Setting Out: Migration
People of African descent first arrived in Canada before 1610 (1); the most recent may be landing this very day. Some early arrivals worked as servants or were slaves in Nova Scotia and New France. Since then, many more people of African descent have settled in Canada, including United Empire Loyalists in the 1780s (2) and fugitive slaves from the United States (3) in the first half of the nineteenth century (4) .
Government officials encouraged people from the British Isles and northern Europe to come and cultivate the Canadian west, but they discouraged those of African descent, including farmers and agricultural labourers, from joining in this endeavour (5). The turn of this century, however, saw many identifiable African-Canadian communities from coast to coast continue to survive (6, 7).
About 1900, a number of people of African descent arrived to work on the new transcontinental railways and settled primarily in Montreal and Toronto (8). Others were recruited through government schemes to provide cheap labour in Nova Scotia - for Sydney's steel plants and the coal mines of Glace Bay (9).
Other parts of the world also supplied inexpensive labour
to help fulfil Canada's industrial aspirations, but after one or two generations,
many members of those groups realized their rising expectations. African
Canadians, in contrast, often found themselves restricted to less rewarding
jobs in what we now call the service sector. Despite this, they felt that
this country was worth fighting for: many young men volunteered during the
First World War and many women established or joined patriotic leagues.
Most of the men served, though, in a segregated unit, No.
2 Construction Battalion (10). By 1923, however, the postwar dominion
government had placed unprecedented limitations on people of African descent
wishing to settle here. After the country went to war again, in 1939, African
Canadians signed up - not, however, in segregated units this time - and
they returned to civilian life anxious to plan for a more just and secure
African Canadians helped to liberalize post-war Canadian society and its immigration laws (11). As a result, there are now more than half a million of African descent living in Canada, compared with about 22,000 in 1871 and even fewer, 18,000, in 1901. Before the 1950s, the majority of immigrants of African descent came from the United States. Thereafter, until 1980, the Caribbean area was the principal point of origin. Since 1980, a significant number of people have come from Haiti. Many new arrivals of African descent have come from the continent of Africa - bringing a 400year- long process full circle.
The situation of recently arrived people of African descent reflects, of course, a dilemma and a tension shared by all newcomers to Canada. At a British Methodist Episcopal (BME) church conference in the 1930s, a minister encouraged recent immigrants to become naturalized. This is a land of promise, he told them; without citizenship, they could not enjoy fully the fruits of their new country or have a voice in its affairs. Recently AfricanCanadian leaders have been urging members of the new community to do the same, so that they too can help shape this nation.
Human beings migrate usually in the hope of improving their own circumstances or of making a better, safer life for their children. African Canadians, though often unable to realize fully such dreams, continued to foster the growth of their communities and of their nation. Some worked to improve the lot of their fellow Canadians and to make it easier for people living elsewhere to begin crossing to the promised land for which their ancestors had searched.