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Discussion on importance of Black History Month

A brief chronology of Black History Month in Canada

1926: American Carter Woodson introduces “Negro History Week”

1950: The first Canadian celebration of Negro History Week happens in Toronto

1976: Black History Week, as it had been known in the 1970s, is expanded to Black History Month

1995: One of the first two Black Canadian women in the House of Commons, Jean Augustine, makes a motion to officially recognize February as Black History Month

2008: The first Black Canadian Senator, Donald Oliver, passes the motion and Black History Month becomes officially recognized in Canada

Is there a need to celebrate Black History Month in 2020?

The question was the focus of a panel discussion that concluded this year’s Black History Month events in Richmond.

Moderator Constance Henry joined panelists Lindagene Coyle, Carmen Lake, Karen Ameyaw, and Mary Wilson—who has championed Richmond’s Black History Month events since 2016. 

The discussion did not shy away from critical issues faced by Black Canadians today. And though the four panelists come from different backgrounds, they share many of the same feelings about the importance of recognizing Black History Month. 

Lake described the contributions of Black Canadians as “unquantifiable.” She also explained that, although her mother’s family has been living in Canada for centuries, she is asked where she’s from on a daily basis.

“I get asked every day, sometimes even before (people) ask my name,” she said. “That, for me, has been one of the most frustrating and annoying questions.”

Conversation later shifted to Viola Desmond, the woman who has appeared on Canadian $10 bills since 2018. In 1946, Desmond refused to leave a movie theatre section reserved for white people. She was convicted and charged—for not paying the full fee for that section, which was one cent more expensive—and went to jail. In 2010, Desmond became the first Canadian to be posthumously pardoned.

When Henry raised the question of racism in Canada today, panelists were candid about their thoughts.

“I don’t know that I’ve seen a lot of improvement,” said Wilson. “(But) the next generation is not quite as willing to let things pass.”

Examples of racist attitudes—blatant and more covert—were given by the panelists.

“There’s such a huge gap in most people’s knowledge and awareness,” said Coyle. 

There were several mentions of children lacking racist attitudes, which are learned rather than innate. Teaching tolerance through educational curriculum changes will hopefully lead to generations with more knowledge—and therefore more understanding.

Ameyaw noted that when she was in school, she rarely learned about Black history—in Canada or elsewhere.

“I found ways to build it into the education system that wasn’t teaching it to me,” she said.

Until recently, Coyle added, there was no documented evidence that Black people ever did anything positive.

All four panelists agreed that asking questions and learning more was a key element of Black History Month.

“If you’re curious, there’s a lot of things to learn,” said Ameyaw. 

Added Wilson: “There’s no bad questions.”

One audience member, who identified herself as Japanese-Canadian, shared her experiences as well. 

“The people who experience (racism) need to be the teachers,” she said.

“With education and knowledge comes tolerance,” said Henry. “Change may be slow, but it won’t happen if people don’t know.”

By the end of the discussion, all four panelists were in agreement: there is definitely still a need for this important month of recognition. They recognized the efforts of the Richmond Public Library in providing a venue for discussion, and Lake said their audiences had been more diverse than expected.

“When won’t we need (Black History Month) anymore? When there are no more people on this Earth,” said Coyle.

Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel