However, Augustine lamented the perception among many Canadians that slavery and segregation were purely American phenomenons.
“If they know anything at all, it might be the underground railroad and that Canada was a place where refuge was given to a number of people running from the U.S.,” she said during a keynote speech at the Black History Month gala at Shell Place on Feb. 22.
But in fact, the first slaves arrived in Canada in the early 17th century. The majority of the enslaved were brought to Montreal. Slavery across the British Empire, including Canada, was abolished in 1833.
“They don’t know we had slavery in Canada, that people were bought and sold right here in Canada,” she said. “Sometimes we carry the myth that this is such a haven, that all the negative things happened in the U.S. and not Canada. We need young people to know our history, we need young people to understand.”
Speaking at a Shell Place ballroom on Feb. 22, former MP Jean Augustine celebrated the achievements and struggles of black Canadians across Canada.
From the fields of athletics and academia, to homesteaders and veterans, former MP Jean Augustine said there was much for Canadians to celebrate.
“In churches, in schools, in the media, in municipalities and corporate bodies everywhere, we now in February celebrate the black presence in the Canadian mosaic,” she said.
The event was filled with speakers from Fort McMurray’s African and Caribbean communities, sharing stories of what life in Canada meant to them.
“I’m not saying that on a global scale the way to end racism is to get in a circle and sing kumbaya, but it’s not overly complicated either,” said Kuda Simbi in a speech after she performed the poem On the Pulse of Morning by Maya Angelou.
“Do not allow anyone to pull you so low as to make you hate yourself. Do not allow anyone to cause you to lose your self-respect to the point that you do not struggle for justice,” she said. “However young you are, you have a responsibility to seek to make your nation a better nation to live.”
Laila Goodridge, UCP MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin, told guests about John Ware, who was born into slavery in South Carolina and arrived in Alberta after working with cattle in Texas following the Civil War.
Ware was one of the first cowboys to bring cattle to Alberta and popularized steer wrestling. His physical strength, as well as his skills on the ranch and in the wilderness, made him a local folk hero.
“It is rumoured that when he died, it was the biggest funeral Calgary had ever seen at that point. He was born into slavery and he died a folk hero in Alberta,” she said. “I am proud to be an Albertan and have people like John Ware having paved the road.”
David Yurdiga, MP for Fort McMurray-Cold Lake, reminded guests that black settlers from Oklahoma created Amber Valley, a settlement in Athabasca County nearly 280 kilometres south of Fort McMurray.
“We all celebrated and worked together, we went to church together,” he said. “One thing I will always remember were the words of my father, and that is all the problems in the world would go away if we treated everyone like family.”