Black History Month – A time for sober reflection and renewal of our commitment to equity and inclusion

By Horatio G Sam-Aggrey, Chair of the PSAC North Racially-Visible Committee in the Northwest Territories

Every February, people across the country participate in Black History Month events and festivities that honour the legacy and contributions of Black people in Canada. The theme for Black History Month 2024 is “Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; a Future to Build”. This Black History Month, we should take the time to recognize both the contributions and struggles of Black communities in Canada.  

The first Blacks came to Canada 400 years ago and since then Black people have chalked up various milestones and accomplishments that have contributed to Canadian society. Notable Black Canadians include The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s first Black Governor General and Oscar Peterson, a jazz pianist, composer and educator, who is considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time. They include Dr. Clement Courtenay Ligoure, Halifax’s first Black doctor and Jully Black, a singer, songwriter, actress, and TV personality, as well as James Calbert Best, a cofounder of PSAC. The contributions of these black personalities and others have influenced and defined Canadian culture and helped shape history. 

Black workers have played and continue to play important roles in this nation’s labour market, especially in the care systems. Almost one-third of employed Black women worked in health care and social assistance, and more than four out of five of these women were immigrants  (according to Statistics Canada). Health care and social assistance workers were at the forefront of Canada’s public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic and their contributions and sacrifices during these and other critical periods in our history should not be minimised. 

Despite the contributions and achievements of Black personalities and workers, millions of Blacks in Canada continue to face barriers to the achievement of the Canadian dream. According to Statistics Canada, Black people were almost three times, or 46% more likely, than non-Indigenous and non racialized Canadians to report that they had experienced discrimination or unfair treatment. 

It is worth mentioning that the Black population living in Canada is diverse, and represents a population with varying backgrounds, ethnicities, experiences, and circumstances. Some blacks were born in the Caribbean, others in Africa, and yet others have been in Canada for many generations. While the experiences of these diverse groups of Blacks may vary, it is evident that, as a whole, the Black population still faces significant discrimination in Canada. 

The social and economic impacts of anti-Black racism and discrimination on the Black population have been significant and have resulted in less optimal outcomes for Black communities in Canada. One area in which the effects of discrimination are clearly manifested is in Canada’s “colour coded” labour market.   

Despite years of unprecedented economic expansion, Blacks and other racialized Canadians encounter racism and discrimination that prevent them from access to the best paying jobs the labour market has to offer. According to Statistics Canada, in January 2021, Black Canadians made on average $26.70 an hour, $3.92 less than non-visible minority Canadians, who earned $30.62 per hour. This disparity in earnings is partly related to the fact that Blacks and other racialized Canadians are more likely to be employed in precarious and low-income jobs. 

Wages and working conditions for lower-level care jobs (characterized with a high concentration of Blacks) do not reflect the true value of the work, as these jobs are precarious and tend to be lowly paid. In addition to the hardships of unjust wages and working conditions, Black care workers face racism, racially motivated violence, and abuse on the job. A cursory look at the racial makeup of some lower-level care jobs in NWT would reveal that a significant percentage of occupants of these jobs are racialized with a high percentage being Black. Anecdotal evidence suggests that these jobs are relatively low paying and that racialized workers are often subject to racism and abuse in their workplaces. 

These issues challenge all of us to act. As Canadians, we must acknowledge and understand our history and existing inequalities to avoid past mistakes and strive for equality for all. As Martin Luther King said: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Turning a blind eye to discrimination against one group of people only makes it more likely that other marginalized groups could become targets later. 

While calling on the wider Canadian society to fight racism, we as Blacks also have an obligation to embrace the Canadian values of respect for the rights of all equity groups. PSAC North has equity committees (Pride, Access, Indigenous, Racially Visible and Women’s committees) whose mandates are to advocate for the rights of their respective constituencies. I invite you to take time to learn about these groups and support them in any way you can. Happy Black History Month!