Why the way we're taught about how Black people came to Canada is completely wrong

The series Black Life: Untold Stories tells many stories of the Black experience in Canada — not just about migration but about music, arts, justice and unity.

By largely accepting one story, Canada is erasing generations of dark-skinned voices

A large group of women, men and children pose for a family portrait.
A portrait from a scene in Haven, But No Heaven, the first episode of CBC's documentary series Black Life: Untold Stories. Christopher Stuart Taylor says the series tells many stories of the Black experience in Canada — not just about migration but also about music, arts, justice and unity. (Duane Cole Photography)

Black Life: Untold Stories reframes the rich and complex histories of Black people in Canada, dispelling commonly accepted myths and celebrating the contributions of both famous and lesser-known individuals. The eight-part series spans more than 400 years with an eye toward contemporary issues, culture, politics, music, art and sports.

In this article, history professor Christopher Stuart Taylor, who is featured in the episode Migrations, tells us why we need to broaden the story of Black migration to Canada. 

I am a second-generation Black Canadian of Barbadian descent. This means that my parents, like many Black people in Canada, came to this country as newcomers from somewhere else (Barbados, in my parents' case) and I was born here. 

This is a common story of Black migration and settlement in Canada, but it is not the only story of Black migration and settlement in Canada. 

There are many misconceptions about the Black experience of migration in Canada. Here are a few:

  • We are all recent newcomers.
  • We all come from the Caribbean. Better yet, we are all Jamaican.
  • We all saw Canada as the "promised land."

Writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie spoke elegantly about the dangers of a single story in her well-watched 2009 TED talk.

"Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.... When we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise," she said.

The ubiquitous hockey narratives of Canadian history neatly created a space where the stories of Black life in Canada fit into a single piece of luggage placed on the Underground Railroad by Black porters.

The single story of Black Canadian histories is one of reductionist essentialism: that Black people's existence and humanity are reduced to one story that Black people do not truly belong in Canada. As Canadians. 

'Promised land' fairy tale

The most widely accepted story of Black migration to this country is told through the lens of the Underground Railroad: the fairy tale that Canada was the "promised land" in which Black people sought refuge to escape the horrors of enslavement and anti-Black racism in the United States in the 1800s. The idea is that Black people should — and must — be thankful and grateful for all things Canadiana. Racism and all.

I would argue that accepting this single story, and neglecting, erasing and silencing generations of dark-skinned voices, is a disservice to all Canadians. Not just those that happen to be Black.

A man stands beside a historical sign in a field.
Christopher Stuart Taylor is a second-generation Black Canadian of Barbadian descent. (Submitted by Christopher Stuart Taylor)

This single story of migration does not engage with the relationship between settler colonialism and Black and Indigenous liberation movements. In Canada, even in the age of Truth and Reconciliation, we do not truly understand the truth that we are a settler colonial state that excludes Black and Indigenous existence.

This single story of Black migration does not tell the story of the emigrant ambassadors: the Black women who left the Caribbean in the early 20th century, culminating with the West Indian Domestic Scheme in the 1950s and '60s, to work in the homes of "old-stock" Canadians. Many of these women faced physical, sexual and psychological abuse.

This single story does not include the Black seasonal agricultural workers who have been feeding Canadian families for decades, whose bodies and spirits are often broken by inhumane working conditions.

A man pulls a wheelbarrow through a field.
Migrant worker Gabriel Allahdua, who appears in the Migrations episode of Black Life: Untold Stories. (Studio 112/Northwood Entertainment/Ugly Duck Productions)

This single story does not include the countless health-care professionals and educators that this country urged to migrate to the Great White North. School curricula across Canada are often devoid of Black history or critical discussions on race and racism, but in the mid to late 20th century, this country was desperate for "foreign" educated teachers and nurses. Those teachers and nurses came from island states like Barbados, many of which boasted higher literacy rates than those in Canada.

This single story removes Black stories as Canadian stories. It creates a dangerous narrative: that Black people should not be here, that we can accept the sight of Black refugees sleeping on the streets of Toronto. If they are here, they should be grateful for just being here — just like their Underground Railroad ancestors.

Freedom was a physical gift defined by imagined borders north of the 49th parallel. It did not mean freedom from anti-Black racism.

7 groups of Black people stand on a large rock as the sun sets behind them. Everyone is wearing yellow.
A scene from the Haven, But No Heaven episode of Black Life: Untold Stories. The episode is an unflinching examination of slavery in Canada. (Black Life: Untold Stories)

This single story negates the fact that without the Black seasonal agricultural workers, we would not have Canadian-grown fresh fruits and vegetables. Without the Black teachers, we would not have one of the leading public education systems in the world.

The series Black Life: Untold Stories tells many stories of the Black experience in Canada — not just about migration but about music, arts, justice and unity. A series like this is important because it sheds light on our stories and perspectives, good and bad, while highlighting our battles but also celebrating our joy.

On the journey toward true liberation, Black migration to Canada has benefited all those who call this country home.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.


Christopher Stuart Taylor

Freelance contributor

Christopher Stuart Taylor is the associate vice-president of equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism at the University of Waterloo. He is also an assistant professor in the department of history. He completed his PhD at Western University in history with a specialization in migration and ethnic relations. His book, Flying Fish in the Great White North: The Autonomous Migration of Black Barbadians, is available from Fernwood Publishing. He can be found on X @DrCSTaylor

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