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The following statement was issued today by the Ontario Federation of Labour.
As millions celebrate February as Black History Month, they will also be marking an important milestone in the movement to abolish slavery: the 100 year anniversary of the passing of abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery, Tubman escaped before dedicating her life to the freedom of all Black people. She led thirteen missions to personally rescue more than 70 slaves and served as a central figure in a network of anti-slavery activists. The history of the courageous activism of these early abolitionists is closely tied with Canada through the creation of the legendary Underground Railroad – a sophisticated and expansive network of allies, secret routes and safe houses that swept fugitive slaves to safety in free states and Canada throughout the 19th century.
Upper Canada's historic passing of the Anti Slavery Act in 1793 made it a destination for thousands of Blacks who settled in communities from Windsor to Toronto and from Niagara to Owen Sound. They contributed to Ontario’s society as farmers, teachers, preachers, household servants, business owners, and sawmill and dock workers. As time progressed, so too did their political and economic gains.
However, two hundred and twenty years after Canada formally abolished slavery, a legacy of discrimination and the struggle for equality continues.
"Workers of colour in Ontario continue to earn only eighty-one cents on the dollar and racialized women earn far less," said OFL President Sid Ryan. "The wage gains that many feel are long overdue are being jeopardized by government cuts to jobs and social programs. There is no question that austerity measures are hitting racialized people the hardest."
According to the most recent census data, 2.5 percent of the Canadian population -- nearly 800,000 people -- identify themselves as black and 60 percent of those have made Ontario their home. However, racialized families continue to be two to four times as likely to live on incomes below the low income cut-off and in some communities, one in two racialized children are living in poverty.
"African and Caribbean Blacks have made enormous contributions to Ontario’s society and economy," said OFL Executive Vice-President Irwin Nanda. "We have an incredible heritage of Black activism in Ontario that has challenged racism, prejudice and discrimination and people of all races have an obligation to honour that history by remembering it, teaching it and living it."
The acknowledgment of February as Black History Month draws its history from early American celebrations that gained formal recognition in 1978. However, it wasn't until 1995 that Black History Month gained status in formal Canada through a motion in the House of Commons. The Ontario Federation of Labour will be joining Black History Month celebrations by co-hosting two events with labour unions and community partners. The first, called “Where is Our Obama?” is an intergeneration dialogue on race and racism in Canadian politics and the second is a celebration of the history of the Steelpan. Details of both events can be found on the OFL website. Among the many Black community activists who will be celebrated and remembered by the labour movement this month are Ontario’s Zanana Akande, June Veecock, Fred Upshaw, Rosemary Brown, Dudley Laws and Charles Roach.
"The OFL is reaffirming its commitment to educational and community development work within the labour movement and the broader society to counteract racism and strengthen the demand for an end to systemic discrimination," said Ryan. "Until everyone in our communities are free from poverty, violence and the social ills that are the by-product of racism, none of us can call ourselves free. It is past the time for words. Now is a time for action."
The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) represents 54 unions and one million workers in Ontario. For information, visit www.OFL.ca and follow the OFL on Facebook and Twitter: @OFLabour. Follow OFL President Sid Ryan on Twitter @SidRyan_OFL