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Photo of Dr. David Este. // Photo by Fernando Moreno.

Black power and disillusionment in Canada

By Fernando David Moreno, April 6 2020—

Although Black History Month has come and gone, it is important to bring light to the ongoing year-round efforts to bring the knowledge of black history into the mainstream of Canadian knowledge. On Feb. 25, David Este treated the audience to a remarkable perspective on race relations and racial justice in the 21st  century.

Este opened by dedicating the event to Walter Rodney, a Guyanese intellectual and scholar who is “one of the most brilliant minds to come out of the Caribbean,” according to Este. Rodney is known for publishing a renowned work called “How Europe Underdeveloped Africa.” It’s a Marxist interpretation of how white Europeans “stripped and destroyed” the continent of Africa. Este had the opportunity to listen to Rodney in the late ‘70s  when he was completing his master’s dissertation in African-American and African-Canadian history at the African Slavery conference at the University of Waterloo. 

“Dr. Rodney was not your typical academic,” said Este, adding that, sadly, Rodney was assassinated in Guyana in 1980.

“When we talk about civil rights, we automatically think the United States. Well, my good friends, Canada had an active vibrant civil rights movement,” said Este. 

The main points of the movement were Toronto, Halifax and Montreal. In 1968, Montreal hosted the Congress of Black Writers. Este quotes renowned historian Robin Kelley “which featured a generation of revolutionaries envisioning liberation rooted in self-determination, socialism and soul.” 

It was an important site of the black power movement. It was there that Rodney gave his “African History in the service of black liberation” speech. 

Este told the audience more about himself in order to help them understand how he sees the world, how he behaves in the world and what he thinks of the world — which of today is “not much,” he says. Este is a third-generation African-Canadian and lived three years in Germany during his father’s service in the military and in major African-Canadian populated centres in Canada. 

Este recounted the names and slurs he’d been called throughout his childhood, highlighting the dark parts of our recent history and the ongoing dark parts of history as it is being made in the western world. Este, of course, touches on the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and how the late ‘60s were a tumultuous time for black people in North America. In 1969, an incident took place at Sir George Williams University in Montreal — now Concordia University — where in protest to alleged racial bias towards grade distribution, some black students took over the computer centre. One day the computer centre caught on fire and as 15 year-old Este watched on TV as some white Canadians were calling for them to burn. Este says that these words will stay with him until the day he passes on. Such experiences allowed Este to wake up to the situation in Canada.

Este shares his personal experiences and habits when it came to race relations and associations which are rather intriguing. 

“I only mixed with white people when I was playing sports and when I went to McGill, but in my social life, 90 per cent of my friends were black and I have no regrets,” Este said. 

However, this did not make him feel as if he had regained his identity as a black man, as the black identity in Canada had been stripped away. 

“Living in Canada in the late fifties, early sixties we didn’t have an identity as black people,” he said.

A recurring theme in the subject of black identity, tolerance and recognition is the topic of beauty standards and how it relates to being black. Este explained how “conceptions of beauty were not related to blackness or yellow skin. Conceptions of beauty were related to white and from a male perspective, blue eyes and blonde hair.” He went on to acknowledge Malcolm X’s message of how such ingrained ideas had to be eradicated.  Such things made Este identify as an “angry” black man since the age of 17. 

Nevertheless, Este recounts some of the more positive aspects of living in Montreal which he considers to be the focal point of the civil rights movement in Canada — particularly his time with the Black Action Party (BAP). It consisted of a newspaper and ten black males and females that were indoctrinated with revolutionary theories. Some of which included writings of the Black Panther Party.

Calgary has had its own dark history in regards to race relations. Este recounted his experience of a counter-protest in Kensington about fifteen years ago. What he saw was revolting. 

“[They were] a group of white skinheads and it was a combination of three things I found revolting,” Este explained. The signs included chants of “keeping Canada white, keeping all coloured people out, let’s revert back to the 1960s before we had changes in the immigration policy and the words that they spoke.” He added that it was an utterly disgusting event to witness.

Although Este admits he has been privileged to work as a university professor for 28 years as well as in social work, he’s “become disillusioned with the university [and with social work] because the racism and sexism that exists in this place of whiteness is enough to turn one’s stomach.” 

Therefore Este has given up social work and has given his time to other organizations such as the Federation of Black Canadians.

 “I’m bringing the words of a lot more people than myself,” claimed Este. His great uncle was the minister of their church in 1913. Therefore he has a large scope of experiences to draw from. 

Este enlightened attendees with a quiz that showed how much the audience members knew about African-Canadian History. He then presented a video featuring some black female scholars moderated by CBV radio host Amanda Parris. The video can be seen here.  According to the video, the extent of what many Canadians know about black history in Canada is often limited to the Underground Railroad. There is a long way to go for better understanding and recognition of a visible minority in this country. That is something that should not be forgotten after February ends.

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