During public lectures, I am often asked the question, why a Black History Month? I answer by reminding my listeners that blacks have a 400-year-long history in Canada - one that predates any other outside group except the French.
Indeed, I could make the argument that this makes Africans one of the founding peoples. The least governments could do is erect a monument to show some respect.
The rise of the Western hemisphere was premised on two factors: the appropriation of aboriginal lands and the working of that land by enslaved Africans. The slave trade and slavery produced untold wealth for Europe and European-derived societies.
The flip side of Europe's modernity and progress was Africa's underdevelopment. A corollary of this was the continued oppression of African-descended peoples in Africa and the West. That is why the case for reparations is pertinent.
We mark the first black presence in the territory we now call Canada (again, way before the British) with Mathieu Da Costa. Described as a "Portuguese African," Da Costa was an adventurer and explorer who worked as a translator and linguist for the French colonizer Sieur de Monts, as the French sought to establish a foothold in Acadia (Nova Scotia).
The literary evidence also suggests Da Costa served as a cultural broker between the French, Mic Mac and other East Coast natives. In all likelihood, he would have been present in Canada before 1604 to have learned aboriginal languages.
By the end of the 17th century, Africans had become a visible presence, mainly as enslaved workers, in the households and on the farms of colonists. Some of the men also worked in the fur trade.
By 1734, when a black woman, Marie-Joseph Angélique (also Portuguese) was hanged for allegedly setting fire to Montreal, there was no doubt that people of African descent had made their mark on Canada.
When Britain took Canada from France in 1760, the conquerors recognized the French colonists' right to hold slaves and provided for that in one of the many articles of capitulation. Slavery expanded under British rule until it was challenged by Governor Simcoe in Upper Canada (Ontario) in 1793 and Chief Justice Monk in Lower Canada (Quebec), also toward the end of the 18th century. In 1833, the institution was fully abolished.
With regards to Toronto, Africans were part of its founding and helped to bring it from a frontier settlement to a settled community. Four black men constructed Castle Frank and Davenport roads. Peter Long and his family, black loyalists, homesteaded in the Don Mills area as early as 1793.
In Toronto proper, black people, whether as free persons or enslaved workers, built roads, chopped down trees, constructed homes, worked in the homes of white settlers, minded their children and cooked their meals.
It would be remiss of me not to mention Peggy Pompadour and her son Jupiter, both enslaved and owned by former colonial administrator and one of Ontario's founding fathers Peter Russell. Russell decided to sell Peggy and son and advertised his intention in the York Gazette in February 1806. However, times were changing, and as the 18th century closed and a new one opened, black Torontonians established businesses such as barbering salons, restaurants, clothing shops and grocery stores, and the wealthier ones even employed white nannies, housekeepers and butlers.
After Confederation, Canada pursued a "white only' immigration policy that saw hundreds of thousands of Britons and other Europeans spilling into this country. People of colour were let in only under special circumstances.
The indigenous blacks who had lived in the country for centuries had the status of third-class citizens. At the same time, many groups of black people, including the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, waged a struggle for human rights and dignity, not only for themselves but for all Canadians. It was only in 1962 when Diefenbaker reversed the white-only policy that blacks and other people of colour were allowed into Canada as immigrants and settlers.
So how is all this knowledge of history going to help us with the future? Four hundred years of black history must mean something. How about a monument for starters (Parliament Hill, Queen's Park)? It would be nice to know that someone recognized the many centuries of free labour black people gave to this country, and it would foreground the issue of reparations.
Toronto may be the only G8 city where people of colour form a majority (51 per cent), but this does not mean full equality for all its citizens. The city, like the rest of Canada, is marked by economic apartheid as described by social scientist Grace-Edward Galabuzi. Black people as a group are increasingly living within economic Bantustans.
The media and other public fora have been instrumental in portraying the community as a criminal one. Despite the much-touted diversity, we are witnessing not only disparity, but also xenophobia.
So the issue right now is not one of "celebrating our diversity," but of promoting equity. If blacks, particularly our youth, do not have access and equity, a majority will remain in low-paying jobs. If we truly want to celebrate our multicultural heritage, then the vast wealth the country produces must find its way into the hands of all its peoples, not just the very few.
Let us think on those things during this Black History Month.
Afua Cooper, a poet and cultural commentator, holds a Ph.D in history and is the author of The Hanging Of Angélique: The Untold Story Of Canadian Slavery, And The Burning Of Old Montréal (HarperCollins, 2006).