By Neil Armstrong
The National Black Canadians Summit, a three-day bilingual gathering to mark the International Decade for People of African Descent, was held in Toronto from December 4 to 6.
Organized by the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, the Federation of Black Canadians and the Toronto Public Library, it featured over 80 speakers from across the country, 16 strategic planning sessions, and several cultural performances.
Over two days participants worked on drafting a six-year, community-driven plan of action to remove racial barriers and enhance wellbeing, prosperity and inclusion for Black Canadians.
The sessions covered topics such as: democratic engagement, access to affordable housing and shelter, black ownership, generating black wealth, accessing justice, migration and inclusion, media representation, arts and black identity, community safety, mental health, physical health, and education.
Peter Flegel, director of programming and development at the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, noted that the decade was launched by the United Nations General Assembly in 2014 with the expectation that member states would join in and support the decade and the program of activity that would follow suit.
“Canada is in the process of doing so and we’re proud to be part of a really critical movement of civil society that’s pushing the nation forward to embrace the fundamental principles at the heart of the decade, which are recognition, justice and development,” said Flegel at the opening.
He said the impetus for the summit came from black youth that the Foundation has worked for and with since 2014.
It started with the idea of opening up the spaces of public cultural institutions to the creativity of black youth.
This was done at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Art Gallery of Ontario, and in other museums across the country.
|Photo credit: Clive Sewell/Toronto Public Library. Peter Flegel, Director of Programming and Development, Michaëlle Jean Foundation, welcoming those attending the summit.|
Flegel said they used these exhibitions as a pretext to gather in a public forum to discuss the issues at the heart of the exhibits.
“Two things came up recurrently wherever we were, Vancouver, Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa. The first thing was the desire for a national gathering where people would have an opportunity not only to share best practices and network but to take it a step further and begin working on a national strategic action plan.”
He said the second was for a national advocacy organization that could represent the diverse interests and needs of Black Canadians across the country.
Tracing the genesis of the Federation of Black Canadians, Donald McLeod, a judge of the Ontario Court of Justice and Chair of the federation, said the process started about 18 months ago when a young pregnant woman was shot. She died and so did her baby.
“It becomes something that’s a never ending story. So as a result there is a meeting, there’s discussions and then we find ourselves 18 months later where we’re standing today,” he said.
Justice McLeod said when he was younger he often heard the narrative that “we can’t get together as a community.”
“We’re disjointed, we’re fractured; our unity is a fiction. The big West Indian island can’t deal with the small West Indian island, little England can’t deal with the trickidadians, continental Africans refuse to work with those in the Caribbean, Scotians versus West Indians, Francophones versus English-speaking. The narrative was filtered down through the generations. Well, today, I speak against the false narrative.”
McLeod said Black Canadians are more unified now than they have ever been.
“We are not unified by a common language, by a religion, a country or a zip code, I’m suggesting to you that our unity is in our blackness and it is that blackness that defines,” he said.
He said the summit is a continuation of the dialogue that was started decades ago and that they will be focused and practical, innovative in their analysis, and germane in their delivery.
“The rallying cry of the federation is and continues to be ‘Nothing about us without us.’ We will as a community endeavor to challenge how we are viewed and how decisions are made around and about us. We will as a community endeavor to challenge how we are viewed and how decisions are made around and about us. We will continue the path laid down by those who came before.”
The Federation of Black Canadians was launched on the closing day of the summit with the unveiling of its website, www.fbcfcn.ca.
Justice McLeod said the address for the organization is the Black Cultural Centre in Nova Scotia and underscored the need for it to be more inclusive than exclusive.
He said he sought counsel from people like Jean Augustine, Howard McCurdy and Juanita Westmoreland-Traore, acknowledging the role of “persons who came before us.”
In a video greeting, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who was in China when the summit opened, said there is still so much work to be done to make sure Black Canadians have real opportunities and an equal chance at success.
Toronto mayor, John Tory, said it was a coincidence that on the day that the summit starts its deliberations city council would be asked to approve not only its first formal Indigenous Peoples office but also its very first Anti-Black Racism Strategy.
Tory said they started the process by presenting the results of 40 years of prior studies and asking what of them has been done and what should be done as opposed to adding another study to the pile.
The information was presented to hundreds of people in 41 community meetings organized by the community and “we asked them to tell us which of the 40 years worth of recommendations needed to be acted upon.”
Tory said this was put back in front of an open community plenary session to help council to understand what can be best done to help the African Canadian community to advance and to eliminate anti-black racism.
There were also greetings from Vickery Bowles, city librarian, Toronto Public Library, Moses A. Mawa and Patricia Bebia Mawa of Silvertrust Media, Ahmed Hussen, Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship and from federal NDP Leader, Jagmeet Singh – the first person of colour to lead a national party in Canada.
|Photo credit: Clive Sewell/Toronto Public Library. Jagmeet Singh, Official Leader of the National Democratic Party of Canada speaking at opening of the National Black Canadians Summit on Dec. 4, 2017.|
Singh acknowledged a Jamaican, the late Rosemary Brown, who led the way by running for leadership of the federal NDP in 1975, and trailblazers like Jean Augustine.
“I’m speechless to see how bold we are, how courageous we are. Whatever we do we aim to expand the realm of possibility for us,” said Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s 27th governor general and secretary general of the International Organization of La Francophone, about the summit.
Rinaldo Walcott, director of women and gender studies, OISE, University of Toronto, made some opening remarks in which he noted that Black Canadians have gathered nationally before and have forged national black organizations before but in the most recent absence of a national advocacy organization many have been wishing for one that would seek to represent divergent interests at the national level in this country.
“So these meetings are historic for many reasons. Among those reasons is that first this gathering happens in the context of the UN International Decade of People of African Descent – a declaration that seeks to shed light on specific ways in which people of African descent have been globally disadvantaged by anti-black racism.
“Second, and this gives me great joy. This gathering opens tonight with the voices, the presence and the art of Black Canadian LGBTQ, trans, gender non-conforming, queer, bi, gay, lesbian and as my Jamaican brethren would add, all sexuals. For a black national gathering to begin while centering the lives of those of us who are queer it means that a significant political gesture is being offered. And we enthusiastically accept.”
Walcott said the measure of a just society is how it treats its most vulnerable and disadvantaged members.
|Photo credit: Clive Sewell/Toronto Public Library. Rinaldo Walcott, Director of Women and Gender Studies, OISE, University of Toronto presenting some opening remarks.|
He noted that Canada is often regarded as one of the best places in the world to live “and often right so for many good reasons but Canada has a very long way to go to live up to the claim beyond OECD measurements, in particular, the life chances of black and indigenous peoples….”
He said black people are dying in numbers disproportionate to others in every conceivable arena of life and Walcott is proposing that any new policy actions must past what he calls the ‘black test.’
“The black test simply suggests that any policy that does not meet the requirement of ameliorating the dark conditions of black people’s lives is not the policy worth having. This proposal is a challenge to rethink the very grounds of our desire for a national and global transformation, where it begins and where it ends, who it begins with and with whom it ends. The black test is a proposal that is a challenge to policy and government imaginations whereby black people are seen as an urgent necessary litmus test for policy that works, that has transformative impact. Every policy and proposal should be subject to the black test. By that, I mean it should meet the test of ameliorating black dispossession and making black life possible. If the policy does not meet the black test then it’s a failed policy from the first instance of its proposal,” said Walcott.
There were awards presented to several public leaders, influencers and trailblazers such as entrepreneur Michael Lee Chin, Marie Clarke Walker and Larry Rousseau, secretary-treasurer and executive vice-president respectively at the Canadian Labour Congress, parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke, Syrus Marcus Ware of Black Lives Matter TO, Angela Cassie, vice-president, public affairs and programs, Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Cameron Bailey, artistic director, Toronto International Film Festival, Emilie Nicholas, board member, Canadian Race Relations Foundation, and El Jones, Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies, Mount Saint Vincent Library and former poet laureate of Halifax.
Awards were also presented to Michaëlle Jean, Jean Augustine, the Black Government Leaders network and Howard McCurdy, former Member of Parliament.
There were performances such as a drumming session with Ras Medhin, Njau Osbourne James and Sekou Osbourne James; a negro spiritual by Jully Black; music by Emmanuel Travis and Deeshorty, spoken word by Faduma Mohammed, dance by Sanaaj Mirrie, founder and artistic director of Afiwi Groove School; music by Freddy King, Hip Hop recording artist; singer Robert Ball; and a Kiki Ball performance by Kiki Ball Alliance featuring Travoy, Twysted, Marvel and Kitana.
[A shorter version of this story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, Dec. 12-18, 2017.]