Toward the Other Shore: Searching for a Role

Over the last 400 years, people of African descent have been brought here or came voluntarily to supplement the Canadian labour force. Until recently, most of them have been limited to a small number of occupations. They have often been viewed by other Canadians as hewers of wood and drawers of water, but they have had other roles as well. And African Canadians have tended to see their work within the context of the families and communities that have sustained them, in good times and bad.

In the late eighteenth century, Rose Fortune established a haulage firm in Annapolis, Nova Scotia. In the nineteenth century, Joseph Mink was the proprietor of a stage line operating between Toronto and Kingston, Ontario. White-run newspapers did not supply much information on African-Canadian life, and so community papers sprang up to fill this need. Some people of African descent ran many of Ontario's barber shops until late in the nineteenth century. Others operated rooming-houses for porters who were working on the new transcontinental railways and could not stay in other accommodation when they got a break from their long journey.

A rookie railway porter - maybe a Eureka Club husband - on his first trip with a seasoned crew, made up perhaps of African Canadians from all regions of the country, became street smart very fast, and remained so for the rest of his life. He responded with ease and grace to travellers - not out of submissiveness, as is often supposed, but because of an understanding of the ways of the world and a deep sense of his own dignity and his equality with his fellow human beings. He could quickly bridge any gulf between himself and his patrons and displayed a wisdom rooted in his people's collective experience.

Madam Walker, the famous African-American entrepreneur, noted for her mansion on the Hudson River during the 1920s, made her fortune selling beauty products to women of African descent. She found a ready market for her beauty aids in Toronto and often advertised in the Canadian Observer  a newspaper run by the well-known publisher of African descent, J.R.B. Whitney.

Many Canadians of African descent depended on work created for them by others; they lacked access to old boys' networks, to capital, and often to training and education. A master craftsman based in Hamilton in the 1920s might have to travel extensively in search of work. He might find something in Collingwood or Owen Sound. A lot of time and effort went into looking for employment, and such internal migrations caused instability for families and community organizations. Churches, so central in people's lives, needed coal in winter and money to pay the preacher; when employment slumped, so, too, did church offerings. A study of African-Canadian churches during the period 1880-1940 shows them constantly on the brink of economic collapse; some looked to outside assistance to keep afloat.

The Depression hit Canadians of African descent particularly hard. By the time it affected wealthy Canadians, many African Canadian domestic workers and railway porters had already lost their jobs. Yet African Canadians kept their communities intact. Even fluctuations in employment opportunities in the steel mills of Sydney, Nova Scotia, in the 1940s could not undo the social fabric they had woven. Mr. George, a grocer on Bathurst Street in Toronto, could still lay his hands on imported foodstuffs from the West Indies. He often extended credit to his customers until the next pay day.

Today there are African Canadians in all walks of life. If you stand at rush hour near any major intersection in a large Canadian city, you will almost surely see a number of people of African descent hurrying to or from the offices where they practise their various professions and skills. A look through the telephone directory will probably show you the names of several enterprises linked to the African-Canadian community. African Canadians have sat in provincial legislatures and the federal Parliament and in cabinets at both levels. Indeed, one has served at the very pinnacle of government and society. In 1985, Lincoln Alexander took over the vice-regal post first held by Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Graves Simcoe, who signed the proclamation that freed Upper Canada's slaves in 1793.

Earlier generations have made it possible for African Canadians today to stand, as George Grant suggests in Lament for a Nation, "with arms outstretched in love toward the further shore."