While chapters of Black Lives Matter exist across Canada, it is Toronto that, for many, has come to be associated with the Canadian iteration of the movement. Established in 2014, the Toronto chapter roared into national prominence in July of 2016 when its activists brought the city’s annual Pride Parade (one of the world’s largest) to a halt with a sit-down protest demanding, among other things, funding for queer black youth groups, greater presence of transwomen and Indigenous persons in Toronto Pride leadership, and removal of police from the Parade.
The dramatic protest riveted
national news coverage, but this was only the latest iteration of activist efforts to draw attention to racism and anti-Blackness in Canada’s largest city (where over the half the population belongs to a visible minority group). From The Toronto Star‘s investigations into carding and other racist police practices in the city, to the massive protests that have erupted with every police shooting of a Black victim (eight out of 13 police use-of-force cases leading to the death of a civilian between 2013 and 2017 were Black men, even though they comprise only 8.8 percent of the city’s population), BLM found fertile ground in this city with such a strong legacy of struggle against anti-Blackness and other forms of racism.
Black Life: Post-BLM and the Struggle for Freedom, two academics based in Toronto – Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdillahi – offer a series of powerful and important reflections on the present state of this struggle in Toronto, and by extension Canada as a whole. They take to task Canada’s recurring sense of “surprise” and “wonder” at the Black presence in the country, both past and present. This sense of surprise and wonder is a deliberate construction: not only profoundly inaccurate, it is also central to the country’s sustained origin myths and to the sustaining centrality of white power.
It’s imbricated in white Canada’s origin myth, which sees the country as an awkward union of two “founding peoples”: the English and the French. This construction, which is deeply rooted not only in the country’s governing policies and foundational documents, but also in popular (white) consciousness, was in part a response to the political reality of the 20th century, when the country’s two most powerful political formations – English and French Canada – were engaged in sometimes violent tension with each other.
Yet it also serves a second function in excluding the country’s other peoples. It ignores and erases the presence of Indigenous peoples, who were here before the English and French, and it ignores and erases other non-white identities as well, which tend today to be subsumed under the vague rubric of “multiculturalism”. This incorrectly portrays them as late-comers, as guests, as newcomers who need to be incorporated into the white nation of Canada according to the terms set by its white settlers.
This profoundly racist structure emerges in numerous and diverse ways across the country. Where I grew up, on the rural East Coast island of Newfoundland, “surprise” was often a literal response to the Black presence. In accordance with the stereotype of east coasters being friendly to the point of exhaustion, it takes the form of a solicitousness which is ultimately deeply exclusionary.
“Welcome! Where do you come from?” – and similar such assurances of welcome continue to haunt the experience of anyone who is not definitively white, even if their family’s presence in the place dates back generations. Anglo-Irish immigrants and tourists, by contrast, are treated as though they’ve returned to the home they never knew they had. At the same time as this attitude of “Welcome! Make yourself at home! Where are you from?” appears, on the surface, to be welcoming, it in fact simultaneously entrenches the primacy of white culture by treating Black presence as an aberration, even if a welcome one.
Of course, this is a myth too. Even ignoring the continued presence of Indigenous peoples since the first arrival of European settlers (in Newfoundland, there was a long-standing and politically expedient myth perpetuated in the 20th century that the island’s only Indigenous population – the Beothuk – were killed off; the presence of Mi’kmaq on the island was studiously ignored by government policy until recent years), there has been a Black presence in Canada since the earliest days of settlement, including the presence of slaves.
In Newfoundland, for instance, a variety of recent intellectual and artistic interventions have drawn attention to the centrality of the slave trade in the island’s long-running fishery. White merchants became rich and white working-class fishers eked out a livelihood in the salt cod industry, which was used to feed large populations of slaves throughout the Americas in exchange for the goods – rum, sugarcane, etc – produced by those slaves for other white merchants. Newfoundlanders also drew on their seagoing expertise to build slave ships that were sold to slavers. Treating Black presence with “surprise” belies the fact that generations of the island’s settlers eked out a living founded on the suffering and exploitation of Black lives.
Last year, I visited for the first time Pier 21 in Halifax, which has been developed into a museum and national heritage site ostensibly in praise to Canadian immigration and multiculturalism. Yet the experience was ultimately unsettling. I visited on Canada Day, the one day of the year on which entry fees were waived and admission was free. There was something very telling about this, however. Prohibitively expensive admission fees exclude, on a daily basis, the families and children of those very immigrants around whose experience the museum was founded. Only on the day that celebrates Canada’s foundation as a white settler nation – that coming together of its French and English peoples – are the fees waived, so that the unity of white Canada – including its working-class poor – can congregate at the museum to pat themselves on the back and wallow in praise of their collective inclusivity.
The Canada Day party was indeed an overwhelmingly white affair; while photos and exhibits drew attention to the experience of early 20th century European migrants, precious little was stated about the thousands of contemporary migrants languishing in the country’s migrant concentration camps. The institutionally-backed praise of multicultural historical institutions neatly disguises this brutal ongoing reality. (Ellis Island, in the United States, serves a similarly contradictory role: by honouring the country’s legacy of white immigration it simultaneously screams volumes about America’s ongoing campaign of racist genocide against non-white populations).
Walcott and Abdillahi note that this process as it plays out in Canada mirrors very much the experience of Black Britain; in both countries, multiculturalism is about a controlled tokenism that sustains the broader structures which uphold white supremacy and exclude BlackLife.
In concluding their final essay, Walcott and Abdillahi propose what they call “the Black Test”.
This is not a matter of Black exceptionalism, they explain, but simply a reflection of the dire experience of BlackLife in North America and beyond. A policy that must incorporate and imagine improvements to BlackLife is a policy that would inherently be more broadly inclusive and transformational for everyone.
This sort of deep-rooted and practical thinking offers a way to consider more foundational and radical transformations to the socio-political structures that shape our lives. At present, multiculturalism policy treats the trivialization of BlackLife with a minimalist charity approach. The authors point, by way of example, to the $19 million (over three years) announced in the 2018 federal budget for Black mental health initiatives. On the surface, it sounds like a positive initiative. But juxtaposed against the more than $1 billion that is spent annually on policing in Toronto alone – policing which leaves Black residents 20 percent more likely to be fatally shot by a Toronto police officer, despite comprising only 8 percent of the city’s population – the federal government’s benevolence quickly fades.
With $19 million, the authors observe, “the formulaic response to years of dispossession, degradation, displacement, and the ongoing compounding, and (re)configurations of colonialism(s) and white supremacy that continue to cement Black people at the bottom of every health, social, political and economic indicator, surely cannot be resolved by allotting approximately $15.85 Canadian per Black person or $28.23 per young Black person in this country…how do those numbers stack up to shift the terrain from death to life for Black peoples?”
The Black Test is a welcome idea. While it ought to be adopted broadly by governments and other institutions, universities – a particular target of the book – are one place that we could start. The practice of claiming equity cred while at the same time failing to act substantively to improve the numbers and situation of Black and other minority groups in the academy is pervasive in universities, as the authors demonstrate. Much like Indigenous land acknowledgements, token statements of support ought to be seen not just as hollow gestures but often as practical barriers toward achieving the truly systemic change these institutions require.
The 1990s: Highlight of Black Cultural Production in Canada?
The first essay in the volume takes a cursory look at Black cultural production in the 1980s and ’90s, which it argues represents the height of Black cultural production in the country. A slim chapter can only be partial, and it’s also highly Toronto-centric. One is, of course, always skeptical of claims that “this particular decade was the height of cultural production” because such claims often reflect the personal tastes and experiences of the author. (Many of us tend to think the popular culture we absorbed in our youth was the best and richest). Also, such claims ignore the vast range of cultural production – much of it inspired by the artists discussed in this essay – which has since spread across the country. Perhaps Toronto might now be going through a dearth of Black cultural production compared to the ’90s, but other parts of the country are experiencing vital surges in Black arts, music, literature and more.
But this quibbling critique is ultimately beside the point. The central argument on which Walcott and Abdillahi base their assertion is an essential one: neoliberalism has had a profound effect on shaping cultural production. They tie the gradual erosion of Black cultural production in Toronto to the rise of neoliberal and austerity policies under the Progressive Conservative provincial government of Premier Mike Harris in the late ’90s and early ’00s, which was mirrored by the increasingly neoliberal turn of the federal Liberal government under prime ministers Jean Chretien and Paul Martin in those same years. Cuts to arts funding and initiatives, coupled with cuts in other sectors – education, culture, community services, health – all combined to produce dire effects that were experienced with greater potency by Black communities and other marginalized groups, and manifested in cultural production as well as daily life.
The authors don’t mention it, but I would add that an important aspect of this double standard which seeks to constrain BlackLife at the same time as it purports to improve it, at least in the arts world, can be witnessed in this year’s awarding of the Man Booker Literary Prize jointly to Canadian Margaret Atwood and Black British writer Bernardine Evaristo. For the first time since 1992 the prize committee decided to issue a joint award – as though it was impossible to conceive of a Black woman writer receiving the entirety of a literary spotlight (it was the first time the award had been given to a Black writer). They even broke a rule banning joint awards in doing so. And so a groundbreaking Black genius was forced to share the spotlight with a has-been white writer whose second-rate sequel to the classic Handmaid’s Tale has been received ambivalently by critics, at best.
Black Life’s biggest criticism might be its Toronto-centric approach; Canadian cultural production is often criticized for giving primacy of place to the iconic city and its inhabitants. On the one hand, many of the points raised by the authors do apply across Canada as a whole; and Toronto’s presence as a majority visible minority-inhabited city does render it unique and special. And yet, especially in a country like Canada, regional diversity matters.
That is not to say racism and anti-Blackness don’t exist everywhere; but they manifest differently (while also sharing certain commonalities). Toronto, as a national icon and the city with the largest concentration of Black residents (37 percent of its population, nearly half a million people), certainly deserves important consideration. Yet that focus can often work to deflect attention from the operation of racism and anti-Blackness elsewhere in the country. This is not so much a critique, as a strong encouragement for other scholars to take up the ideas presented in BlackLife and apply them in other regions of the country.
Black Life: Post-BLM and the Struggle For Freedom is a short volume, but one of the most important intellectual interventions to emerge in Canada in recent years. It ought to be required reading in Canadian Studies and other social science and arts courses at both secondary and post-secondary levels across the country. Above all, it ought to be taken seriously by those – especially white Canadians – with the ability to apply its insights in public policy and private lives alike.