-building story.”

He thinks their point has a lot of merit, however, on the other hand, he knows that “for other folks the history of Blacks in Canada is more complicated than that in a lot of ways as well because of our history of slavery and our history of oppression in the Canadian context, and the way in which black labour went hand in hand with the dispossession of aboriginal people to help found a white settler colony.”

Professor Walker is more troubled by the triumphalist nation-building story because of the history of blackness in Canada. 

“Not that we shouldn’t celebrate those folks that a lot of people like to call pioneers but I think we have to be a little more critical,” he said, suggesting that with a critical lens “the full range of blackness in Canada” be taken into account. 

Walker notes that achievements and ‘firsts’ are important but people need to ask what came before celebrating the 150 years. 

“What kind of work is that celebration doing in terms of an on-going colonization project and how can we as black people critically interrogate our place in that colonization project?”

He notes that this is an on-going colonization project because this discourse about the 150 from the standpoint of a lot of aboriginal folks “is an on-going articulation of that old colonial project. This place has been around a lot longer than a 150 years, this is a civilization that dates back a lot further than 150 years. In a lot of ways it’s an insult.”

Professor Walker’s address on May 12 is entitled “Blacks and Social Order in North America’s Urban Landscape.”

He will be talking about the long history of African Canadian peoples and violence in the North American context and thinking through “how older stories and older trajectories of histories of violence have links with what they can tell us about our contemporary more current-day stories of the regulation, the control, the surveillance of blacks in urban spaces.”

“I’ll have a little bit to say about how those histories are also connected to similar histories of First Nations people in Canada.”

Speaking with the Gleaner in April at the UWI Toronto Benefit Gala, Senator Murray Sinclair, who is First Nations and former chair of the Indian Residential Schools Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said the sesquicentennial does not have the same meaning as the rest of Canada. 

“I think people will learn that over the course of the next year. Indigenous people have a perspective and an experience with Canada since Confederation that is not the same as non-Indigenous people and they’re going to make sure that people understand that.

“But, I think at the same time there’s probably going to be a significant number of Indigenous people who will participate in the celebration and they will participate in the events in order to honour this country. Because, many Indigenous People have signed treaties with the government and now if the government follows through on its commitment to honour those treaties, then Indigenous people will follow through on their commitment to be partners in Confederation.”

Dr. Gervan Fearon, President & Vice Chancellor of Brandon University in Brandon, Manitoba.   Photo credit: Eddie Grant

Regarding the significance of the conference at Brandon University, Gervan Fearon, its president and vice-chancellor, said the university is located almost right at the centre, geographically, of Canada.

“In a very symbolic way, it’s being able to say that a conference of this nature, hosted by the Canadian Black Studies Association, with a lot of scholars and individuals from the Black Canadian community being right at the centre of Canada in discussing issues about the future of Canada and the role that the Black community can play and will play in shaping that future.”

He also views it as a “mechanism for building the next generation of scholars’ that have an interest in Black Canadian Studies, as well as the next generation of Black Canadian scholars who will come forward and take leadership roles at Canadian universities.”

As Canada’s first and only Black Canadian university president, he is looking to the next generation, what he calls “succession planning.”

“It’s very important for individuals from the community to think about pursuing academic careers at the highest level and to be able to get acclimatized, to get used to what that means, in terms of research, presenting at conferences, publishing, engaging with colleagues within their field and outside of their field, and doing that across Canada, wherever in Canada but also at a global level.”

The biennial conference will also feature Sandra Hudson, Cicely-Belle Blain and Amina Abawajy in conversation about Black Lives Matter.

For more information about the conference, visit

[A shorter version of this story is in the NA Weekly Gleaner, May 4-10, 2017.]

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