Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Review: Black Canadians

(Joseph Mensah. Black Canadians: History, Experiences, Social Conditions. Halifax: Fernwood, 2002.)

This book is a multi-disciplinary look at the historical and current realities faced by people of African ancestry in northern North America. Though academic in presentation and densely packed with facts and statistics, it is decently written and quite accessible.

Because my main focus in much of my reading at the moment is history, I was disappointed that the chapter which had that focus was not longer. However, there was also useful (to me) historical and other contextual material sprinkled through the rest of the book. I thought the chapter introducing concepts related to race and racism was well done and accessible, particularly compared to some other academic treatments of racism I've encountered. Though this was not elaborated to the extent that I think it deserves, I thought it was important that the connection between the Canadian state and Black societies in the Carribbean and Africa was seen as an important piece of context to talk about, given the focus of this book -- too many books that look at Canada's history, even from a left perspective, ignore the role of ties with the rest of the world (i.e. Canada's integration into colonialism and imperialism) in the formation of Canada's state and society.

This chapter on history is, as I said, shorter than I would have liked but it still pointed me towards several other sources that may be useful to me. The chapter on geography, as well as the chapter that described the trajectories and experiences of four specific Black groups in Canada (African Nova Scotians, Ghanian Canadians, Jamaican Canadians, Somali Canadians, and Haitian Canadians), contain a lot of information on the history of Canadian immigration policy and the way these decisions by the state have impacted those whose lives are regulated by them. The chapter on the labour market is comprehensive, though I think there are published sources out there with newer data (which, admittedly, tend to focus more on people of colour in general rather than specifically on African Canadians). I was surprised to see the inclusion of a chapter on sport, but it was interesting. (Trivia: In 1914 the Ontario government made boxing matches between Black and white fighters illegal.)

The chapters analyzing Canada's official multiculturalism policy and its employment equity legislation were useful, though the former could have been expanded. The chapter on multiculturalism understandably paid more attention to more mainstream criticisms of the policy than those that are mounted from an anti-racist and leftist perspective, and I thought a fuller presentation of those critiques would have been useful. However, it was useful to me to read the mainstream and right-leaning criticisms of multiculturalism because it was a reminder of how utterly disconnected to what is actually happening such arguments can be while still having a great deal of political power. It is important to encounter such arguments in print now and again to be able to respond to them well when encountered in conversation with family or at the pub. Responding on the spot can be tricky given the extent to which these arguments are detached from the actual effects of multiculturalism; they feel like fantasies based on illusions about the nature of nation, state, and society, and on fear of "other," of loss of privilege, and of just plain ol' change.

The only significant addition I would like to see to this book is a chapter looking in greater detail at some key struggles over the years by Black Canadians to secure and defend their rights. That notwithstanding, this is a very good book and one that every progressive in Canada could benefit from reading, particularly those of us who are white.

[Edit: For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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