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CUPE asked Murphy Browne, an education worker in Toronto and a member of CUPE 4400, to tell us why Black History Month is so important for all of us.

February is Black History/ African Heritage Month. This month is very important to people of African heritage because for the most part it is the only time that there is any acknowledgement that people of African descent have contributed to Canadian society.

Many Black History Month events in schools acknowledge Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement in the United States. What is not recognized is the fact that people of African descent have been part of Canadas history since 1605.

Matthieu DaCosta is the first documented person of African descent in Canada. He landed with the expedition of Pierre de Gua, which founded Port Royal in 1605. DaCosta worked as an interpreter for the French with the Micmacs, suggesting that hed been to Canada on an earlier voyage. Since then there has been a continuous presence of African people in Canada.

One of the first documented African-ancestored females in Canadian history is Marie Joseph Angelique. She was a slave and in 1734 she discovered she was to be sold. In her bid to escape she set fire to the slaveholders house. The fire spread and several homes were burned. Angelique was hunted, captured, tortured and hung by the neck until dead.

There were also Africans among the United Empire Loyalists who came to Canada after the American War of Independence. They were promised the same rights as the white Loyalists but those promises were never kept. Richard Pierpoint was a Loyalist who came to Canada in 1780. He was instrumental in the formation of the Coloured Corps, which defended Canada during the War of 1812.

There are countless men and women of African ancestry who have contributed to making Canada the country it is today, but they go unrecognized. William Hall was the first Canadian sailor to win the Victoria Cross for bravery on November 16, 1857. Mary Ann Shadd was the first woman in North America to edit a newspaper, the Provincial Freeman in 1853. Rose Fortune was the first female police officer in Canada.

No study of Canadian history can be complete without including the contributions of African-ancestored people. In spite of slavery, oppression, racism and forced movement (e.g., Africville in Nova Scotia), African Canadians have continued to make progress.

While we look forward to the day when a Black History/ African Heritage Month will not be necessary, it is important that it be acknowledged now.

Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society in her article Why a Black History Month? says, When the contributions of people of African descent are acknowledged, when the achievements of Black people are known, when Black people are routinely included or affirmed through our curriculum, our books and the media and treated with equality, then the need for a Black History Month will no longer exist.

It is also important to note that the history of African people did not begin with slavery. There is a rich history of ancient African kingdoms and civilizations. Kanem-Borno, Kush, Mali are just some of the names. African kings and queens such as Queen Nzingha, Nana Yaa Asantewa, Sundiata and Mansa Musa are part of the history of African people.

The teaching of Black/ African history is vital. It helps to combat the racism and prejudice that people of African descent confront in all areas of their life. It is especially important because so many young people of African descent are disenchanted and disenfranchised. The curriculum they are subjected to is not inclusive. The history of African people has been devalued to such an extent that some African-ancestored people are reluctant to identify themselves as people of African descent.

Men and women of African ancestry have contributed to making Canada the country it is today. They have been a part of Canadas history since 1605 yet their contributions are grudgingly acknowledged during one month of the year. People of African descent are routinely made to feel as if they do not belong, regardless of how many generations ago their ancestors came to Canada. Racism is a daily reality at work, at school and elsewhere. The misinformation and the lack of information contribute to the ignorance that leads to racism. African history and the contributions of African-ancestored people need to be a part of Canadian history.

Murphy Browne