Dear Black Americans, Canada isn’t the Black haven you think it is.

“… I know the difference between a patriot and a n*gger.” That is how someone ended an email sent to Canadian singer Jully Black. It was in response to her changing a simple word while singing the Canadian national anthem at the NBA All-Star Weekend in Utah last month. This type of language may be shocking to many, especially my Black American friends who very rarely get to see this side of Canadian society.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard my Black American friends say that they want to run away to Canada. While I’ve had this same conversation with Black folks from all over the globe, there seems to be a distinct difference. Friends from countries in the Caribbean usually talk about immigrating because of the supposed benefits and greater access to resources that Canada has to offer. But with my American friends, there seems to be this impression that migrating to Canada will free them of the anti-Blackness and state-sanctioned violence they face in the US. I don’t blame them. Canada has done an amazing job of positioning itself as the real land of the free. The Canadian propaganda machine has been working hard for over 300 years and whether it’s the rest of the world or its own citizens, everyone seems to be drinking the Kool-Aid.

As a Canadian myself I can tell you that indoctrination starts early. The first thing I remembered learning about Black history in elementary school was the underground railroad. Like most, I learned about Harriet Tubman and her home in St. Catherines, and how she brought hundreds to freedom in the north. Our north. Teachers were always so excited to share just how free those enslaved Africans were once they got here. How Canada was the only place that they could be safe and how we as a country took them in and gave them a home. What was conveniently left out was that at the same time, African Americans were fleeing to the north, and African Canadians were fleeing to the northern states south of the border. See we had slavery too, despite popular belief, and while Upper Canada “ended” slavery in 1793, it was only for individuals over the age of 25. That may sound like some kind of respite for those of African descent enslaved in the British colony, however, it didn’t offer much comfort when their life expectancy was, 25 years. I know this might be blowing your mind because it blew mine too when I first learned about it at an age when many Black people on these lands didn’t get to live past. What surprised me, even more, was to learn that Montreal, not the one you see today, was supposedly burnt down by an enslaved African woman named Angelique as she tried to escape. While we’re doing an early Canadian history lesson, I can’t continue without mentioning the violence met against the inhabitants of Africville. A resilient community in the Mi’kmaq territory of Nova Scotia made up of the descendants of Black Loyalists, Maroons, and the enslaved/formerly enslaved. If the race riots and segregation weren’t violent enough, white city officials and politicians built a prison (1853), an infectious disease hospital (1870), a slaughterhouse, and eventually a town dump (1958), all on the border of the community. After surviving all of these injustices Africville was destroyed and its residents forcibly relocated between 1964 and 1967. 

Now you may say, that was all in the past! Canada has done a great job over the years of becoming more “multicultural” and creating safe spaces for Black people. In particular, people love to highlight how diverse and accepting provinces like Ontario and Quebec are, especially Toronto and Montreal. Would you be surprised to learn that Ontario too, was segregated until 1964? Yes, segregated schools, stores, and neighborhoods. And while the world has highlighted the Jim Crow era of the southern United States, Canada’s own violent segregation has been intentionally swept under the rug. We also are quite accustomed to Black liberation events, reframed by the public as race riots. The Computer Riots of 1969 at Sir William George University saw 200 students locked in the institution’s computer lab where a fire was set, almost killing them. 97 students were arrested, predominantly Black Caribbean, and Coralee Hutchison, a Black Bahamian student, was killed due to police violence. In 1992 Black people living in Toronto took to downtown Yonge street in a protest against police brutality towards their community. While Black folks were expressing their outrage in solidarity with those in LA over the Rodney King verdict, they had pain of their own. Two days earlier 22-year-old Jamaican immigrant Raymond Lawrence had been brutally murdered by a white plainclothes officer. A few weeks prior to this, two white peel police officers were acquitted of killing unarmed 17-year-old Michael Wade Lawson. What if I told you that Raymond and Michael weren’t the last Black people to lose their lives at the hands of the police? That there have been close to 40 since the 70s, and those are only the names that we know. Just recently a police officer was convicted for assaulting a 19-year-old named Dafonte Miller, with a pipe that led to the removal of his eye. Police brutality is just as present here as it is anywhere else.

I wish I could tell you our healthcare system was better, more accessible, and free of institutionalized discrimination. I wish I could comfort fellow Black women by saying that childbirth would be safer here. The reality is similar, if not the same, forms of racial inequality can be found even in our “universal” healthcare system. A study done in 2015 by students at McGill University found “that 8.9 percent of infants born in Canada to Black parents were born preterm, compared to 5.9 percent of white babies.” Unfortunately, due to everyone’s favorite “color-blind” approach, we still don’t have the data on Black mother mortality rates. Healthcare related racism has also been an issue plaguing Black Canadians for years. A recent study done in September of 2022 and submitted to the Journal of Urban Health found that “Sixty percent of participants reported experiencing racism in the past 12 months.” These statistics might sound eerily familiar to that of research found in the United States and even the United Kingdom. 

This all may be new to you, I know it was for me. The older I got the more I realized that Canada wasn’t the promised land I was taught about. The tolerant and accepting nation that opened its arms to enslaved runaways, was just as much a prison for enslaved Africans here, as it was for them in the US. Canada is like a mirage in the middle of the Sahar desert. It shimmers and shines in the distance as it waves a friendly hand, telling you that you can rest there. So many Black migrants come here based on that illusion, because what can be more appealing than a place free from racism and state-sanctioned violence? A place filled with an abundance of opportunities and a space carved out just for you. I’ll be honest, I want to believe in that place too. I won’t negate the amazing work so many Black Canadians have done to try and make that illusion real. The lives sacrificed for Black liberation in a place that was trying to snuff them out, bury the bodies, and then sell a story of love and freedom to silence those screaming out for justice. But I need to be honest with you. I need you to know the truth before you also make the run for freedom because you won’t find it here. What you will find are beautiful Black communities filled with love, but who are also just as tired and fight just as hard as you are against the very same things you’re running from – white supremacy. 

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