We Can Speak for Us

Black Canadian history and taking hold of the narrative

14 mins read

When Greg Tourino, a science librarian at Simon Fraser University and former graduate cinema student was asked in BCLiving Magazine about his passion for Black Canadian film, his answer could stand for the last couple of generations of Afro-Caribbean Canadians. “I still remember watching Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever and John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood in 1991 and for the first time seeing aspects of my own experience reflected,” he said. “Because the African Canadian population is so small, and we’re not a big part of the Canadian narrative, there’s a difference here compared to in the U.S., where there’s no argument whether African Americans are part of history.”

African-Canadian history is a heavy topic. Goodness. African- and Caribbean-born men, women, and children have had a significant presence in the Canadian consciousness for centuries, ranging from the colonial practice of slavery through the Underground Railroad to the emergence of political representatives like Anne Cools and Jean Augustine to the appointment of Michaëlle Jean as Governor General. But Black Canadian history is so much more than that. It is a history of racism, exclusion and the reckoning of the Black identity in the Canadian context and sometimes beyond our borders. The Black experience is indelibly bound to the concept of power. It’s history that impacts today: the power of imperialism that drove Black ancestors to slavery and led to the disempowered Black Canadians who experience blatant and systemic racism to this day; and the resistance to that power by Black abolitionists and fighters, whose contemporaries continue to wage the battle for a better quality of life.

But what do we know about it? Do we get our history confused with that of our southern neighbours?

We can sometimes ask the same questions of Black Canadian film. Especially in the world of documentary, the community is small and its contributions minimal in the bigger landscape of the art form, but Black Canadian film has, no less, captured the tradition and intensity of our experience.

The journey of Black people—the obstacles, the violence, the acceptance, the healing—has a robust presence in Canadian film, dating back to the late William Greaves’ efforts to tell stories as part of the National Film Board in the 1950s. In only a matter of decades, a massive archive has emerged, documenting stories, bringing truths to the public space and changing the conversation about what it means to be a Black Canadian.

Uncovering the past, documenting the pain

Roger McTair laid bare Black Canadian history in his film Journey to Justice (2000). The filmmaker’s doc gets right to the point, documenting the rough history of Black Canadians in Upper Canada and the road to achieving civil rights in this country. It covers the decisions that made discrimination the law in Canada (from work discrimination to segregation) to the people who helped undo laws and conventions. This is certainly an essential watch about Black Canadian history.

For example, much of the oppression experienced in the 1920s was economic: a lack of access to jobs and educational opportunities. One historian, James Walker, compared the treatment of Black Canadians to U.S. Jim Crow laws this way: “In Canada, the law didn’t say ‘You must.’ What the law said in Canada was ‘You may.’” Employers chose to discriminate in that way, and land grants were refused to established Black families, forcing many Black men, for example, to work as sleeping car porters, moving across the country to find a place to belong.

Selwyn Jacob, a Black Canadian producer based in Vancouver, helped retell that history, speaking to former sleeping car porters in his 1996 doc The Road Taken. Reaching back to the early 1900s, Jacob captured a largely oral and undocumented yet vibrant history—one that matches up with Canada’s expansion to two coasts. As his narrator, Frederick Ward, recalls: “The porters’ backgrounds were greatly varied. They came not only from America, Canada and Great Britain but also from Africa and the Caribbean. They took much pride in every city in which they resided. In order to be considered citizens, they felt they should be seen as contributors to society.”

The late Clifton Ruggles, a Montreal-based journalist and artist, rode the trains as a porter, like his father. In The Road Taken, he told his story and contributed poetry, but he also had this to say at the end of the film, which encapsulates the story: “The job was an opportunity, it was a stable job. People could provide for their families. So, even in the negative, there was always positive. In art, for example, out of pain and struggle, there is beauty—the beauty of survival.”

David “Sudz” Sutherland and his business and life partner Jennifer Holness literally uncovered forgotten Black Canadian history—and revealed desecrated graves in the process. Their 2000 film Speakers for the Dead told that in the 1930s, in a rural Ontario town named Priceville, a farmer had buried the tombstones of a Black cemetery to make way for a potato patch. In the 1980s, descendants of the original settlers, Black and white people alike, came together to restore the cemetery: “This is the proof we needed. This is the connection to the past,” said Les MacKinnon, a Priceville resident (a white man). But that effort tore open racial tensions, provoking the retelling of violent encounters between Black families and white communities. The film is emotionally intense and relentless. (Sutherland and Holness have gone on to a successful career in film and television, most recently producing the CBC series Shoot the Messenger.)

These artists are the historians

The personalities of these filmmakers came to define their work. When Jennifer Hodge de Silva debuted the film Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community in 1983, it was the first of its kind. The doc was eye-opening, with Hodge de Silva working tirelessly to tell the story of the Jane and Finch neighbourhood, showing the lives of the working poor and struggles of people of colour. The film also focuses on the Caribbean community in Toronto and its relationship to policing.

It’s important to note that where Hodge de Silva had placed her film—the Jane-Finch neighbourhood—is one of the more densely populated areas in Toronto, and the country. Its crime and policing issues have been front and centre in the neighbourhood, the media, and the city, for better or worse, for many years. The issues of police carding and police brutality, for example, are stories that still pervade the neighbourhood.

Home Feeling was a groundbreaking work, taking us into the community and seeking perspectives from police, children, educators and residents. It’s the first major film to give a deep view into that six-square-block stretch. Cameron Bailey, a Bahamian-Canadian and the artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, wrote about Hodge de Silva’s work in Gendering the Nation (University of Toronto Press): “Though [Jennifer] Hodge de Silva’s ‘personality’ can be found in what she chose to make films about, the films themselves resist the search for a subjective voice, a personal point of view. […] However, Hodge de Silva interpreted the grammar of documentary realism and the limits of sponsored films in a way that I would argue is distinct, even personal.”

With career stops at the NFB and CBC, Hodge de Silva devoted herself to stories about Black Canadians. Library and Archives Canada describes her, and Home Feeling, well: “She also hoped the film would bring change to the neighbourhood and that people outside the community would ‘understand a very human side of Jane-Finch: what people are really dealing with in their day-today lives. Then these people won’t just be statistics or something to be afraid of.’”

Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community, Jennifer Hodge & Roger McTair, provided by the National Film Board of Canada

Independent filmmakers have been central to bringing stories of Black Canadians to the public in cities across the country. Shelagh Mackenzie’s 1991 documentary Remembering Africville continues to hit home for a lot of Black Nova Scotians, whose presence in the Maritimes dates back centuries. The film explores the legacy of the 1969 decision by the Halifax city government to move African Nova Scotians from their long-embedded neighbourhood in the north end of Halifax, Africville. The debate about Africville’s tragic fate is raw, sometimes loud, and speaks to the racism that arguably motivated the destruction of a well-entrenched community that had existed for generations in Halifax.

To this day, Black filmmakers strive to tell the stories of the most unlikely places, persevering beyond the direct and systemic obstacles in place. Charles Officer’s Mighty Jerome (2010), a film about the black Olympian runner Harry Jerome, traced the athlete’s roots to North Vancouver and documented his triumph over institutional racism, racial conflict and even serious injury to compete for his country.

Pioneering the art movement

Anthony Browne and Glace Lawrence’s Coming to Voice (1999) epitomises the importance of storytelling in the shaping of Black history. With the help of director Clement Virgo and his crew, who were filming their own movie at the time, they go behind the scenes and speak to Black Canadian filmmakers coast to coast including William Greaves, Cameron Bailey, Sylvia Hamilton and many others. The filmmakers discussed the recent history of Black filmmakers, the importance of the National Film Board in the 1950s in training young filmmakers and the differences and similarities between African-Canadian and Black British cinema. It’s 52 minutes of candid, proud cinema and worth the watch.

Uncovering history is unending

I have barely scratched the surface in this survey of Black Canadian documentarians. Filmmakers abound in this country and they’re trying to tell their stories because no one else can do them justice. Hubert Davis, Charles Officer, Sudz Sutherland and Jennifer Holness, Clement Virgo, Sylvia Hamilton and others carry the torch and are making a significant contribution to the broad landscape of Canadian documentary, TV and cinema. The Black community continues to evolve and its history is still being shaped. Thankfully, there are people ready to document it.

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