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F. Sherman: The Future of the Black Canadian Family in Canada

“What does it mean to be Black in Canada? What does it mean to you regardless of your own race? What is your personal understanding of what it means to be Black in Canada?”

In all fact, the answer to that question can be as varied as the different faces, the different backgrounds — the very diversity of Canada itself. And each view is uniquely defined by such inherent intersections as race, ethnicity, gender, religion, language, creed, age, and a host of others. You are shaped by your heritage, your local circumstance, what you’ve read, what you’ve eaten — even the views and ideas of some family members and/or friends.

Canada is a dynamic multicultural, multiethnic, multi-linguistic mosaic.  In an era of globalization, our multicultural makeup reflecting citizens with roots in almost every country remains a particular asset. Through years of immigration, we have developed and embraced a Canadian way of living together, resolving differences, reasoning together and creating that which the United Nations Human Index Reports describes as quite simply one of the best countries in the world in which to live.

So, what is the notion of Black when we talk about the Future of the Black Family in Canada?  It seems a simple question, but is there a simple answer? The Black family. Black. What is Black? What is that?

Of course, my perspective is shaped by concurrent streams of academic engagement, continued frontline community engagement, and a substantial portion of my career has involved work on progressive issues affecting otherwise disenfranchised communities in Canada and around the world. This also includes deeper exploration on a number of tangential issues pertaining to peoples of African descent as a weekly host on a popular radio program called Nexus Africa over the last three years.

So, I can say discussions of the very notion of the word “Black” as commonly ascribed to people of African descent is as problematic as it is empowering; as accurate as it is inaccurate; as cherished as it is reviled. And voluminous intellectual and emotive capital over generations has already been exhausted in that area. So, for the sake of brevity, I will not go down that road.

So, in looking at the Future of the Black Family in Canada, I can say that most societies that apply the black label on the basis of a person's ancestry justify it as applying to members of the African diaspora. Between the years 1500 and 1900, over four million African slaves were transported to island plantations in the Indian Ocean, about eight million were shipped to Mediterranean-area countries, and about eleven million were taken to the New World.

Over generations there has been intermarriage and genetic assimilation. So, just who is a descendant of the African Diaspora is not entirely self-evident. Descendants of slaves are a bit harder to define because virtually everyone is mixed in demographic proportion to the original slave population. There are solid arguments made that being black is definitely not an issue of skin pigmentation. Or is it?

Okay. How about African Canadian? Is that better? That seems more politically correct. Correct? Or is it? Yes? No? So, who is African Canadian?  We talk about the Canadian mosaic. Well let’s now explore the notion of a mosaic within a mosaic:

In Canada we have Canadian-born Blacks who have been here for centuries. We have African and Caribbean-born Blacks — first, second and now third generation immigrants. And we can even break this down further. For example, is a Nigerian more similar to a Somali, a fellow continental African, or a Jamaican? Is a Haitian more similar to a Trinidadian or a Congolese? Egyptians to South Africans? Liberians to Ethiopians? What about recent immigrants from the United States? South America-born Blacks; or what about generations of Blacks born in Europe?

You get the picture? It is difficult to simply look at someone and determine whether they are of Italian or Spanish heritage; Scottish, Scandinavian or Frenchman; Korean or Vietnamese.

In a 1998 essay entitled "Defining and Studying the Modern African Diaspora," which was published by the American Historical Association, Colin Palmer tells us that “Diasporic communities share an emotional attachment to their ancestral land, are cognizant of their dispersal and, if conditions warrant, of their past alienation in the countries in which they reside." He further states that no Diaspora community manifests all of these characteristics or shares with the same intensity as its scattered ancestral kin. Hence, in many respects, Diasporas are not actual but imaginary and symbolic communities and political constructs.

Yet, a case can be made that African Canadians share broad cultural similarities, irrespective of continent of birth. There is a strong sense of racial or ethnic identity that really does transcend geographic boundaries.  In effect, it becomes uniquely shaped by their systemic experiences in Canada — the ways in which Canadian society embraces, rejects or interacts with them. Ultimately, it is formed by those things that bind African descendants together, a past based upon the struggle against racial oppression.

Dr. De Gruy Leary speaks of intra-cultural and inter-generational notions of hair, skin colour, etc., as being part and parcel of the Black experience. But, we cannot go forward, understand the present, and talk about the future until we acknowledge and understand the past. The structure of the Black family was disrupted in profound ways. Years of official chattel slavery with ancestors who were traumatized still bears upon subsequent generations. The playing field has never been levelled since.

It can be argued that the Black family is often different from the Western European dynamics of mother, father, and children. Historically, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and even individuals who are not blood relatives are included in the Black family. Long before the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” became popularized and publicized, Black communities lived it without discussion. When parents were sick, strung out or just couldn’t make ends meet there was a Mama or Pa, or godmother or godfather, auntie or uncle who took children into their hearts and into their homes without hesitation.

In order to understand the black family one must examine its make up from a demographic context. Statistics Canada once reported children under the age of 15 comprised 30% of the black population; 17% of Blacks are aged 17 – 24.  Further, there were 20,000 more Black women than Black men in Canada. Does this imbalance in the ratio of men to women in the Black Canadian population tell us anything? In addition, immigration has impacted the Black community in terms of growth and size with immigration policies over the years consistently allowing more women into the country than men.

What then is missing for many Black families in Canada?

  1. the support of the traditional extended family
  2. the network of relatives who provided a communal environment for the youth
  3. recognition of the social inequities in schools, housing, justice system, job opportunities
  4. role models and parent models for their children if the parents themselves were victims of poor parenting – emotional and psychological challenges
  5. Support centres (churches) where male – female discussions around commitment and support can take place
  6. Understanding that media images of what constitutes a family can lead to “I can’t provide or I do not have the wherewithall to take care of a family”

Despite all this, all research shows that centuries of slavery followed by systemic racism and oppression have resulted in multi-generational adaptive behaviours — some detrimental but most positive symbols of resilience.  In essence, Blacks are a resilient people.

The truth is, with each new generation, each Black child born in Canada possesses a high level of resiliency — and the capacity to overcome those challenges. There are already educated, talented and extremely gifted young Black men and women who are making tremendous strides and accomplishing much in the areas of law, politics, religion, communications, academics, music, arts, and entertainment. They are our future politicians, humanitarians, spiritual leaders, and business moguls. I see many of them are already demonstrating leadership qualities by giving back to the community and devoting time and charitable endeavours.

The Black youth are a part of the future of Canada. They are the vehicles through which much of our progress can be channeled for generations to come. The question is who is responsible to provide the youth with the tools to become productive adults?

The answer, perhaps, goes beyond the obvious.  It includes the wider social makeup, a collective effort by parents, civil society and government alike. All have a role in shaping the conditions for future success; just as those who preceded us did so well. The future of the Black Canada is part and parcel of the future of Canada. It is in the interest of Canadian society as a whole, spearheaded by African descendent community stakeholders, to provide a fundamental construct that promotes realistic expectations, to forge a better understanding of that which constitutes success in life. And this must include the very important virtue of charity and a sense of community early on.

Quite frankly, the challenges faced today, though notably different, are not much unlike the pressures faced by others who may have come before us. It is not so long ago since plantation slavery ... since de facto segregation in jobs, housing, and public facilities. It is not too long ago when Black people pushed hardest to be included as full citizens of this society. There was exclusion.

But through courage and sacrifice, our ancestors were able to overcome these challenges. There were sit-ins and protests. African-Canadians have defended, fought, and died for this country. Black soldiers helped to defend Upper Canada against invading Americans in the War of 1812. Others fought in General Brock's forces at Queenston Heights and at Lundy's Lane. This is a source of pride for all of us. It gives us the vested right to walk firmly in the streets of Canada. Our children must understand that we are a part of the history of this country and have every right to participate fully.

The image and wisdom of our mentors, both past and present, are strong and enduring.  Many of us are here because immigrants like Dr. Alfred Shadd believed. We are here because people risked everything for those beliefs. They saw a need to right what was wrong. And we are here today because of folks like them; and to them we owe the deepest gratitude.

The Black churches and other centres of worship play — and will continue to play — a similar role as social organizations, educational institutions, aid centres, daycare centres, and sources of discussion, advocacy, upliftment and enlightenment.

Though our challenges are fearsome, so are our strengths as part of a diverse, cosmopolitan Canadian family! But, we cannot always dwell on the developmental strains of the past.  Rather we must acknowledge past mistakes, embrace the present, and execute pragmatically for the future.

So, in addressing the question of the future of the Black Canadian family, the answer is as fundamentally intertwined with the pluralistic future of Canada — as much as it is connected to the past.

By and large, there is peace amongst the children. There is intellectual and meaningful engagement amongst a growing middle class. Yes, a critical mass of statistics tell us that Blacks, however you define it, are endemically locked at the lowest rung of every significant socio-economic indicator. Yes there are challenges of lone-parenting — running parallel to issues of school age suspension, expulsion on dropouts as asserted by the Ontario Human Rights Commission. Yes there are cutbacks that undermine the capacity of well-meaning community organizations to influence outcomes.

But, even greater than all that is a cherished and shared belief in Canada — a place that is only as great as the sum of its parts. Despite prevailing circumstances, and to paraphrase the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we can overcome systemic challenges — educational, labour market, racism, prejudice — whatever it is that robs diverse communities from full and equitable participation in Canadian society. It robs Canada. So, we all have a stake.  It is our shared future. Canada deserves better.