Charting a Course: The Struggle for Justice

African Canadians learned from experience that only the search for social justice could chart a secure course for future generations. Many people, well aware of the American civil rights movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s, believe that militancy among those of African descent is a recent phenomenon. Some African Canadians, however, because of unjust treatment, became activists long ago, at a time when their numbers were scant and the social climate was unsympathetic. They hoped to build here the promised land of their dreams.

In the last century, African Canadians were forced to agitate for better education for their children, and when they could not obtain that, they established their own schools. As well, many white educators and politicians sought to deny African- Canadian children access to good education. People of African descent in this country created anti-slavery societies and assisted the Underground Railroad in bringing escaped U.S. slaves to freedom here in Canada. In the 1860s, people of African descent newly arrived in Victoria, British Columbia, found themselves confronted with vicious epithets, but they stood their ground, planning to make here a permanent home.

The fight against adversity has been a constant theme and a unifying force. People of African descent in Nova Scotia, and elsewhere, battled against the evils of slavery in the nineteenth century. Their Baptist churches joined in that battle, as they would do later in support of temperance. The cultural identity sustaining John Ware and others in Alberta kept the African-Canadian community strong in the face of hostility; when some whites claimed that those of African descent were not farmers by nature, the response was to produce even greater crop yields.

The First World War saw many African Canadians join - in a segregated battalion - the "fight for democracy". After the victory celebrations, they hoped to share in the democratic way of life they had helped to defend. On returning home, however, they discovered that the situation was to be business as usual. Disillusionment led them to search for alternative strategies.

Traditional party politics had not acknowledged their existence. So in 1919, Marcus Garvey founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) in Montreal. Garvey argued that Africans everywhere had to uplift themselves. Other chapters of the UNIA soon blossomed across the country. By 1929, the Toronto chapter had its own headquarters located at 355 College Street and claimed several hundred members. During this same period, church membership plummeted to unprecedented lows.

Other Canadians of African descent, also turning away from traditional party politics, sought more radical approaches. The search for alternatives was a response also to those Canadians, from coast to coast, who joined the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s and 1930s. The Klan's efforts included cross burnings on lawns in various parts of Ontario. African Canadians felt threatened, especially when the situation was made more difficult by the economic dislocations of the Depression. When war came, however, young African Canadians enlisted, but this generation refused to serve in segregated units. Some flew as fighter pilots with the Royal Canadian Air Force.

After the war, most Canadians hoped for continuation of prosperity; those of African descent had other, long-term goals. The 1950s saw them demanding fair treatment. They agitated for sweeping changes to the immigration laws and exposed the racial biases that had long prevented people of African descent from entering Canada. Donald Moore, in 1954, made his fellow Canadians sit up and think when he compared racial prejudice in immigration policies to those of South African apartheid. He vowed that "the dark races shall never again be content to remain half slave and half free."

Parents complained in the mid1950s that the book Black Sambo was insulting to people of African descent. Danny Braithwaite, who had attended many UNIA meetings with his father in the 1930s, formed an alliance with other groups and fought to have the Toronto Board of Education remove the book from the curriculum, which it did in 1956. Braithwaite and his allies were launching a process that would have a lasting impact on all of Canadian society.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, African Canadians sought new strategies to continue the old struggles. They wanted better education, good jobs, economic opportunity, and political power. In 1959, Stanley Grizzle ran as a candidate for the CCF for the Ontario legislature; previously, William White had run for the same party for the federal Parliament. Both candidates lost, but their example inspired others.

When the 1963 march on Washington, D.C. led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., ignited the American fight against racism, African Canadians had already been active for some time. As more people of African descent entered this country in the 1960s, they found a legacy of discrimination, despite John Diefenbaker's courageous Canadian Bill of Rights (1960). Their determination helped Leonard Braithwaite get elected in 1964 to the Ontario legislature - the first African Canadian to do so. In 1969, at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, the quiet landscape of this country erupted. Canadians could no longer say, "It can't happen here." African Canadians marched in the streets to demand rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. They wanted the world to know that Canada's anti-discrimination laws lacked teeth.

Growing numbers of African Canadians are today attending post-secondary institutions, but they, like many of their compatriots, are preoccupied with political and economic uncertainty. Perhaps the courage and solidarity of earlier generations, who crossed many rivers in the search for political and social justice, can inspire those now setting out on their own voyage.