From remembering Black history to celebrating Black excellence

A commentary for Black History Month by Garrison Duke, Chief Operating Officer, DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society

February is Black History Month in Canada, a time to remember the difficult history of the Black community, as well as shine a spotlight on the achievements of Black Canadians over the years.

Why is it important to remember the past? So much of our history is buried. So much of our story is forgotten.

Do Canadians know that the first recorded Black person in Canada was as far back as 1604. His name was Mathieu Da Costa, a multilingual interpreter. Or that 30,000 Black people from the US came to seek refuge via the Underground Railroad, a network of routes and safe houses between 1800 and 1865? But that slavery wasn’t abolished in Canada until 1864?

And what about the inspiring stories of historic trailblazers like Guyanese-born Sir James Douglas, the Governor of Vancouver Island and then British Columbia; Lincoln Alexander, the first Black member of federal Parliament; Michaëlle Jean, Canada’s first Black Governor General; and more recently, Greg Fergus, the current and first Black speaker of the House of Commons.

Black community in Canada today

Moving forward to today, much of the attention on the Black community tends to be focused on Black pop culture, including music and sports. Alternatively, it’s often negative stereotypes, which do harm to the community. The pandemic exposed a lot of the inequity in the BIPOC community, as did the incidences of violence in the US after the death of George Floyd. While it’s not the exact same situation in Canada, it focused our attention on the systemic barriers and discrimination that Black individuals face here, too. Statistics says that more than half of Black Canadians have experienced discrimination!

As a Black Canadian leader in the social services sector, it’s my hope that we advance equity for the Black community to overcome anti-Black racism and the barriers to individuals’ success.

There have been positive inroads in the last couple of years, including federal grants for Black organizations to support everything from entrepreneurship to mental health. At non-profit organizations like DIVERSEcity Community Resources Society, we are working hard to create and deliver innovative and empowering programs and services to support BIPOC individuals overcome the existing barriers and discrimination to reach their goals.

Beyond programming, what can make a real impact on changing the conversation is a celebration of the Black community’s achievements — and not just the singers and athletes. I love the term Black excellence. I believe we have to truly celebrate Black leaders in all corners of the community, from the corporate world, entrepreneurship and innovation, to the non-profit sector and politics. Former President Barack Obama’s continuing example not only epitomizes Black excellence, but shows the capabilities that come out of the Black community.

It’s important for these Black leaders to then make room to uplift emerging BIPOC leaders. I’ve committed my career to uplift and mentor others, as it’s so important we support and celebrate others.

Black in BC: Celebrating Black Excellence in Surrey

At DIVERSEcity, our Black in BC: Celebrating Black Excellence event was launched as a platform to help doo this. Held on Thursday, February 1, 2024, from 3–7 pm at the Surrey Arts Centre (13750 88 Avenue, Surrey, BC), the free event will include a panel discussion with local Black leaders, exhibition tables featuring Black organizations, a fashion show featuring Black designers, African cuisine, and musical and dance performances.

This year, we are also introducing our inaugural Black Brilliance Awards. We’re so excited by the inspiring nominations received and are looking forward to announcing the winners at the event.

Personally, I want this event to be a space that brings the diverse Black community together, along with our allies. Not everyone realizes how diverse the Black population in BC actually is. It’s made up of people born in Canada with generations preceding them, often moving to BC from Toronto like I did. Or they may be first-generation Canadians whose parents migrated here. Then we have a growing population of young and university-educated newcomers. Nigeria was, in fact, Canada’s fourth top source country of immigrants, in 2022.

Overall, the cultural origins of the Black population extend from the diverse nations of Africa, to Jamaica, other Caribbean nations and beyond.

It’s heartening to see the growing number of Black associations that represent this diversity, while building bridges with each other. As our population ages and the Black community continues to change, it will be vital that Black Canadians and allies continue to connect and support each other. There are so many bright minds who have a lot to offer, so let’s open the door to their contributions and voices in our workplaces and communities.

Let’s start at Black in BC: Celebrating Black Excellence on February 1, 2024.
(The event is now sold out.)