Volume 92, Issue 70

Tuesday, February 2, 1999


Reclaiming the past with Canadian history in mind

Reclaiming the past with Canadian history in mind

By Jael Lodge
Gazette Staff

Pop quiz: who was Laura Secord? OK, if that was easy, then who was Richard Pierpoint? Like Laura Secord, he was a figure in the War of 1812. Although his role was raising a corps of soldiers which represented almost a third of their demographic population the time – he was also black.

Black History Month began yesterday and traditionally it has been the American black figures who are emphasized – Malcolm X, Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr.. Canada has a long history of black settlement, but some are concerned much of this history stands at risk of being lost forever.

Steve Pitt is a Toronto freelance writer who has done research in black military history. In 1987, while studying to be a minister, he did a placement in the Jane and Finch area of Toronto – a neighborhood with a black population of approximately 25 per cent.

"The children were being told in school that Canadian history and especially Ontario history, was essentially white history," Pitt says. "Yet, at the same time I was a member of the Ontario Historical Society and I was reading articles that said that over 20 per cent of United Empire Loyalists were not white.

"There was a regiment of black Loyalists fighting for Canada and yet all those kids in Jane and Finch knew nothing about these soldiers."

The regiment Pitt refers to is the Coloured Corps of Upper Canada, a tiny regiment in the War of 1812 composed of free black men employed as artificers which was an engineering unit responsible for building military fortifications. Most of the men were in their 50s or 60s and like the regiment's founder Richard Pierpoint, were veterans of the American revolutionary war.

Although the regiment was small, about 30 men at the time of the War of 1812, there were only about 100 free blacks in Upper Canada at the time. "If the white Canadians had responded to Upper Canada's call to arms with the same enthusiasm as the black Loyalists, the British Army could have stayed at home and Brock could have defended this colony with only his Canadian militia," Pitt says.

It took Pitt several years to piece together the story of the Coloured Corps. "Trying to put a face on the Coloured Corps is like trying to put an abandoned spider web back together. I've been working on this for over 10 years now and every now and then I find a tiny thread here and a tiny thread there but the complete picture is nowhere to be found."

Others have felt the same frustration in trying to piece together southwestern Ontario's black history. Susan Dunlop, the curator of the Wellington County Museum and Archives in Fergus, Ontario, faced such difficulty in 1997 when the museum compiled an exhibit on the subject in conjunction with the Guelph Civic Museum. A primary problem was many of the records were from white missionaries.

"It's kind of a frustrating exhibit because many fugitive slaves were illiterate and records came from missionaries. Most black writings come from a later date," Dunlop says. "There are a lot of holes."

Dunlop notes the exhibit depended on community donations in terms of records and photos to document the time. "We didn't feel that we had the authority to do it without community involvement," she says. "I viewed this exhibit, not as an authoritative view, but as the preliminary steps to finding the information, artifacts and photographs or documents. We weren't trying to take a 'pretty' view."

Although exhibits such as this are attempting to reclaim parts of history, there is concern in the education system about the future of all history as the subject becomes downgraded in teaching importance.

"There's a lot less emphasis in the curriculum on people things," says Rob Bondy, a history teacher at London's Central Secondary School. "It's more technology things now."

Twenty years ago, continues Bondy, the introduction of a unit on black history into the curriculum by the London Board of Education (now called the Thames Valley District School Board) was considered an innovative move. Now the course which incorporates this unit is only offered every two years.

"There's not a lot of drive for it," Bondy says, pointing out that in other geographic areas this can differ. Added to this, any black history taught usually focuses on American history, strictly on the basis of amount of information available. Most Canadian black history taught is about Canada's role as the end of the Underground Railway.

Today, Bondy notes, most black history taught in London is in a geography class as a demographic or in sociology through the study of racism.

Although Western does not currently offer a course specifically in the area of black history, there have been a number of graduate students who have pursued the topic, says Roger Hall, a professor of history at Western. At an undergraduate level, the topic forms part of survey courses in North American history. "In American history, it is a major theme. In Canadian, a minor one," Hall says.

What Western does have, however, is what Hall describes as one of the best collections of primary and secondary resources on Black history in Canada. The J.J. Tallman Regional Collection in Weldon Library, put together by Fred Landon, a former history teacher and chief librarian, consists of scrapbooks and files from Landon's own research.

However, the resources are more suitable to graduate work and there is a lack of material suitable for undergraduate courses. "If someone had such an interest [in teaching such a course], we would be delighted to offer it," Hall says.

"All I can say about the public school system is that it has been disastrous," Hall continues, adding incoming first-year students have little knowledge of history at all but black history in particular. "How can you participate in a country when you don't know its history?"

Pitt is concerned not only in the loss of history, but also the whitewashing of it. "I have always been interested in 'hidden' history. For example, we are just finding out about what happened to native children in the residential schools during the middle of this century or the British orphans who were sent to Canada in the late 19th and early 20th century. For years, Canadians were told only propaganda about what was happening to these children but now the truth is finally coming out. I think it is essential to our national mental health to uncover these stories to make sure that facts replace mythology.

"Like most Canadians, I had been raised on the smug notion that Canada was the promised land for escaping slaves," Pitt continues. "In the late 18th century, however, Upper Canada was a slave-owning colony and few saw anything wrong with it."

Pitt emphasizes how the loss of history is a loss not only to black Canadians. "I do not see Richard Pierpoint and his all-black unit as 'black history' which must be separated from 'white history.' When stories like the Coloured Corps remain hidden, it is a loss for every Canadian."

Tony Samuels, a Bell Mobility systems analyst in Toronto, has taken a personal interest in the educational gap by building a web site highlighting the role of black history in Canada. "My original intention was to provide another source for information other than the Canadian public school system which tends to avoid the topic except for the American slavery issues," he says.

The web site, located at www.niica.on.ca/csonan, has thus far proved a success, with email replies from places such as Somalia, Australia, Great Britain and the United States. Samuels also received a request to visit a school in Manitoba to discuss his research. "There are so many instances of neglected contributions to Canadian history that I decided that instead of complaining about it, I should do something about it."

Samuels points to Canada's traditional sources of mainstream culture, the French and the English, as a source of ignorance over ethnic contributions to Canadian history. He says the old ideals and values were something passed through generations of political power and are something which still exist. He adds influence for change is not coming from the government and education system.

"If real changes were being made then there would be some type of government body set up to investigate and then rewrite our Canadian history the way it actually occurred and not just on British and French interests, but including all ethnic groups."

Instead, it has been up to families and information networks to promote this kind of education, Samuels says.

Like Pitt, the history Samuels emphasizes is not simply black or white, but human. "We are missing a type of unity which is needed to ensure a pluralism where human existence is concerned.

"Until we define ourselves as one species – human – then we are destined to hate and build the characteristics which create xenophobia. We are human and nothing else."

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Copyright The Gazette 1999