– Asa Philip Randolph, founder of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters
Labour Day is an opportune time to reflect on the history of Black workers in Canada and as a signal of the new school year, the occasion is a good prompt to think about ways to teach about the history and experiences of African Canadian workers, and the situations facing present and future workers of African descent.
People of African descent have laboured in Canada for 400 years. The earliest African workers in Canada were primarily enslaved, forced to work in various capacities without compensation. Because they were considered by law to be chattel property and not human beings, they had no rights. The institution of slavery existed in Canada for a little over 200 years under which time enslaved Black men, women, and children worked as domestics in the homes of White politicians, church clergy, business owners, and other Europeans settlers. Enslaved Blacks cleared land and farmed it for their owners. They constructed buildings and made various products such as potash, soaps, candles, maple syrup, wagons, shoes, and worked in various skilled trades.
Following the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1834, Canada attracted thousands of African American freedom-seekers and free Blacks, who settled across Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritime provinces. Black workers in the 19th century worked in hired positions and operated a variety of businesses to sustain their families and to develop their local communities. Black wage labourers faced racial discrimination in their work places, the labour market, and in society that century persists to today. They were relegated to the lowest paying jobs, largely in the service industry. Black workers were denied skilled employment and had little recourse as they were initially excluded from the emerging labour movement in the country.
To effect change, African Canadians galvanized and challenged the inequality and racism they faced. They held public meetings, wrote petitions, and launched court challenges, all with the aim of tackling racial discrimination, including in employment. In the early 1940s, Black sleeping car porters in Canada began organizing and formed Canadian branches of the all-Black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. The book, “My Name’s Not George: the Story of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in Canada” captures Stanley Grizzle’s experience as a sleeping car porter and WWII veteran. A teacher’s guide is available at www.yorku.ca/acc/library/html, developed by the African Canadian Literature Project.
Black workers and their families, a large number of them railway porters, established communities in various parts of the country. In 2014, Canada Post commemorated Hogan’s Valley and Africville with stamps for Black History Month.
African Canadians joined efforts with other social groups to lobby the government to address discrimination. Their persistence and activism resulted in the passage of Ontario’s Fair Employment Practices Act in 1951 that set the foundation for improved working conditions and worker’s rights for all Ontarians and Canadians.
So why reflect on the experiences and contributions of African Canadian workers from the early 1600s to today? People can gain a deeper appreciation of the long history of Blacks in Canada, to recognize the discrimination they faced, to highlight their determination and vigilance for better working and social conditions, and to show how their efforts have helped to strengthen the Canadian fabric. Critical reflection can also reveal how African Canadian workers broke and continue to break barriers and have made tremendous contributions despite the racial discrimination they encountered. For example, Albert Jackson who, in 1858, was brought as a baby by his mother to freedom in Toronto, was hired as Toronto’s first Black postman in 1882. Rosemary Brown was the first Black woman elected to a provincial legislative in British Columbia in 1972. In 1986 Corrine Sparks became the first provincial judge in Nova Scotia. More recently, in 2012 Devon Clunis of the Winnipeg Police Service became the first Black Police Chief in Canada.
One of the most impactful things that Social Studies and History teachers can do in their classrooms is to include visual representations of Black workers, past and present. It is important not only that students of African descent see themselves reflected in the curriculum but that other students see Blacks reflected as equal participants in Canadian society. When I debriefed a Black History Month presentation I conducted with some grade 4 and 5 classes, I asked them what they learned from an activity where they matched the definitions of colonist occupations to the images of Black colonist workers. A student concluded that they learned that African Canadians did jobs that other Canadians did. A simple, but perfect analysis.
Labour Day also serves as a call to those who support equity and social justice to continue to fight for racialized workers who face high unemployment, less pay for same work, and seemingly unbreakable glass ceilings. Consider in 2013 that the Ontario unemployment rate for youth between the ages of 15 and 24 was between 16 and 17.1%, higher than the average Canadian range of 13.5 to 14.5%. Statistics show that the unemployment rate for Black youth is the highest amongst any of the visible minority groups at, almost twice the rate of all youth workers. Teachers have to be aware of what their students of African descent face in the working world and work to educate them for success. Racialized students already face barriers to securing employment that reflects their education, skills and abilities. If they don't graduate from high school or don't go on to post-secondary education, we are further crippling their ability to secure employment and be productive citizens. Therefore efforts to engage students in their learning through culturally relevant teaching, for example, and keeping them in school must be a priority. This is one way of ensuring equity in education for African Canadian students, goals set out by the Ministry of Education in Achieving Excellence: A Renewed Vision for Education in Ontario for all students in Ontario.
All working people are important contributors to our society. The presentation of the working people of in classrooms should be more inclusive of the presence of African Canadians. Teaching students about Canada’s labour movement should include the struggles and experiences of Blacks workers, celebrate the victories against racial discrimination in employment, and encourage young people to take action against the challenges that many workers still face.
“...and Still I Rise: A History of African Canadian Workers in Ontario, 1900 – Present” (parts of the original exhibit)
“...and Still I Rise: A History of African Canadian Workers in Ontario, 1900 – Present” Teacher Guide