Published on October 14, 2022.
By: Yanet Mengistie
People of colour (POC) have had their contributions and events in time excluded from Canadian history books. Black Canadian history has been excluded from academic curriculum and erased from societal norms. The origins of Black communities in Canada are so under-recognized that many assume Black people only settled in Canada in the middle to late 1900s. In reality, Black people have lived in Canada as early as 1608.
Eliminating Black existence in Canada is disheartening. Erasing the history of Black people is an alternate form of colonialism that aids in forcing marginalized groups to assimilate into larger colonial society and normalized culture.
This has created a distorted idea of what Black identity is because understanding the historical context of how Black people have settled, accustomed, and adapted to life in Canada is crucial for understanding their perspectives. Black Canadian history is not just a footnote; it is part of Canadian history that should be acknowledged and celebrated.
In Vancouver, Hogan’s Alley is where a majority of Black residents lived. Hogan’s Alley was located between Union and Prior Street and is now called the Strathcona area in Vancouver. Unfortunately, Hogan’s Alley has been erased from Canadian history because of the racism that existed that targeted Black Canadians.
The Black community developed in 1858 when African Americans from California migrated and settled in Victoria and Salt Spring Island in British Columbia. In the early 1900s, their quest to migrate continued as they settled in the Strathcona area. Other Black migrant groups joined the Strathcona area, such as African American migrants settling in Alberta who had left Oklahoma and Black residents of Vancouver facing housing discrimnation.
Over the years, the community included tourist centers such as the African Methodist Episcopal Chapel and Vie’s Chicken and Steak House. However, in 1930, Vancouver’s government started to assign many parts of Strathcona as industrial spaces. This policy made it difficult to obtain mortgages to own these properties.
Obtaining ownership rights of places in Hogan’s Alley was difficult given the second-class status of Black Canadians in the 1930s. Furthermore, with the normalization of discrimination in the workplace and social policy, Black people did not have legal protections until 1944 with the Racial Discrimination Act.
In 1939, newspapers criticized Hogan’s Alley community, labeling it as a representation of “squalor, immorality, and crime.” These views assigned an inferior label to the community that demanded a demolition with respect to urbanization and modernization. However, the city was more than capable in maintaining many of the parts of the community that were deemed unfit.
As a result of these comments, the destruction and displacement of Hogan’s Alley began in 1967. It was replaced with the Georgia Viaduct and soon after the lively community was dismantled.
What happened to Hogan’s Alley is a reflection of the way Black housing communities are demonized. Without acknowledging the existence of the community, the same pattern will continue to repeat itself.
Many of the labour and civil rights laws POC have achieved in Canada were legalized due to the work of the Black Canadian porters of the 1900s. Porters worked on Pullman sleeper cars, which came to Canada in the 1870s. These are trains that were used on railways and meant for extended travel, which is why they were called sleeper cars. They were equipped with bunk beds and curtains for privacy.
The porters of the trains were vital to the business of these passenger cars, not just because their jobs were essential, but because the porters were known for providing professional service. The porters were racially Black and because of the second-class status at the time, they received low wages and terrible working conditions on the trains.
Porters were allocated three hours of sleep a night; since they were support staff, basically servants to the passengers, they were constantly woken up to assist. They slept on mattresses on the floors of smoking rooms and in unsatisfactory environments. Moreover, the unsatisfactory pay they received was used to cover expenses such as their food and uniforms.
While many White workers on the trains were promoted to positions of brakemen, the Black workers realized that they were subjected to porter positions because they were deemed sub-human. The unions that could offer any form of job protection for porters and advance their workers’ rights would not allow them entry as many were White-only unions.
This is what led to the creation of the Order of Sleeping Car Porters (OSCP) in Winnipeg in 1917, which was the first North American union of Black railway workers. The group was formed by John A. Robinson, B.F. Jones, J.W. Barber, and P. White, who were all Black Canadian porters. The OSCP went through many challenges to provide porters with extended labour rights, including mass firings by the Canadian Pacific Railway that punished them for seeking unionization.
It was not until 1945 that the porters were able to overcome obstacles, and realistic goals were achieved, such as the fight for overtime pay, vacation pay, and an actual bed to sleep on. It was not until 1954 that a Black worker was finally offered promotions, with George V. Garraway being the first Black person to hold the position of a train conductor in Canada. The story of Black Canadian porters is largely lost in Canadian history, though it should be an integral part of the general high school curriculums.
These porters continued to work despite the racism that existed. Instead, they did their part to provide the foundation for many other labour and civil rights activists that followed after this event. They were historic and influential in their activism and should not be erased from Canadian history and need to have their stories shared with the rest of the world.
The Coloured Women’s Club
The Coloured Women’s Club was founded in 1902 in Montreal. The seven founders of the club established it independently as a result of being excluded from other social clubs because of their Blackness. The group started locally, tending to the needs of people of the Little Burgundy community and the “unsanitary living conditions” that were in the area.
The club became of great support during economic hardships such as the Great Depression. During this time, the club gathered volunteers to help out in soup kitchens, distribute clothing, contribute financial assistance, and provide shelter. In 1907, the club helped establish the Union United Church, which granted scholarships for Black youth.
In the 1920s, the group also worked with the Negro Community Centre (NCC), which became a “major social centre for Blacks in Montreal.” The groups worked together on many occasions to uplift the Montreal community through producing social events, art, and music classes. The club not only did its work but worked with other groups to aid in the overall success of Black Canadians in their community.
The club is still relevant today and has made an impact. Moses Gashirabake was awarded two scholarships by the organization to help support his dream to study at McGill’s law school program. The club also provided Gashirabake with invites to events in the community.
Black Canadians have a long and painful history in Canada. Recognizing and acknowledging their history will enable many Black Canadians to no longer feel excluded from society, and will be a step in embracing Black identity wholeheartedly.