Black Power in Toronto

In the 1940s and early 1950s, Toronto civil rights activists had successfully lobbied the local, provincial and federal governments to pass legislation outlawing many overt forms of racial discrimination. Nevertheless, anti-Black racism continued to be quite common.

Ten years later, many Torontonian were riveted by powerful scenes on their television screens of Black civil rights activists demanding equal rights in the American South, but there was a popular view amongst residents of the city that racial discrimination wasn’t a problem in Canada. Black Torontonians spoke out about the discrimination they were experiencing in the city, yet hardly anyone was listening.

It was around this time that a new ideology began to develop within the American civil rights movement called Black Power. Advocates of Black Power had grown impatient with the slow progress of the civil rights struggle and wanted to accelerate the Black struggle for freedom. Instead of merely winning the right to assimilate into white society, Black Power activists wanted Black people to be able to shape their own destinies. To further that goal, they built co-operatively-run Black stores, services and political institutions. The most well-known Black Power organization in the United States was called the Black Panther Party.

The Afro-American Progressive Association, founded in 1968, was Toronto’s first Black Power organization. It was later joined by other Black Power groups, like the Black Liberation Front and Black Youth Organization. Students at dozens of local high schools, colleges and universities formed Black Power student clubs.

Members of these organizations highlighted individual cases of racial discrimination and demonstrated against public manifestations of racism in their city. They fought against barriers to jobs and housing and campaigned for a civilian review board to make the Toronto police more accountable. Many participants in these struggles saw their local activism as part of a global struggle for Black freedom, unity and self-determination.

Until the late 1960s, what we would today call racism was usually referred to as “prejudice” or “discrimination”. Black Power activists thought that more specific language was needed, so they helped popularize newer terms like “racism” and “white supremacy”. They also worked to expand the definition of what actions could be considered racist.

For example, a person usually had to demonstrate an explicit hatred for someone based on their race, religion or nationality to be called “prejudiced”. As a result, a landlord who refused to rent an apartment to a Black person, claiming it was because his white tenants objected; or an employer who refused to hire racialized workers, claiming they were not culturally suited to work at his office, were not called prejudiced by the mainstream media.

Black Power activists disagreed. They argued that a person did not have to explicitly hate someone because of the colour of their skin in order to be considered a racist. Related to that idea, Black Power advocates insisted that racism was more of a structural problem than an individual problem. They believed that racism flourished within governments, corporations and society-at-large, and that this kind of “institutional racism” (another new term) was a greater barrier to Black advancement than explicitly racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

Despite their persistent attacks against racism, Black Power activists spent much of their time trying to strengthen Toronto’s Black community. Many of them thought the Black community was too fragmented to be self-sustaining or politically effective, so they devoted tremendous effort to make it more united. One way of doing so was to encourage Black people to identify first and foremost as Black, instead of with their countries of origin.

To encourage a racially-based identity, Black Power activists focused on building Black institutions in downtown Toronto, in the area between Bloor Street West and Queen Street West, and Huron Street and Ossington Avenue, where a disproportionate number of the city’s Black population lived. Activists from this time fondly remember places like the Harriet Tubman Centre, which had an extensive Black library, and Gwen and Third World Bookstore and Crafts. Local newspapers which supported Black Power, like Contrast and Black Voice, were regularly sold outside the Bathurst subway station. In addition to starting new co-operatively-run social services in the area, Black Power activists also breathed life into old community institutions, like the United Negro Improvement Association.

Jan Carew was a noted writer and teacher as well as an important member of the Afro-American Progressive Association. Many of Jan’s plays, novels and articles reflected his experiences as a political activist in Guyana, Jamaica, the United Kingdom and the United States. In Toronto, Carew said, “Canadians prefer to practise their racialism slyly, behind closed doors; one never realizes how deep the racial antipathies are until one begins to look for accommodation.”

Horace Campbell joined the Afro-American Progressive Association, and later the Black Youth Organization, when he was a student. One of his many accomplishments was the Transitional Year Programme, which continues to help racialized and working-class youth gain admission to university. Horace was a passionate advocate for many social justice issues, but decided to spend his time advocating for the city’s Black community: “I naively thought I would work with progressive white groups – until I found out that racism pervaded white society at every level – whether left or right.”

Marlene Green was best known as the driving force behind the Black Education Project. The project had started as a way to introduce children to Black culture from around the world, but Marlene soon discovered that the children she worked with were having a hard time with basic skills like reading and math. Many of these children came from poor families, and Marlene emphasized the need to link issues of economic and racial oppression: “The most important thing for Black Canadians to understand is that they’re living in a society that oppresses people not solely because of race but because of its social and economic structure.”

- Peter Graham

Related Topics: Anti-RacismBlack CanadiansBlack History and IdentityBlack LiberationBlack OrganizationsBlack PowerDiscriminationDiscrimination in EmploymentPolice HarassmentRace Relations/RacismRacismTorontoToronto/HistoricalWhite Supremacy

Black Labour.