Why does Canada have a Black History Month?

Edana Robitaille
Published: February 9, 2023

Black Canadians, and newcomers, have had a significant impact on how Canada has grown as a country. They have done so in the face of historic systemic racism and other obstacles that many non-racialized immigrants are less likely to encounter.

To mark the contributions of Black Canadians, the government began to officially recognize February as Black History Month in 2008, but individual provinces have been commemorating Black history since the 1970s in some form or another.

Canada has recently been making efforts to become more equitable and atone for the mistakes made in the past, such as slavery and segregation as well as more modern issues of discrimination and marginalization. Part of this effort is educating all Canadians about Black contributions to Canada’s culture, economy, and communities.

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Canada’s Black population

Data from the 2021 census shows that 1.5 million people, or 4.3% of the population of Canada, reported being Black. This is an increase of nearly 350,000 people since the last census in 2016. Based on this trend, Statistics Canada projects that the Black population in Canada will reach more than three million by 2041.

Among Black immigrants, 23.7% are new immigrants who were admitted to Canada from 2016 to 2021. There were 300 ethnic or cultural origins reported among Canada’s Black population, including African, Haitian, Canadian and Jamaican.

Nearly one-third of the Black immigrant population was born in Africa, citing Nigeria, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as the three top African countries of origin. Further, the census reported that 21% of Black immigrants were born in the Caribbean and Bermuda, mostly in Jamaica and Haiti. In fact, 249,000 Canadians reported Jamaican ancestry.

Most of Canada’s racialized immigrants, including Black immigrants, choose to settle in larger cities, with Toronto having the largest number of Black immigrants, followed by Montreal and then Ottawa. Between 2016 and 2021, 34,320 people moved to Alberta from Africa, with the majority choosing to settle in Calgary.

Most Black immigrants are young and educated 

Canada has been able to welcome an increased number of Black immigrants by prioritizing skill and education of individual candidates. For example, about 46% of Black immigrants from 2016 to 2021 had a bachelor’s degree or higher.

The Black population in Canada is also younger on average than the total population, with a median age of 30 years. This means many Black immigrants are arriving in the early phase of their core working years. (25-54).

The Standing Committee on Citizenship and Immigration met last May and recommended to the House of Commons that the Student Direct Stream, a program that fast tracks applications for international study permits, be open to applicants from Nigeria, Ghana, and other francophone nations in Africa. This would help to encourage young Black immigrants to settle in Canada and would also help Canada meet its immigration mandate of promoting bilingualism in both official languages outside of Quebec.

History of Black immigration in Canada

The history of Black immigration in Canada has not always been positive. Canada, a former British colony, was not without slavery for much of its earliest history. The majority of Black people in Canada during the 1700s were enslaved. In acknowledgement of that history, many memorials to former slave owners have been removed and the names of some prominent institutions, such as universities, have been changed.

Still, during the American War of Independence (1775-83) the British offered freedom to any slaves who would fight against the Americans. Many who chose to enlist were granted freedom and eventually settled in the Maritimes, particularly Nova Scotia.

Slavery was abolished across the British empire in 1833 and the first major wave of Black immigration to Canada took place in the 1800s, when 30,000 Black people fled slavery in the southern United States. They made their way to Canada through the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe-houses that helped them avoid capture and re-enslavement.

Into the 1900s, Canada had immigration policies that favoured white Europeans and Americans. Most admissions were entirely at the discretion of an admissions officer and their personal biases. This began to see some change in 1962 when new immigration regulations were introduced to eliminate racial discrimination. These regulations emphasized skill as the main admissibility criteria instead of nationality or race.

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