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Black History Month. How should it be viewed today?

Close-up of a young girl of African decent

Black History Month celebrations are organized everywhere in North America during the month of February. Unfortunately for me, it took a move to Ontario in 2004, after having spent four years in Quebec, to become aware of this celebration. Every year since then, when this crucial time comes around, I always ask myself about the true meaning of this celebration, beyond what is official.

How should we view this celebration?

For those who are not aware of its origins and who undoubtedly still have questions regarding this celebration, it is important to note that Black History Month dates back to 1926. Afro-American historian Carter G. Woodson, who studied at Harvard, proposed establishing a time devoted to honour the accomplishments of African Americans and to increase awareness of Black history in the United States. This led to the establishment of “Negro History Week” in 1926. Celebrations of Black History also started in Canada shortly thereafter.

In the early 1970s, the week was renamed “Black History Week”, and in 1976, it was expanded into “Black History Month”.

In December 1995, the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month in Canada following a motion introduced by the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Honourable Jean Augustine. The motion was carried unanimously by the House of Commons.

In February 2008, Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Senate, introduced the Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and to recognize February as Black History Month. It received unanimous approval and was adopted on March 4, 2008. The adoption of this motion completed Canada’s parliamentary position on Black History Month.

The official goal of this celebration is to recognize the support and contribution of people of African descent. Canadians celebrate the multiple accomplishments of Black Canadians who, throughout history, have contributed greatly to making Canada the multicultural, sensitive and prosperous nation we now live in.

The 2020 theme for Black History Month is “Canadians of African Descent: Going forward, guided by the past”. This was inspired by the theme of the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015–2024).

Personally, I believe that this is a wonderful opportunity for the Black Canadian community to raise awareness among black Canadians, particularly the younger generation, about their history and their heritage, especially when we know that they are not exposed to this history in their school curriculum. It is also an opportunity to raise awareness among all Canadians in general on the role of the Black population in Canada, something which has not always been seen as an integral element of Canadian history.

For instance, there is only a brief mention in Canadian history about certain Loyalists who settled in the Maritimes after the American Revolution who were black, or of the many sacrifices made by black Canadian soldiers in times of war, since the War of 1812.

Few Canadians are aware that Africans arrived as slaves on land that is now part of Canada and how they fought against slavery and helped build the foundation of a diversified and inclusive Canadian society.

Black History Month is an opportunity to learn more about these Canadian stories and the numerous other important contributions and accomplishments made by black Canadians to the colonialization, growth and development of Canada, as well as to the diversity of Black communities and their importance in our country’s history.

Finally, celebrating Black History Month is also a great opportunity to look towards the future. Where should we, the Black community in Canada, position ourselves in order to continue with our positive contributions to enhancing the climate between different cultural and racial communities that make up our society, and to work efficiently for the good of our beautiful and diversified Canadian society.

I would be remiss not to recognize the work OSSTF/FEESO is undertaking as an organization to address barriers to leadership that the Black community, and other racialized communities, face. The organization recognizes the need for more Black voices at various leadership levels in our union, and it is my hope that we will see more members of the Black community as our future leaders.

In conclusion, I hope you have all enjoyed celebrating Black History Month.

About Vitia Buaba Zam
Vitia Buaba Zam is a member of District 32, Centre-Sud-Ouest de l'Ontario (Unité 64), and serves on the provincial Communications and Political Action Committee.

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