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Do Black migrant lives matter in Canada?

Toronto’s Peter Street has become a kind of shame, evidence of the lie that Canada is a benevolent and welcoming place

Canadian PoliticsHuman Rights

A painting by artist Richard Rudnick of Black Refugees arriving in Halifax from the United States in 1814. The image is included in the Lord Dalhousie Panel’s scholarly report. Image courtesy of Dalhousie University.

Canada has always had a hard time providing support for Black and African refugees. So it should surprise no one that 200 asylum seekers were left to sleep on the pavement outside of Toronto’s shelter intake office at 129 Peter Street this month, ostensibly to wait for a “bureaucratic tug-of-war” between various levels of government to end and for emergency shelter spaces to open up. This cruel episode is a stain on our false sense of exceptionalism. It recalls Canada’s long history of racial segregation and institutional hostility to Black refugees. It also exposes contemporary Toronto as living evidence of a long history of Canada’s recalcitrant toleration of some Black refugees. Let me explain.

Knowing what I know I have always been curious about the celebration of Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, the ultimate refugee story in which Canada plays a central role. It has sold over 500,000 copies in Canada and over 800,000 worldwide. The success of The Book of Negroes in Canada, specifically, reflects the strangeness of the Canadian national imagination. The novel is partly based on the actual Book of Negroes document that recorded the names of those Black Loyalists who escaped to British lines during the American Revolutionary War and were then evacuated to Canada as free people of colour. Why the novel’s celebration is peculir to me is that these original Black refugees mostly did not settle permanently in Canada and instead were eventually repatriated to Africa. I think of and read Hill’s novel as a critique of our founding myths, but his readership seems to think differently. One begins to wonder if the novel is so beloved in Canada because the negroes did not stay? Is the novel’s reception here a part of the psychic manifestation of loving something from a distance? Nova Scotia has a starring role in this saga, with its long history of Black migration accompanied by anti-black racism. Pier 21 was not for Black people—their history in the province is longer than that. But it is present day Toronto that makes me think about the curious imagination of white Canada.

Hill’s lesser-known novel, Any Known Blood, takes up the refugee as a symbol of historical Canada-US race politics. The novel is one that thematizes the links between Black Canada and the US through the story of the Cane family. It recounts Black Canadian history through a return to America, exploring family ties across five generations of Cane men. However, one of the pivotal scenes in the novel occurs when Milicent Cane, an aunt, asserts her Canadian-ness when she smuggles an African “refugee” across the border and back into Canada (recalling in some ways the first Cane to arrive in Canada, who was a refugee fleeing the Fugitive Slave Act). The smuggling of the African migrant in the novel is Hill’s reminder to readers of how Black people have continually entered the colonial space of Canada for hundreds of years—unwanted. What must Canadians deny, ignore or not come to terms with to not see the violence that the state directs at Black migrants?

I begin with fiction because it is worth repeating over and over again that Canada’s reputation as a land of refuge is deeply misleading. Indeed, Canada’s imagination of itself stands in direct opposition to a mountain of evidence that tells a very different story. Lawrence Hill’s father, Daniel G. Hill, was the first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and wrote an important book called The Freedom-Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada, which documents the long history of Black people seeking refuge and freedom in Canada and either leaving or being forced to continue to fight and struggle for personhood and dignity. What is astounding about both the history and the fiction by the Hills is that what we are witnessing on the streets of Toronto could be taken directly from their work. There is something disquieting about Canada that is rarely commented on. This country has a long story of Black migration and settlement. That story is long in years, but short in its telling. It is clear Black people are not wanted here. Nonetheless, despite the odds, we persist in remaining in Canada—but that is beating the odds, a kind of gamble rather than a genuine embrace.

Whether we are thinking of the Black Loyalists, those fleeing the Fugitive Slave Act, the Oklahoma refugees escaping the Ku Klux Klan, 1960s draft dodgers, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Somalis, Black queer people and HIV positive people, Canada has been especially hostile to Black asylum seekers. If you have ever had to write a letter of justification on behalf of a refugee claimant, you know the kind of performative degradation that must be enacted on the page for Black refugee claimants to be given the benefit of the doubt. The place they are fleeing has to be decimated on the page—nothing short of that will aid their cause and case.

The conceit of the West is that it believes it can manage how the world’s people move across this earth. They have moved the psychical borders directly into passports and travel documents with biometrics and other surveillance tools like online entry forms, believing they can preempt travel before it even commences. When migrants slip these new borders and arrive at the psychical ones, it is clear that the policy is to treat them in such a fashion as to send a message of prohibition. Of course, this will not work and will only produce more pain and violence in this world.

It has been relentlessly pointed out by many that the federal and provincial governments have urgently and immediately opened pathways for Ukrainians to not just enter Canada but to attain permanent residency as needed. Canada imagines itself as a white nation, so the Ukrainians get to inherit Canada with a certain ease. The same cannot be said for Black people. To take just one example, the Ontario government created a $300 million fund for Ukrainian settlement in the province. Similarly, the federal government has waived immigration requirements and created new ones that can be exercised well into 2024.

Peter Street in Toronto has become a kind of shame, evidence of the lie that Canada is a benevolent and welcoming place. It is of course welcoming for white migrants. Canada has already brought over more than 160,000 Ukrainians in little over 17 months, yet just over 30,000 Afghans have arrived in Canada since the fall of Kabul, and barely 43,000 Syrians have been resettled here in eight years. Meanwhile, three levels of government squabbled about paying the meagre cost of settling desperate and destitute Black refugees on the streets of Toronto. Failure to see the comparative difference here amounts to complicity in the violence the state is imposing on Black people.

What we are witnessing in Canada is not a glitch in the system. Nothing went wrong. It is policy—written or not, spoken or simply imposed silently. If you visit any of Europe’s metropolises you will see who is living under the bridge, asking for change to get some food, being asked to show their papers by police with machine guns—it is always the Black migrants. Peter Street is Canada’s version of this global tragedy in which Black people are every day told, in no unsubtle terms, that they do not belong, that their lives do not matter, as the lands they are forced to flee are exploited, extracted, and stripped of resources so that the wealthy West can carry on as if all the earth is its inheritance. The rest of the world, however, refuses to simply acquiesce to the proposition.

Rinaldo Walcott is a writer and critic. He is professor and chair of Africana and American Studies at the University of Buffalo (SUNY).

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