Photo by Chung Chow
Richmond kicked off Black History Month in style on Friday, Feb. 1 at the Arts Centre. In an evening of entertainment and thought-provoking presentations, chief organizer, Mary Wilson, was never far from the sidelines but never in the spotlight.
Wilson is clear that while she may have spearheaded this year’s program, as she has for the past three years, this initiator of the program quickly points out that she is but one of many who pitched in.
The kick-off evening offered music from the McNair Jazz Combo as people took to their seats. Emcee Shiraine Haas introduced Terry Point of the Musqueam First Nation. Richmond is on the traditional and unceded land of the Musqueam. Point offered a welcome song to get the evening rolling then said, “Remember who you are. We are not so different. The teachings from all our ancestor make us who we are.”
Point went on to say, “Black History Month shouldn’t be just a month. It should be what we live every day.”
Haas added, “May that be something we work towards.”
In her remarks as acting mayor, Coun. Linda McPhail introduced fellow councillor Bill McNulty and then said, “The local Black-Canadian community here in Richmond is extraordinary.”
McPhail said that though the number of Canadians of African ancestry is small, “They have made significant, substantial contributions to our province throughout its history.”
Representing Canada Post, Jackie Bailey unveiled this year’s Black History Month stamp honouring Albert Jackson of whom she said: “He overcame racism while he persevered in his career as a letter carrier for 36 years.”
After vibrant music from Checo and the VOC Sweet Soul Gospel Choir, was keynote speaker, Dr. Carole P. Christensen. She is the first person of African ancestry to be named head of the University of British Columbia’s School of Social Work. (While there, Christensen also appointed the first Indigenous professor of social work.) Before she retired from UBC, Christensen also started the East Vancouver Multicultural Centre which thrives to this day.
The multilingual professor emeritus, Christensen learned Danish while living there as a Fulbright Scholar. She also fell in love with a Danish computer scientist. They married and moved to Montreal. After working at McGill, the family moved to Richmond to raise their family where Christensen took up her faculty position at UBC.
Her talk, “Black in Canada: Acknowledging the Past and the Present to Envision the Future,” dispelled many myths.
“Most don’t know there were blacks in Canada 400 years ago. Mathieu Da Costa, who was Black, translated Indigenous languages for (explorer and colonizer) Samuel de Champlain in 1608.”
Christensen spoke of the 200 years of Black slavery in Canada: “In 1608, the first slave was sold in New France. In New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Ontario, Blacks were legal chattel,” considered in the law as livestock.
Christensen said, to dispel another myth, in the days of the underground railroad, Canadians were not always the nice ones: “Sometimes Canadians turned them over to US slave masters.”
Christensen also spoke of objective and systemic forms of racism saying the last segregated schools closed in Ontario in 1965. Nova Scotia’s last one closed in 1983.
She said of yet another myth, that Canadians of African-descent never recovered from slavery: “The Black community is resilient. They have established many institutions. When Blacks succeed, their
Black identity is not mentioned.” Earlier, Sir James Douglas’s Black mother was brought to the audience’s attention. Something that, at the time, caused him to be discriminated against by the likes of Richard Clement Moody (after whom Port Moody is named) for Douglas’s racial heritage and his wife’s Indigenous heritage.
Christensen pointed out that Blacks cannot be treated as an ethnic group. “We are not a community by nationality, tradition or origin. For instance, there are 500 distinct languages in Nigeria alone. In Canada, over half of those who check “Black” are Canadian-born.”
Christensen encouraged all Canadians to try some social action: “There are many groups here you can join. If you have school-aged children, ask their teacher.”
Organizer and founder, Mary Wilson briefly took the stage to say: “Black history is part of Canadian history.”
Wilson she then closed the evening by thanking VanCity for supporting this event, as well as thanking those who also worked to make Richmond’s Black History Month a success: from the library–Wendy Jang, from city hall–Dorothy Jo, and the arts centre– Camyar Chaichian.
All events for Black History Month in Richmond are free of charge, including a month-long book exhibit at the main branch of the Richmond Public Library. Everyone is encouraged to attend.
As Christensen says, “The best way to fight stereotypes is to get to know each other.”