On Joy


Toronto / February 2024

How far have we come in these past four years when global consciousness was reawakened to the persistent and enduring legacy and practice of anti-Black racism, when for more than nine minutes we watched on television the snuffing out of breath from a Black man by the knee of a uniformed white policeman.

In the first year following this traumatizing action and many more before and since, we saw a flurry of public statements from all corners of our society, from corporations, to public institutions, to government and elected officials, and to our non-profit sector. There were commitments made to addressing anti-Black racism. Representation (on corporate and public institution Boards of Directors) became the buzzword. The ‘whataboutism’ noises of protest around the creation of the Confronting anti-Black racism initiative at the City of Toronto became muted. And the rallying cry of ‘Black Lives Matter” was not met with eye-rolling and the comeback of ‘all lives matter’.

Diversity. Equity. Inclusion DEI: Three words on the lips of everyone, with a flurry of hiring of staff to lead this work in organizations and learning institutions particularly, although there appeared to be varying meanings of what that work would and should entail. And BIPOC, the shortened term for Black, Indigenous, People of Colour, rolled off the tongues of every broadcaster and elected official it seems.

“Its Black People Time”, many of us in the African diaspora joked knowingly, a particular humour born of historical experience. We have been here before. And before. And before. Lots of words, little action, nothing changes. In the meantime, this window of awareness and political openness should strategically be used.

We witnessed Black civil servants in the federal government begin to speak up about the persistent experiences of racism they faced. From Justice to Immigration, report after report documented the negative experiences - lack of respect. Training new hires who are non-Black and watching them get promoted while Black staff were overlooked with all their qualifications, knowledge and experience for promotions. There were explicit examples of racist tropes promoted which informed public policy. Stereotypes about Black workers proliferated with one IRCC report noting that the area in an office where a number of Black employees happen to sit close together was called “the ghetto” by their managers.

As I read these reports and engaged in discussions with other Black activists and advocates as we crafted strategies to optimize the opportunity that the political moment created, we were all agreed on one thing: there must be material changes the lived experiences of Black communities for this moment to have real meaning.

For people like me working in non-profit sectors and having a good sense of the challenges faced by agencies and groups working to uplift their communities and their people, funding became a priority. OCASI, as a non-Black organization (although with Black leadership), saw our role as supporter and advocate for ideas and plans and initiatives generated by others in Black communities. Federally we supported the establishment of the Supporting Black Communities Initiatives- a capacity building fund for 3Bs (Black mandated, Black led and Black serving) agencies and groups across the country.

A dynamic group of young Black people with geographic and linguistic representation from across Canada came together to advocate for a national endowment fund for Black communities and their organizations. Discussions of such a fund was happening in other quarters as well. Black corporate leaders (the Bay street crowd) were also in support of such a fund. And there was much debate and discussion internal to the Black community about which group should be in control of such a fund, but no disagreement about the need for the fund or the priorities - it should fund- entrepreneurs and non-profit service and capacity building initiatives. The evidence was clear. Less than 0.03 percent of philanthropic giving by the top ten private and public foundations went to Black-led organizations.

The COVID health pandemic was raging, and the push for the collection of disaggregated race-based data, spearheaded by Black leadership in the community health sector and health research institutes reinforced the narratives we were hearing on the ground. Primarily Black and racialized immigrants were bearing the brunt of the pandemic. More evidence for Black-focused public policies and funding.

After more than two years of concentrated political lobbying and advocacy (OCASI is proud of the role we played in using our platform to support this effort) the fund was established and I was pleased to see their first call for proposals go out in 2023. It is an effort we should all support.

I am very clear however that this isn’t nearly enough. The material changes we are looking for in the lives of Black Canadians have not materialized. Data and experience tell us that as a community we are still over-represented in poverty numbers – Black people make up just under ten percent of Toronto’s population but are forty percent of Toronto Housing tenant population. Our children are over-represented in the child welfare system, and we know that over-policing in our communities – in spite of the political victory of having police carding (stop and frisk in another name) banned in Ontario – results in the over-representation of Black men particularly in the prison system.

Our Black students who are graduating from post-secondary institutions are not finding work commensurate with their education even as second and third (and longer) generation Canadians.

Racism – and anti-Black racism in particular is pernicious and persistent. And Black people and their communities are fed up with lip service. With surface sentiments like renaming a street or square or building while African refugee claimants are being turned away from shelters to sleep on concrete sidewalks beside the ever increasing numbers of old and not so old houseless Black people.

Why this rant? It’s the beginning of Black History/Futures month as I sit down to write this, I’m watching the pushback begin against any and all initiatives attempting to address racism, especially anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racisms.

We are witnessing the rise of a conservative movement steeped in misinformation and promoting a xenophobic and racist ideology where any attempt to correct historical and current racist practices is met with skepticism and a call for a reassertion of white supremacism called by many other names.

We are beginning to hear echoes here in Canada of the discourse happening south of our border of ‘the great replacement theory’ where there is belief that immigration from the geopolitical south is meant to replace white people in North America and Europe. We hear dog whistling of this as we as a country face increasingly difficult economic times. Instead of blaming late capitalism and the greed of the corporate class we blame international students, the majority who are racialized and migrant workers, the majority who are Black.

We have much work to do to stem the rising tide of racism and the undoing of the gains we’ve made over the years.

I didn’t intend to write about all of the above especially this month, as I’ve committed to concentrating on joy. Black joy. Afro futurism. It’s a commitment I’ve renewed after listening to my daughters and granddaughter talk about why they wouldn’t be rushing out to see movies that foreground the suffering of Black people, the only narratives that seem to keep the attention and money of the white gaze. All three simply stated, they are tired and fed up with seeing only Black pain on the screen. They want stories of Black lives that mirror their own and the people they know and love: Ordinary everyday stories of love, life and play in all their complexities.

While I strongly believe in the concept of Sankofa (see January’s rant in OITF), I’m taking only the positives from our past as a people of the African diaspora. The liberatory songs that carried my ancestors through their dawn to dusk unpaid workdays. The brilliant ingenuity that resulted in our collective survival and the creation of thriving communities. The truth telling of our narratives and the resistance and consistent march forward toward liberation and freedom.

Oh freedom
Oh freedom
Oh freedom over me…

Join me in the creation of Joy in every place and space we find ourselves.

In Solidarity!