Saturday, 9 March 2019

Ontario Black History Society's Head Lauds Contributions of African People

By Neil Armstrong

Photo contributed    Natasha Henry, president of the Ontario Black History Society

The president of the Ontario Black History Society says it is important to honour the past but doing so requires knowing and remembering it.

After sharing historical references of African Canadians across the country, Natasha Henry noted that most of the examples highlighted the idea of Sankofa – meaning “going back and retrieving and reclaiming what was lost to help us to move forward.”

Henry, a historian and educator, was the guest speaker at the 18th annual Black History Month Concert presented by the Peel United Cultural Partners at the Century Gardens Recreation Centre in Brampton, Ontario on February 16.

The theme of the evening was “Honouring the Past and Inspiring the Future.”

“We must make sure that we share our stories such as the ones that I shared with you today and others that you’ve heard as well. We must share them with our young people and to others pass on our history of fortitude and perseverance for generation to generation.”

The award-winning author and curriculum developer who focuses on Black Canadian experiences said it was crucial to learn about “our origins in Africa, about the plight of African people, honour our ancestors who faced unimaginable journeys, and work together for a common good.”

She said African people have been in Canada for over than 400 years and noted that
one of the first documented persons was Mathieu Dacosta who was hired by the French explorers to work as a translator in the early 17th century.

This, she said, meant that he had to have come here before and interacted with the Mi'kmaq, and also learn the French language as he was in great demand.

The historian said shortly after that many African people came by force and later by choice.

“Their experiences are Canadian experiences, stories of struggle, triumph, racism but stories of championing equality, overcoming injustice, resilience and tremendous contributions and achievements.

Starting with the City of Brampton in Ontario, Henry said black people have been living in Peel Region since the 1850s.

“Black History spans across this country,” said Henry, showing an example of one of the earliest settlements in Canada – Africville – in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Years after the City of Halifax demolished the community in the 1960s, since 1983 former residents who were relocated have returned annually to the shores of the Bedford Basin for reunions.

There was also the story of two men, Cornelius Sparrow and Robert Patterson, who arrived in New Brunswick in the late 1850s having escaped slavery in Virginia.

Sparrow became a small business owner of a restaurant, hair salon and several buildings, and a trustee for the church.

Henry noted that the black presence in New Brunswick goes all the way back to the 1780s.

Patterson opened an oyster saloon around 1859 which developed into one of the popular establishments of its kind in the city.

In Prince Edward Island (PEI), Samuel Martin, also called Black Sam, was born into slavery in the United States and brought to PEI as the property of Mr. Strickland.

“When he received his freedom he petitioned and demanded to get land and he went to court in order to do so. He settled on the land and shortly thereafter a small black community developed of around 100 people in the city of Charlottetown and the area became known at The Bog.”

Henry, who is currently completing a PhD in History at York University, included in her presentation The Coloured Women’s Club of Montreal, founded in 1902.

“These black women in Montreal they were the wives of men who worked as sleeping car porters on the trains. And many of these women worked as domestics or labourers and they lived in the community called Little Burgundy.”

The club was formed to offer support and social services to their fellow community members and to support women who were living in difficult conditions.

As the organization grew its members were instrumental in building Montreal’s oldest black church in 1909. They offered and continue to offer scholarships to students from then until now.

She cited historical examples of African people in Ottawa, Manitoba, Alberta, Saskatchewan, British Columbia, Yukon and the Northwest Territories.

Henry also noted that more recently Africans immigrants settled in Nunavut and came together to form a black history society.

The Peel United United Cultural Partners presented the community award to Justice Donald McLeod who was appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice in 2013.

“We are a community that has to believe in ourselves first. The most important thing about being here is that we’re here. Believe in yourself first,” said McLeod in accepting the award. He encouraged members of the Black community to not give up.

McLeod founded and chairs 100 Strong, an initiative to fund a summer school program for 12 and 13 year old black boys and co-chairs Stand-up, a mentorship program for Grades 7 and 8 boys.

There were also awards presented to three essay winners: Marcus Chong, 14, a grade 8 student at Sir John A. Macdonald Public School, first place; Ghazia Kausar, 12, second place and Meghna Krishnaswamy, 12, third place -- both grade 7 students at Sir John A. Macdonald Middle School.

[This story was published in the March 7-13, 2019 issue of the North American Weekly Gleaner.]

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