Claiming a place in Canada

Photo by Kayano Waite

Musician and political activist Emmanuel Jal dancing with locals at the "Claim It" event in Ajax.

While Black History Month is celebrated in February, the long history of black people is varied and some say it should get more attention.

“People tend to not think we’re Canadians. They’re always saying ‘so where you from?’” said Esther Forde, president of Cultural Expressions Art Gallery Inc. “We’ve been here hundreds of years, we’re Canadian.”

She recently organized the gallery’s 10th annual Black History Month celebration, #Claim It, at J. Clarke Richardson Collegiate in Ajax.

The space was filled with locals of all ages, gazing at the art, displays and live performances.

The event allowed for several associations and community groups that focus on serving black people. These GTA organizations were there to promote themselves and connect with event goers.

Some of the groups included the Black, African and Caribbean Community Outreach (BACCO), Nile Valley Books and Legacy Posters.

Robert Small, a Whitby artist and graphic designer from Legacy Posters, was at the event. Small has worked on posters and educational art for more than 23 years.

His artwork is primarily focused on the African experience worldwide.

“As an African-Canadian growing up I didn’t hear too many things African-Canadians accomplished,” Small said. “The one thing I wanted to do was share that information so another generation knows about their culture, their history and what they contributed to different parts of the country.”

Several performances were also held in the school auditorium, including a performance by the Ngoma Ensemble, Collective of Black Artists (COBA) and a keynote presentation and performance from Sudanese-Canadian musician Emmanuel Jal.

Whitby MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes was also there. She spoke about the current political climate in North America, with the recent rise of violence towards other visible minorities. Caesar-Chavannes said community members should not be passive to the changes in the world.

“We need to stand with those who are marching and protesting and boycotted,” she said. “Because not less than a generation ago, people marched and boycotted with us.”

Forde said a decade ago, she and a friend noticed a lack of events celebrating black history events locally.

“Based on the population, and how many people of black/African descent are here, we knew we needed a celebration of Black History Month.”


The first two events were held in the art gallery, but demand was high and the location could not fit those who wished to attend. “People were backed up into the entrance, until it became a hazard,” Forde said.

The federal government has officially recognized Black History Month since 1995. Before this, Negro History Week was established in 1926. The name was changed to Black History Week in the early 1970’s before it was expanded to Black History Month in 1976.

Forde said black Canadians are still sometimes seen as only immigrants as opposed to having their own history, yet they may have their identities as Canadians questioned.

“With this year particularly being Canada’s 150th (anniversary), there is so much that we contributed to Canadian history but it is not known,” Forde said. “I’ve been here many hundreds of years, probably even earlier than you’ve been here. So I say claim it.”

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Kayano is a second-year Broadcast Journalism student at DC. His focus lies in the arts, focusing primarily in film and television. He also hosts a show "Black Camera" on Riot Radio. Kayano hopes to be a television writer.