Dialogue on the Diaspora: A Black Heritage Expo

Thomas H.B. Symons, C.C., O.Ont, FRSC, LL.D., D.Litt., D.U., D.Cn.L., FRGS, KSS – Chairman, Ontario Heritage Trust

It is a great pleasure for me, as Chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust, to bring warm greetings and best wishes as we gather today for a stimulating program of presentations and discussions on issues of heritage, human rights and social justice, in support of the International Year for People of African Descent.

Designated by the United Nations, this year aims at strengthening action and cooperation – at international, national and regional levels – to promote the full enjoyment of economic, cultural, social, civil and political rights on the part of people of African descent, and to commemorate their diverse heritage and culture.

The building in which we find ourselves, is of great significance to our subject today. Built in 1850 and designed by William Thomas in the Renaissance style, it was an important location for many meetings of African-Canadians and others in support of the abolition of the slave trade and of the welfare of escaped enslaved peoples in Toronto. During this period, the building played host to a variety of abolitionist speakers, including Frederick Douglass, Samuel Ringgold Ward and Francis Ellen Watkins Harper.

The first lecture in this building, delivered on April 1, 1851 by a member of the British Parliament, addressed the subject of slavery. Later the same year, the North American Convention of Coloured Freemen held a hugely significant event in this building. Those in attendance included Frederick Douglass, Henry Bibb and Thornton Blackburn. The discussion focused on the issue of permanent resettlement of refugees from American slavery. In its final resolution, the Convention confirmed Canada as the best destination for these emigrants.

Given its historical significance to the abolitionist movement, St. Lawrence Hall provides a wonderful venue in which to continue the conversation on the African Diaspora and, in particular, its relationship to Canada and to Ontario.

Many of the activities of the Ontario Heritage Trust align closely with the stated goals of the International Year for People of African Descent. The Trust’s website hosts the Slavery to Freedom web resource, providing information on a network of 18 Black heritage sites and organizations in Ontario. The Trust is pleased to have collaborated with these sites and organizations – as well as with scholars and other African-Canadian community groups from across the province throughout 2011 – to commemorate the International Year for People of African Descent.

Ontario’s Black community has made, and continues to make, an enormously important social, cultural and economic contribution to the life and development of this province. The rich and diverse history of this community forms a significant component of Ontario’s heritage. This history in turn influences and impacts contemporary discussions concerning issues of social justice and human rights, and imparts crucial lessons to those engaged in the work of creating a better and more equitable future for all of Canada’s citizens.

In support of this important work, the Ontario Heritage Trust has launched a varied program of events and activities in partnership with, and with funding support from, the Ministry of Citizenship and Immigration, aimed at promoting greater respect and awareness, among Ontario’s Black community and all Ontarians, of the diverse heritage and culture of people of African descent. This program has engaged with a wide range of partners, organizations, stakeholders and citizens in the delivery of a number of important initiatives.

These initiatives have included:

  • The unveiling of a provincial plaque to commemorate the First Regular Baptist Church in Dresden a few days ago, on 20 November
  • Development of a special edition of Heritage Matters, with guest editor Dr. Afua Cooper, which is available here today
  • Young Heritage Leaders and Heritage Community Recognition Program awards for achievements in conserving Black heritage and culture
  • The coordination of Black heritage site tours in southwestern Ontario, for six underprivileged schools from within the Greater Toronto Area
  • And, of course, the Black Heritage Expo event being held here today.

With its focus on Ontario’s Black heritage, today’s event provides us with an opportunity to contemplate how the past informs and stimulates contemporary conversations and initiatives focused on the creation of a positive future for people of African ancestry in the province.

Ontario is home to a large and long-established community of African descent whose members have made, over many generations, a tremendous contribution to the life and development of this province from its earliest beginnings – and, indeed, to its safety and survival.

Amongst those who fought for the Crown during the American Revolution, there were thousands of African descent serving both in special units – such as the Black Pioneer Corps and the Ethiopian Corps, a regiment of ex-slaves raised in the southern colonies – as well as many more who assisted in local resistance activities or who served in, or assisted with, the British Line Regiments, including those who served in the Queen’s Rangers under the command of John Graves Simcoe.

A great many people of African descent, during and at the end of the American Revolution, came north as refugees with other United Empire Loyalists to start a new life in a new country under the Crown. Estimates of their numbers vary, but it is clear that there were several thousand Black Loyalists who played a valuable role in the re-founding of British North America, in what would become Canada, and in particular in the development of Nova Scotia and Ontario. A number of Black Loyalists also made their way by ship or overland to Quebec.

Again, when the country was invaded in 1812, Black units and Black volunteers serving with the Canadian militia and with British forces made an important contribution to defence efforts. For instance, the “Colored Corps,” based in the Niagara region throughout the war, fought at Queenston Heights in October 1812 and at the siege of Fort George in May 1813.

It is to be noted, too, that one of the first actions of the first Parliament of this province, in 1793, was an act limiting slavery, which took important steps toward the abolition of the slave trade in Ontario – one of the first jurisdictions in the world to do so. It was an important start, but only a start. Many Black and white Ontarians supported and worked closely with William Wilberforce and his colleagues in England to bring about the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire in 1807, and then the abolition of slavery itself in the British Empire in 1834, some three decades before Mr. Lincoln was able to bring about its abolition in the United States.

The important part played by many Canadian-based people of African descent – and also by many whites and Aboriginals – in the Underground Railroad in assisting Blacks to escape from the United States and to find refuge in Canada is becoming better known. Initiatives such as, Breaking the Chains: Presenting a New Narrative of Canada’s Role in the Underground Railroad, being discussed later in the program, promise to contribute new ideas and perspectives on this significant subject.

But the important and increasing role of people of African descent in the public life of Ontario and of Canada is still not fully grasped. The long career of a respected and much-beloved councillor and pro tem mayor of Toronto, William Hubbard, is nearly forgotten, as is the part played by others in municipal life. Their story is well told, for example, in the recently published book on African-Canadians in Hamilton. There is no more distinguished Canadian than the Honourable Lincoln Alexander, my predecessor as Chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust, a leading figure of African descent in Canadian public life, who has served as the representative of the Queen in Ontario, as a Member of Parliament and as a federal cabinet minister.

In the same vein, we are honoured to have with us today the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first woman of African descent to be elected to the Canadian Parliament, the first to serve in cabinet and now the Fairness Commissioner. We look forward to her participation in our program.

Ontario’s citizens of African descent have also taken a prominent role in the advancement of human rights in this province and across Canada. Among the provinces of Canada and the states of the American union, Ontario was the first to establish a Human Rights Commission – and the first Chair of this Commission, Dr. Daniel Hill, was of African descent. I had the honour of following him in this position. I am delighted that his son, Lawrence Hill, is here with us today as our keynote speaker. Mr. Hill’s many novels and projects build on his father’s groundbreaking work in human rights and make an important contribution in their own right to the field of African-Canadian studies.

The world of music, arts, letters and education in Ontario and across Canada is bursting with people of African heritage, like Mr. Hill, who have made and are making a tremendously important contribution to knowledge and culture in our country. The unveiling in Ottawa last year by Her Majesty the Queen of the remarkable sculpture of the late Oscar Peterson, the brilliant and much-beloved musician, is one reminder to all Canadians of how extensive and significant the contributions by people of African descent have become to the cultural life of our country. The performances today by Denise Pelley, Beyond Sound Collective and Ballet Creole are a further reminder of this fact.

As Chair of the Ontario Heritage Trust, I wish you all the best as you embark on this day of dialogue and reflection, out of which I hope new partnerships will arise and existing relationships will be strengthened. The Trust looks forward to continuing to contribute to and support the important work being done in the province to commemorate Ontario’s Black heritage and to consider how this heritage shapes and directs contemporary conversations about issues facing the African Diaspora.

Thank you.