Canadian Black history illuminated in new four-part docuseries

 “BLK: An Origin Story” tells the stories of the unsung heroes, segregation and enslavement in a nation that’s propagated a half-truth tale of refuge and equity

A four-part docuseries from the History Channel and Hungry Eyes Media shatters Canada’s image as a safe harbor utopia for Black people and elucidates the little-known stories of trailblazing Black Canadians who helped build the nation. 

The role of Black Canadians and their communities in Canada is something that producers of the series BLK: An Origin Story say has largely been ignored as a key part of Canada’s history. That’s despite the fact that Black people have been there since the early 1600s when explorer Mathieu Da Costa set foot on Canada’s shores.

Nova Scotia – BLK An Origin Story (Photo-Rafy Winterfeld)

Since the 1800s, Canada has been synonymous with the idea of freedom for Black refugees from slavery. But, what’s not as well known is that both the British and French had been keeping people enslaved for more than 200 years before the nation abolished the cruel institution in 1834. 

“People have this idea that Canada is this kinder, gentler space where no racism happens, but there is a lot of racism. All the same things happen here in Canada, segregation, racist policies, you know, mortgage or housing discrimination, the criminal justice system,” executive producer Jennifer Holness told theGrio.   

“We’re [Canada] only now acknowledging and understanding that Black folks have gone through the ropes, through the wire. And so what was being taught was not that fulsome Black Canadian history, because we got very little of it. Now that’s changing and we’re some of the people I think that are helping to change it,” she said. 

BLK: An Origin Story which premieres later this month, also when Canada observes Black History month, elevates stories like those of the fierce Jamaican Maroons who were instrumental in building Halifax, Nova Scotia. They did agricultural work, built roads and highways, and reconstructed the third iteration of the Halifax Citadel.

After demanding better working and living conditions from the British, the Maroons left Canada in 1800, just four years after their arrival. They resisted colonial pressures from the British and preserved their freedom against all odds. Despite their short time in Canada, the Maroons left a lasting cultural legacy.

The docuseries shares dynamic untold history with the hope of inspiring a new generation. Each episode introduces viewers to a different Canadian location including Nova Scotia, Ontario, British Columbia and Quebec, providing significant insights into the impact that Black people have made in these areas. 

“When we were growing up [in Canada] there was very little mention of Black history. But if it was, it was pretty traumatizing because we would have to see some films about things like the Underground Railroad and how we’re basically only slaves or victims or what have you,” said executive producer Sudz Sutherland.

“We wanted to make a film that wouldn’t retraumatize Black students, you know, but be something that they could draw inspiration from,” he told theGrio.

In exploring these unknown stories of Black Canadians from the 1600s to present, this series aims to show that Black history is Canadian history.

“We were always interested in this Black Canadian history because you can’t move forwards if you don’t know your history. It’s important for Black people to know that they have taken up space and contributed to this country,” said Holness.

During the last several years, the Canadian government has begun to do more to recognize people and dates that are important to Black Canadian history. 

“BLK: An Origin Story” (Photo: Rafy Winterfeld)

In 2018, civil rights activist Viola Desmond became the first Black person to appear on Canadian currency. She’s also the first woman to appear alone who’s not a British royal. Her face is on the country’s $10 bill. Desmond, a Black businesswoman from Nova Scotia, stood at the forefront of Canada’s early civil rights movement when she refused to vacate the whites-only area of a theater in 1946.

In 2021, Canada officially recognized Aug. 1 as Emancipation Day. It marks the actual day in 1834 that the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 came into effect across the British Empire.

“This is not just a history of racism, a history of being victimized, but a history of people doing the best they can and making a way out of no way and overcoming incredible odds. That’s our story,” said Sutherland. 

“I want people to understand that these stories take place all over the diaspora. Canada is just now one place that’s saying, ‘hey, look at us over here, we’re your cousins, we’re your Canadian cousins over here.’ We’re part of the story,” he said. “Our histories are interlinked.” 

BLK: An Origin Story, premieres on Feb. 26th on the History Channel.

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