By Sara Austin
As we celebrate Black History Month this year, I’m reminded that every child has the right to a life free from discrimination of any form. Although this right is enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, this is far from being a reality for many Black children and their families.
Children First Canada is known for telling the uncomfortable truth. And this is one of them. While many Canadians like to believe racism is only a problem south of the border, that simply isn’t true. Canada has a centuries-long history of slavery, racial segregation and cultural genocide that continues to affect the lives of children and youth today. The impact on children’s well-being is so devastating that our Raising Canada 2020 report identified systemic racism and discrimination as one of the top 10 threats to childhood.
Last October – in the wake of anti-Black racism protests around the world – the Young Canadians’ Parliament (YCP) held a virtual event to address anti-Black racism in Canada. Participants learned how to stand in solidarity with Black youth and talked about the history of slavery and systemic racism in our nation. Black youth also learned how to advocate for themselves to ensure their voices are heard and their rights are respected.
The event began with a presentation by Wes Hall, a prominent corporate executive and the founder of the Canadian Council of Business Leaders Against Anti-Black Systemic Racism and the BlackNorth Initiative. Wes shared his personal journey of overcoming tremendous obstacles in his childhood, his rise to the upper echelons of the business community, and his motivation for addressing the systemic barriers that negatively affect Black Canadians.
The YCP event also included a panel discussion with Black parliamentarians, along with breakout sessions led by Black adults and youth. This open format led to powerful and challenging conversations that needed to take place. When one youth asked what is wrong with being colour blind, it sparked an honest conversation with Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard – an African Nova Scotian and highly regarded social worker, educator, researcher, community activist and advocate of social change. Sharing her perspective – that if you say you don’t see colour, you don’t see me – helped to open the hearts and minds of everyone in the group.
There are some things you just can’t learn from a textbook. We need to hear the lived experiences of Black Canadians – both adults and children – in order to break down the barriers and take action. And we need to hear it from their own voices.
At CFC, we recognize that we are not the experts when it comes to anti-Black racism. But we are committed to creating safe spaces for Black voices to be heard and amplified, and we are just as committed to addressing the systemic racism that Black children and youth experience. In the year ahead, we are working on ways to build better representation and capacity among our leadership, staff and volunteers. We will also continue to strengthen our partnerships with organizations led by Black, Indigenous and other people of colour.
Systemic racism prevents children from experiencing their rights to survival and development, and it keeps them from reaching their full potential. How can we achieve our vision of making Canada the best place in the world for kids to grow up when a large portion of our youngest citizens continues to face daily obstacles? The future of children in Canada starts with the decisions we make today. But the voices of Black children and their families must be heard when those decisions are being made.
Sara Austin is the founder and CEO of Children First Canada.