It’s Black History Month where we recognize and celebrate how the accomplishments of Black Canadians have shaped all aspects of life – society, the economy, arts and culture and more. To fully appreciate the contributions of Black Canadians we need to also understand how immigration played a foundational role. Today, almost half of Canada’s Black population is or has been a landed immigrant or a permanent resident at some stage. As part of TRIEC’s work to honour Black History Month, we look at how Black immigration to Canada has changed over time.
The first Black Canadians
Some of the first Black populations in Canada were enslaved people who were taken from New England or the Caribbean. From the mid-18th to mid 19th century, the majority of Black people arriving in Canada were fleeing war and slavery in the US. However, this is not the whole story – there are records of Black people arriving in Canada since the beginning of colonialism. For example, the first person of African heritage reported to have arrived in Canada was in the 1600s. The person in question was an interpreter named Matthieu da Costa who worked for the then Governor of Nova Scotia, translating from Mi’qmak. He could speak at least five languages. Originally from Benin, he settled in Port Royal and became a national hero.
Canada had many discriminatory practices targeting different immigrant groups throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This included charging a “head tax” to restrict Chinese immigrants from entering Canada after the Canadian Pacific Railway was completed, and the Gentlemen’s Agreement with Japan to limit Japanese immigration. Black people were among the most affected groups from similar exclusionary policies and practices. Through bribery, deception, misconduct and arbitrary enforcement of rules, many Canadian immigration officials were actively obstructing Black immigrants from entering Canada.
Many African-Americans from the United States wanted to move to Canada due to discrimination and being subject to various crimes in early 20th century. However, very few ended up doing so. Many community-based organizations in Canada were campaigning for the government to issue a ban on Black immigration. The idea that “Canada was precarious and dangerous to Black people” was being promoted through media and other public networks to discourage newcomers. In addition, immigration officials were often not responsive to requests for support or information by African Americans and they rejected farmer certificates from Black immigrants. There are also accounts of medical officers being bribed to turn Black people back, due to “unsuitability to climate.” In 1911, the government even considered banning Black immigration all together and passed an Order-in-Council, but this was never invoked.
The next large group of people of African descent to arrive was not until the 1960s. This was due to the changes in the Immigration Act – when an explicit bias against non-white and non-European immigrants was removed, in favor of a points-based system for economic immigrants. Following this change, Canada welcomed an increasing number of newcomers from the Caribbean as well as Africa – including from countries such as Nigeria and Ghana.
Changing trajectories: the Caribbean to Africa
With the adoption of the points-based system and subsequent immigration reforms, people continued to immigrate to Canada from an increasingly diverse list of countries. The 2001 Census showed that among people of African descent who were born outside of Canada before 1961, only 1% was born in Africa – while over 70% came from the Caribbean, Central and South America, and Jamaica and Haiti in particular. By 2016, Census data showed that recent immigrants were predominantly from Africa – with rising numbers of newcomers from Nigeria, Cameroon and the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2019, Canada welcomed around 12,600 permanent residents from Nigeria and 7,000 from Eritrea, making these two countries the fourth and eighth top source countries respectively.
Growing share of Canada’s population
In the last two decades, Black communities across Canada have been growing. In 2001, Black Canadians (people born here and immigrants) constituted over 2% of the country’s population. In comparison, in 2016, they represented 3.5% of the total population. Black Canadians will continue to play a vital role in the population growth of Canada. They could be representing 5% to 5.6% of the population by 2036, according to Statistics Canada’s projections. Around 80% of Canada’s overall population growth is driven by immigration and this is expected to increase to 100% by 2034. While there is a lack of data about the extent to which the growth of Canada’s Black population is due to immigration, we can definitely say this plays a role.
Toronto: Still the home of many Black Canadians?
Back in 2001, almost half of Black Canadians – over 310,000 people – lived in Toronto. Fifteen years later, Toronto was still home to the largest Black community in the country, with around 440,000 people. Yet, the percentage of Canada’s Black population in Toronto actually fell to around 37%. This means that Black Canadians are now better represented across the country, compared to the past. Still, Toronto continues to lead as it has the highest proportion of Black people across all metropolitan centers.
With the new census coming up, we will gain more insights into how the immigration journeys of current and future Black Canadians are evolving. However, let’s not forget that immigration data is only one part of the story. It doesn’t necessarily capture the lived experiences of Black Canadians – neither their accomplishments nor the challenges that they have faced. As Philip S. S. Howard, Assistant Professor of Department of Integrated Studies in Education at McGill University puts it, “Black History Month is one of many opportunities that should be taken to highlight stories about Black life—both stories of pain, and stories of joy. These stories are too often erased or distorted, and without them, we cannot completely understand the world in which we live.”