A Reflection on Black History Month

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By Gérard Étienne, Vice-President, Diversity and Inclusion, Institute on Governance

I was recently asked by a learned colleague: why do we still need a Black History Month? It is a legitimate question stemming from a true desire to understand the aspiration of a People and the historical legacy that makes such a yearly occurrence necessary. However, the answer requires nuance and I was only able to use the analogy of the 10-year old traveling on a journey and constantly asking the parents "are we there yet?." Black Canadians have been asking that question ever since the underground railroad took us to Nova Scotia and slavery was abolished in Canada in 1834.

I have been asking myself that question from the time elementary schoolmates were chanting "Go back to Africa" and most recently with the dismal failure of the Employment Equity Act, which masks the inequity of Black Canadians under the rubric Visible Minorities. For indeed we are visible, this colour of skin cannot go unnoticed, we do not blend in and we do not bend. But our common experience has been difficult in this unique journey that seems to be ours.

Our health outcome is poorer than most Canadians. Immigrant Black women have significantly higher odds of hypertension, diabetes, and fair/poor self-rated health. Native-born Black women and immigrant Black men have higher odds of hypertension and diabetes. (Revue Canadienne de santé publique, vol 107, no 3). Black men are more likely to be incarcerated. Ontario Superior Court Justice Shaun Nakatsuru wrote, “I find that for African Canadians, the time has come where I as a sentencing judge must take judicial notice of such matters as the history of colonialism (in Canada and elsewhere), slavery, policies and practices of segregation, intergenerational trauma and racism both overt and systemic …,”. The United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent concluded in their 2016 Report that they were "deeply concerned about the human rights situation of African Canadians. Canada’s history of enslavement, racial segregation and marginalization has had a deleterious impact on people of African descent." The population of black Canadians in the Ottawa-Gatineau region increased by 73.6 per cent between 2006 and 2016, according to Statistics Canada, but that's not reflected in top-level jobs. Labour force participants of African descent tend to be overrepresented among health care workers, as well as those employed in either manufacturing or sales and service jobs. Canadian workers with African roots are underrepresented in management jobs.

As such, our struggle continues and it stands to reason, that we would still need a month to remind ourselves − and remind Canada − that the quest for equity and the promise of equality are ideals still to be pursued. And, as I reflect on Black history month, I ponder, "when will we ever get there?"

About the author

Gérard Étienne

Gérard Étienne

Vice President - Diversity and Inclusion

Prior to joining the IOG, he worked as Vice-President Operations for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency. I was accountable for providing national leadership and management for the development and implementation of national operational policies, practices and processes for the delivery of a multi-faceted comprehensive, cohesive and integrated science-based policy and regulatory inspection and audit regime for the agricultural, fish and seafood, and agri-food sectors.

He has completed his comprehensive exams for a Ph.D. in Industrial Relations. Université de Montréal. (thesis pending). In addition, he has an M.B.A. Financial Services. Université du Québec à Montréal; a Master of Industrial Relations. Université du Québec à Hull; a Master of Education. University of Ottawa; a Bachelor of Social Sciences. University of Ottawa; a Bachelor of Administration. University of Ottawa. He was conferred the designation of Fellow of the Institute of Canadian Bankers, with honours and he has a, Certificate in Public Sector Leadership and Governance, from the University of Ottawa, Center for Public Management and Policy.

He is passionate about diversity, human rights, employment equity.

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