Canada prides itself as being a multicultural country where people coming from all over the world are welcomed to establish themselves and belong. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms states that everyone in this country enjoys equal rights and protections under the law, regardless of gender, race, and ethnic origin. But this is not the reality for many living in this country, including some populations that have been part of Canada from the beginning.
People of African descent (described as African, Black and Caribbean) have had a long-standing history in Canada and Toronto. Their history and footprints can be historically traced back before the early settlers, to the early trading times between Europeans and Canada’s Indigenous population. Yet the history, much like the contributions of people of African descent to the building of this country, is not well known nor understood.
Today, the GTA is home to 413,155 individuals who self-identify as “Black,” comprising seven percent of the region’s population and more than half of Canada’s total Black population (Statistics Canada, 2013). There are many distinct communities within the Black population because of its highly diverse origins, not only in country of origin but in language, culture, values and traditions. The GTA now encompasses Black individuals and families from more than 130 countries with roots in Africa, including the Caribbean, Latin America, and the United States.
The Black community in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) has made substantial contributions to the growth and success of the country and the region (see Table 3) but has also experienced economic, educational, social, and political disparities that continue to this day. There continue to be longstanding challenges facing the community, some of which are not similarly experienced by visible minority and ethnic communities in the GTA.
Despite the numerous success stories in many walks of life, it is well documented that Black individuals, compared with the non-Black population, earn less income, have higher rates of unemployment, experience higher rates of incarceration, suffer poorer health outcomes, and are more likely to be victims of violence. The Review of the Roots of Violence Commission (Hon. Roy McMurtry and Alvin Curling) was one in a long series of reports that focused on these challenges, concluding that:
“When poverty is racialized, and then ghettoized and associated with violence, the potential for stigmatization of specific groups is high. … The very serious problems being encountered in neighbourhoods characterized by severe, concentrated and growing disadvantage are not being addressed … because Ontario has not placed an adequate focus on these concentrations of disadvantage despite the very serious threat they pose to the province’s social fabric”.
While these problems have been well documented, representation of the Black community in the media is often distorted and general perceptions of the community are predominantly based on negative stereotypes and the disadvantages experienced by the community. Consequently, the Black community is largely defined by its challenges and deficits, and little is known about the trailblazing achievements and contributions of the Black community in such areas as politics, law, business, research and education.
There have been official acknowledgements of these contributions, but these have been sporadic at best. For example, in 1995 the Federal government officially recognized Black History Month to honour the achievements and contributions of Black Canadians, but it was 21 years later in February 2016 before the Province of Ontario followed suit.
This current context underlines the need for a deeper, more nuanced understanding of the experiences of individuals making up the Black community, to draw attention to the full range of contributions, challenges, opportunities, capacity, and resiliency of its members. The experiences of the Black community shape the economic, educational, social and political outcomes of individuals and the engagement with the institutional and social fabric of the Canadian society. The underlying factors that account for the particular challenges faced by, and resources available to, members of the Black community are not well understood, and the economic and social statistics currently collected simply do not tell the whole story.
A thoughtful study of the Black community is especially important today. The Black Experience Project was initiated in 2010, well before the current climate of tragic police-involved deaths (in both Canada and the USA), present controversies over police carding, the emergence of Black Lives Matter and the creation of the Ontario Anti-Racism Directorate. However, these latest developments underscore the need for a greater understanding of the contributions as well as challenges for this community.
To learn more on other projects that have focused on the Black community and other racialized communities, please see the following reports:
- Stephen Lewis Report on Race Relations in Ontario (1992)
- The Review of the Roots of Youth Violence – The Honourable Roy McMurtry and Dr. Alvin Curling
- Errors and Ommissions: Anti-Black Racism in Canada – African Canadian Legal Clinic
 Attewell, Kasinitz, & Dunn, 2010; Brooks, 2009; Nestel, 2012; Wortley & Tanner, 2004