Africans in Canada
In this activity, you will read about peoples of African descent living in the North American country of Canada. Several questions and activities follow the reading.
From Africa to Canada
The 1996 Canadian census reports that about 2% of the total population is composed of Canadians of African descent. Based on what you have learned so far, how do you think Africans came to settle in Canada? As in many of the other countries discussed in this module, the slave trade brought many Africans to Canada. Very few came directly from Africa. Many were transported to Canada from the British colonies in North America and the West Indies or from the French controlled West Indies. Once in Canada, the slaves worked in urban settings as domestic help. This is different from how slavery was practiced in the U.S. and the West Indies, where slaves worked primarily on farms and plantations.
A wave of American slaves migrated to Canada after the American Revolution. As you know, in the American Revolution the American colonists fought for their independence from the British monarchy. Many African slaves who were owned by Americans sided with the British, against the Americans, during the Revolutionary war. They were called Loyalists because they were loyal to the British crown. The American-owned slaves pledged their allegiance to the British because the British promised them that after the war, they would be given their freedom.
At the end of the war, the British evacuated the Black Loyalists from America. About 3,500 were relocated in Canada and given small tracts of land by the British government. The Africans settled in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick in segregated communities. The land the blacks were given proved to be insufficient to give them with the means to provide for themselves. Many were disappointed and left Canada and immigrated to the British colony of Sierra Leone in West Africa. During the War of 1812, the British offered to send runaway slaves to British colonies, where they would be free. Many former slaves came to Canada and lived in the segregated African communities. Runaway slaves, or maroons, continued to flee to Canada for freedom. At the time of the Civil War in America, approximately 30,000 maroons were living in Canada. At the end of slavery, many of Africans moved back to the US.
Another significant migration of peoples of African descent to Canada occurred between 1909 and 1911. African Americans from Oklahoma, who worked as farmers, moved to Alberta, Canada. A third increase in the black population in Canada came in the 1960s, when the Canadian government removed immigration restrictions, allowing more peoples of non-European origins to come into the country to live and work. Between 1960 and 1995, 300,000 immigrants from the West Indies and 150,000 from Africa migrated to Canada. They settled primarily in the eastern cities of Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.
Ghanaians Living in Toronto
In the 1980s, approximately 8,000 Ghanaian refugees came to Canada. A refugee is someone who leaves his/her country to escape persecution or oppression. Between 1981-1991, Ghanaians experienced difficulties and hardships in Ghana that caused them to leave the country. Political turmoil, harsh economic conditions, scarcities of goods and foodstuffs in the markets, high inflation, and job lay-offs made life in Ghana difficult. The refugees hoped that they could find better opportunities in Canada. You will remember that you learned about political and economic problems in contemporary Africa in Module Nine: African Economies and Module Ten: African Politics.
The Ghanaians who came to Canada settled in communities with other Africans, and often with other Ghanaians, that tended to be isolated from other immigrant groups and Canadians. In these communities, they often communicated by speaking Twi, a language spoken by most Ghanaians. Most Ghanaian refugees worked in factories or as taxi drivers, even though most of them were well educated, many with university degrees. Some enrolled in college in Canada. Many refugees, however, did not have enough money to go to college, and Canadian government did not give all refugees permission to enroll in school.
Ghanaian communities organized many social groups and voluntary organizations. One example of such an organization is the Ghanaian Canadian Multicultural Association. This Association sponsored social activities and entertainment such as dinner dances for the Ghanaian community. Other organizations such as the Ashani Kotoko Supporting Club held soccer tournaments. Ghanaians established churches, too. Many joined the membership of The All Nations Full Gospel Church.
From Kenya to Canada
Ghana is not the only African country from which immigrants came to Canada. Paul Tiyambe Zeleza was born in Zimbabwe, but both of her parents were from Malawi. He attended college in Malawi, and now lives in Canada. He is a Professor of History and a writer. The short excerpt below is taken from one of his short stores, “Foggy Seasons.” The story describes what it is like for Africans living in Canada.
In the story, Shanisa remembers what it was like to leave her home in Kenya (East Africa) and come to Canada as a little girl.
“All Shanisa could remember is that one night, when she was a little girl and someone came to pick them up in a truck and they drove until the next day when they found themselves in another country where the people spoke a strange language. Their father simply said that they had to leave because their lives were in danger. Shanisa cried for the clothes she had left behind, her friends, and the spacious house with its large backyard full of mango, pawpaw, guava and peach trees, and the sandbox and the swing set where the neighborhood children gathered to play.
“Several months later they took a plane bound for Canada. Before they left their parents told them that Canada was very far away, and it was a cold country full of wazungu. There were indeed wazungu everywhere, in the buses, the streets, the shops, and in the apartment building in which they lived. But there were also a lot of people from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Shanisa heard of countries she had never heard of before. It looked like the whole world was there, every shade of colour, every religion, every accent imaginable.
“The children stayed in all day. They only went out when their mother went to the shops. They would stand by the window for hours watching other kids play on the grounds below. After a while they got to know a few people in the building. In the meantime, their father continued looking for a job. He first tried gas service stations, for back home he used to own several, but to no avail. The fruitless search for a job began taking its toll on his spirits. He became more distant, looked older, and one day even talked of returning home….
“A few days later, on a bright, crisp morning, Shanisa and Mamba started school. They were so excited, so apprehensive. They were dressed in their best Sunday clothes. At home they used to wear school uniforms. It did not look like the school at home, for it was enclosed like a barn and the classrooms, the library, the teacher’s offices and the gym were all inside. There was a small playground outside with swings, slides, monkey bars and a sandbox. …
The excitement that Shanisa and her brother, Mamba, experience on their first day of school soon turns to disappointment, and Shanisa begins to dislike school because of the way she is treated there.
“Shanisa hated the school, indeed, she hated everything about her new surroundings, including herself. She hated being called black, for she was brown. Back home they used to say brown. And it made no sense to her why the wazungu called themselves white when they were pinkish. Back home they were simply called wazungu or Europeans. She would stand in front of the mirror, close her eyes, praying that when she opened them she would be lighter, with a more pointed nose, more like her father’s. Why had he married her mother? Why had his father married his mother? If none of them had made that mistake then she would have been all right, the kids in school would not be teasing her, she would not be wearing those dumb braids, which made her look ugly, ugly and damned. Didn’t her first mid-term school report say that she was a slow learner? At home people used to say she was clever.
“Each day she had to be forced to go to school. They poked fun at her accent, so she was afraid to speak. And she and Mamba were always being asked foolish questions: Is it true people in Africa walk naked or wear grass skirts? How come they didn’t have tribal marks on their faces and bones in their noses? How did people sleep in trees? Why did they eat each other? Could they show them a tribal dance?”
This story has described some of the prejudices Africans have confronted in Canada. Although Canadian law makes it illegal to discriminate against any person, often blacks face private discrimination at school, in their work places, or by the police.
Despite the prejudice and discrimination blacks have had to encounter in Canada, black contributions to Canadian history and culture have been many. Unlike peoples of African descent living in India, Canadians of African origins, whether children of maroons or recently arrived immigrants, have created and maintained connections to Africa. As described in this module, blacks tend to live together and therefore had the ability to keep African cultural practices alive. Black communities formed churches and other social institutions. They published their own newspapers such as the Canadian Observer and the Clarion. Peoples of African origin have produced unique styles of dance, music and art.
Please complete that following questions and activities.
- How did Africans come to Canada? When and why did they come?
- When Ghanaians came to Canada in large numbers in the 1980s, where and with whom did they live? Why do you think they choose to live this way?
- In the short story Foggy Seasons, did Shanisa want to leave her home in Africa and come to Canada?
- Why do you think the children in Shanisa’s school make fun of Shanisa and her brother?
You have now looked at peoples of African descent living in four countries: Mexico, India, Brazil, and Canada. On a separate sheet of paper, you are going to make two lists. The first list will list all of the similarities you can think of about the lives of blacks in Mexico, India, Brazil and Canada. In the second list, list as many differences you can think of about life in the four countries for peoples of African descent. Compare your lists with your classmates.
Websites on Africans in Canada:
Go to Activity Five or select from the other activities in this module: