Black labour activism and the fight for racial justice

An important part of our labour history and future

Photo of the train wheels on an old box car

The resurgence of the struggles for racial and social justice after the Black liberation uprisings in 2020 have brought the issue of anti-Black racism to the fore. Organizations have responded with a recognition of the long history of systemic racism suffered by Black people. Some have attempted to shy away from the impact the history of injustice in Canada and deflect by pointing criticisms towards the U.S. instead. Others attempted to frame anti-Black racism as a new phenomenon that only occurred after the killing of George Floyd, but that deflection has also been called into question. In Toronto alone, thousands took to the streets to march in solidarity and support of Regis Korchinski-Paquet in the Not Another Black Life march and other vigils and events, after her death during a wellness check by police. Black community activists made clear the connections to police brutality, lack of services and supports, and the disproportionate impacts of COVID-19 on Black people through various avenues and channels in a year that will have a generational impact.

In this critical moment Black community members are blazing new crossroads that engage equity, diversity, inclusion, and dismantling anti-Black racism. In the Canadian landscape, it is important to denote the long history of anti-Black racism and forms of activism and resistance. The responses, reactions, and resistances cannot be treated as though they are new. Black labour and community activists are often treated with newness as though they have not made large contributions to the labour, social, racial, and class movement. In the article, I address the idea of Black invisibility in labour, political, and community responses and highlight the many Black activists who have helped and continue to shape equitable and equal outcomes in all realms of the Canadian experience.

Canada has a long history of systemic anti-Black racism dating back to slavery despite grand narratives of the nation as a place of refuge for Black people. As well, Black Canadians faced various forms of segregation such as segregated schools, athletic teams, and entertainment. For example, civil rights activist, Viola Desmond (1914–1965), refused to leave a Whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in Nova Scotia nine years before Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of a bus. Approximately twelve years before Viola Desmond, Carrie Best and her husband were also arrested for sitting in the Whites-only section of this theatre. This motivated Best to establish The Clarion, a Black newspaper which broke the story of Viola Desmond’s arrest. Black women have a long history of activism and resistance in Canada. Black people also faced segregation in higher education, and they were prohibited from attending medical and other professional schools and professional practices such as nursing until the 1950s. In fact, it was thanks to Dr. A. Pearleen Oliver (1917–2008), founder of the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, that Black people were able to practice nursing. Black presence in Canada dates as far back as Mathieu de Coste in 1608 and as well as the Jamaican Marrons who settled in Nova Scotia in the 16th century. Despite the many forms of Black resistance and long history of Black presence, there is still the prevalence of newness afforded to Black communities, where Black Canadians, no matter how long they live in Canada, are not seen as real Canadians. The connection between Blackness and newness is also afforded to Black community members in the labour movement.

Black labour activists have often tied their union organizing to community organizing. The two are interconnected and where community organizing is often seen as illegitimate, this has been central to the Black Canadian experience. For example, The Black Experience Project (BEP) by Environics noted the high level of activism taking shape through many forms by Black Canadians. Much of the organizing of Black labour and community members have and continues to benefit other communities and groups.

Stanley Grizzle (1918–2016) was born in Toronto to Jamaican parents and growing up his father was the only Black taxi driver in Canada who faced brutal attacks because of his race. Stanley Grizzle went on to be a porter as well for Canada Pacific Railway. Grizzle was elected as president of the Toronto local Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) in 1946 where he fought for better working conditions and racial equity. Grizzle’s union organizing transcended to electoral politics when he and Jack White, of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), became the first Black Canadian candidates to run for election for the Ontario legislature for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (now the New Democratic Party). Stanley Grizzle went on to become the first Black Citizenship Judge in Canada. Some years earlier, it was Black porters in Winnipeg, John A. Robinson, J.W. Barber, B.F. Jones, and P. White who established the Order of Sleeping Car Porters (OSCP) which was the first Black railway union in North America. They negotiated contracts and later joined the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway of Employees (CBRE) in 1919 and fought for the removal of the White-only membership clause in its constitution.

Bromley Armstrong CM, OOnt (1926–2018), was part of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) local 439, went on to become the Ontario Human Rights Commissioner. Armstrong participated in “tests” which were sit-ins coordinated by the Joint Labour Committee to Combat Racial Intolerance and the National Unity Association in Dresden, Ontario was faced with severe anti-Black racism that was captured in media. Bromley’s activism in this and his leadership of anti-discrimination campaigns are what led to Canada’s first anti-discrimination laws. Further, the Ontario government introduced the Fair Employment Practices Act and the Fair Accommodation Act. Like the activism of Black Canadians today, they take multiple forms and avenues and as such Bromley also was very engaged in community activism. He founded several organizations such as the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, the Black Business and Professional Association, the Jamaican Canadian Association, and countless others. This lends to the later social activism of leaders and founders of the Black Action Defense Committee (BADC) like Akua Benjamin, Dudley Laws, Charles Roach, Lennox Farrell, Numvoyo and Brian Hyman, Akilah and Dari Meade, who spoke ought against anti-Black racism and worked to establish police accountability measures such as the Special Investigations Unit, and other race equity justice initiatives. Black activism continues with the organizing of Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) and countless community organizations and groups where people continue the fight to realize racial justice.

Black existence in Canada and later immigration is thanks to the activism of leaders like Donald Moore (1891–1994) who was also a porter for some time and eventually purchased a dry cleaners business located at 318 Spadina Avenue. Moore’s business was a meeting pace for Garveyism organizations in Toronto and various West Indian progressive groups. Moore founded the Negro Citizenship Association and on April 27, 1954 led a contingent of 34 members of this group from various community and labour organizations to Ottawa, including Stanley Grizzle when he was a leader in the BSCP, and secretary of the Negro Citizenship Association. Together this group presented a brief to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration leading to the eventual passing of a less discriminatory 1962 Immigration Act, allowing for non-White citizens to enter the country. This also led to the West Indian Domestic Scheme (WIDS) that was supposed to lead to a path of citizenship for Black Caribbean domestic workers. Later leaders like Sherona Hall (1948–2006), who was also part of BADC, fought against unfair practices against women through the WIDS through an intersectional lens. Hall’s organizing and that of Black women will be centered in part two of this article as Black women in Canada have long been, and continue to be, integral to community and labour activism.

There are countless Black labour and community leaders who have fought to realize racial justice and through doing so have afforded non-Black communities various rights to this day like anti-discrimination laws, non-discriminatory immigration policies that have benefitted many non-Blacks, better police accountability, and the establishment of the Special Investigations Unit, and a blueprint for better and more fair working conditions, just to name a few. Their activism continues to this day with Black labour organizers who continue to lead not only in the labour movement, but through various political, scholarly, community, faith-based, and educational outlets. Though Black presence in Canada is often overlooked, the legacy and ongoing forms of Black resistance are what make life more equitable and fairer for everyone.

About Janelle Brady
Janelle Brady is a Founding Advisor of Progress Toronto. She is a community organizer and activist who looks at dismantling systemic oppression and racism of Black and racialized communities.

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