Photo Credit: The Environics Institute
Photo Credit: The Environics Institute

Despite recent media attention given to civil rights groups like Black Lives Matter, the majority of Torontonians do not know about the struggles, contributions and rich history of Black people that has been vital to the city’s development.

Black Canadians have lived and conducted business in Toronto ever since the coming of the Loyalists in the 1800s. Partly due to institutionalized discrimination, many Black people historically lived in disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the city, such as Jane and Finch.

Yet, in the face of adversity, many members of the Black community persevered and made something of themselves—they went on to become teachers, professionals and productive members of the city. Indeed, in recent history, Mark Saunders has become the first Black police chief of Toronto.

Black history needs to be documented. Ryerson University, in partnership with United Way, has taken up this endeavour by creating the Black Experience Project (BEP). Launched in 2014, BEP aims to document and celebrate the diverse personal stories and contributions of Black Canadians in the city.

To date, over 270 individuals have taken part in the research study. The aim of the study is to “capture the diversity [of Black people]” in a “respectful way” that fosters “community building.” Community groups such as the Jamaican Canadian Association and Black Artists Network Dialogue (BAND) have been actively contributing to the study.

Organizers are aiming to portray a multi-ethnic, complex and nuanced narrative of the experience of being Black in Toronto. In the study, participants were asked to answer the question, “What does it mean to be Black?” Here are some of their answers:

“Blackness to me is a mentality, it is not based on a shade,” states Tina Garnett, a Human Resource Specialist.

Kingsley Hurbs, a social worker, notes that “being  Black in the GTA means that you are an endangered species.”

Interestingly, Salema Amsa, a medical esthetician, states that being Muslim influenced her Black experience in a major way. “Being Black has not been as evident until I’ve decided to wear the hijab.”

The project is still in its working stages and it is going to be completed shortly. It is possible for University of Toronto students and other members of the city to participate in the study and be part of this exciting human history by visiting the BEP website.

By understanding the experiences of the Black community, members of the city will be better able to respond to social issues affecting Black Torontonians, such as alleged incidents of carding and racism. Projects such as BEP enable us to celebrate our differences, which make up Toronto’s cultural mosaic.

It is the responsibility of all of us to look out for each other and learn about the diverse communities that make up our great city.

To learn more about the project, check out its profile on environicsinstitute.org.

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