Knowledge is power: it’s our time to listen
The Niagara region has a rich history full of momentous achievements by Black Canadians. Their contributions have helped make Canada the compassionate and culturally diverse nation it is known as today. While progress has been made towards equity for Black communities in North America, we are consistently reminded that there is much more work to be done.
Black History Month asks us to reflect on important cultural moments, for example, the significant role Niagara played in the legendary Underground Railroad, printing the Upper Canada’s 1793 Act Against Slavery, or founding the Niagara Movement – an organization calling for civil and political rights for African Americans. Focused on combating racial discrimination and segregation, the Niagara Movement served as a forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the civil rights movement. In this regard, there is a lot for Niagara to be proud of.
However, while our past successes deserve to be celebrated, we need to recognize that our story continues. How we act to push forward the progress that has been made towards equity for Black Canadians today will eventually become an important part of our region’s heritage. Many members of the Black community still face oppression today and their voices must be heard.
Evidence strongly suggests that marginalized groups, including the Black community, are still facing overwhelming discrimination, poverty, racism and isolation.
Putting the situation in 2022 into perspective, Niagara saw an influx of 1,538 asylum seekers from all over the world, including a large percentage from Africa, last fall. Of course, the first barrier many refugees experience is that many aren’t fluent in English. As if that challenge wasn’t enough, the fact that people fleeing other parts of the world for their family’s safety must now suffer racism and discrimination is unacceptable.
Evidence strongly suggests that marginalized groups, including the Black community, are still facing overwhelming discrimination, poverty, racism and isolation. According to a 2019 survey on Canadians’ Safety, nearly half of Black people over 15 years old reported experiencing discrimination in some form in the previous five years. The idea of anyone facing racism in Canada is inexcusable – to further learn that nearly half of Black Canadians report that they have experienced it is unacceptable. It’s a problem that we must work together to improve.
United Way reached out to community partner, the Niagara African Caribbean Cultural Organization (NACCO), to hear about some of the issues facing Black communities today. Ola is the founder and president of NACCO, a small organization formed five years ago in response to her experience as a refugee in Niagara. When Ola arrived seven years ago in Canada, she found there was no easy way to find supports as a Black refugee.
Story after story was shared about blatant racism, discrimination and ignorance from those sitting around the table, their friends and other refugees. To say this experience was heartbreaking may be putting things lightly.
Sitting down in Ola’s cozy African Market and restaurant, it was clear that she still bore the scars of many injustices experienced right here in Niagara. Story after story was shared about blatant racism, discrimination and ignorance from those sitting around the table, their friends and other refugees. To say this experience was heartbreaking may be putting things lightly.
Founder of NACCO, Ola (front left) with husband Terry (back left) and fellow NACCO board members.
As a community, and as a country, we share the responsibility and the opportunity to make meaningful change. We need to be allies to the Black community in Niagara and throughout the country. So, what can we do? Where can we start?
Together we have an obligation to listen, learn and unlearn. That is what becoming an ally truly means.
Listening to Ola and members of NACCO’s board of directors, they provided us with insight on potential solutions, or at the very least – areas we can support to help make things better. The first step is to continue strengthening community partnerships by supporting organizations like NACCO. Together we have an obligation to listen, learn and unlearn. That is what becoming an ally truly means. The injustices that Ola and her community have faced must end – only then will we begin the path towards a truly equitable and inclusive community.
Systemic issues that must change:
- Refugees face immense systemic barriers to housing and employment (including racism and discrimination)
- There are hundreds of children without proper clothing for Canadian winters
- Access to a like-minded community, culture and culturally appropriate food are so important to health and well-being
- There are far too many barriers to access available resources (language, transportation, and lack of knowledge about what exists in the first place)
- Pregnant mothers are unprepared for their babies (equipment, clothing for example)
These are but a small fraction of the challenges members of the Black community face, and NACCO is only one small group, working tirelessly to advocate for and provide basic necessities for Black Canadian refugees
As a community, we have the responsibility and the opportunity to learn about what is happening around us. Knowledge is power. It is our responsibility to break the stigma and work towards a community, and a country, without racism and discrimination.
The Welland Heritage Council and Multicultural Centre has curated a list of resources that can be used as a starting point to learn more about the lived experiences of Black people and what support is needed to remove racial injustice in our region.
Resources for Newcomers:
211 Niagara – 211 is an easy to remember 3-digit phone number that is free, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If English is not your first language, you can also access 211 information with the assistance of an interpreter in more than 150 languages.
Niagara Immigration – Information for settling in, finding housing, employment, education and more. Immigration Guides available in 28 languages
Ontario Services for Newcomers and Refugees – Help finding a settlement agency near you.
Folk Arts Council Multicultural Centre – Offering a variety of newcomer and immigrant settlement programs & services to help build a life in Canada.
YMCA of Niagara – The Immigrant Services team can help you connect with a wide range of services you and your family need as newcomers to Canada—including health care, education, and language help. YMCA staff can also speak a variety of languages.
Chez Marie – Providing shelter and settlement services to newcomers and refugees. Call 905-682-5795.
Casa El Norte – Providing shelter and transitional housing services to refugees. Call 905-871-4483.
Matthew House – Providing refugee claimants, broken families and homeless individuals with emergency shelter and transitional housing. Call 905-871-6059.
Welland Heritage Council and Multicultural Centre – The Newcomer Settlement Program (NSP) provides information, referral, and general guidance to help refugee claimants and other new Canadians adjust to a new life in Canada. Services are free, always confidential and by appointment only. Call 905-732-5337.
Fort Erie Multicultural Centre – Offering a variety of newcomer and immigrant settlement programs & services to help build a life in Canada. Call 905.871.3641
Niagara Falls Community Health Centre – Assist newcomers, refugees, and uninsured folks navigate the healthcare system. Call 905-356-4222 to speak to an Outreach Worker (health, dental, social supports)