5 Black Women Talk About Their Lives In Canada–Past, Present And Future

From history to healthcare, it’s frustratingly rare for Black women’s issues to get mainstream attention.

by
black women in Canada-5 women on a purple background

Black women’s resilience and magic is on display every day, from body-positive musician Lizzo to mental health-advocate Summer Walker to Issa Rae’s TV and film empire. Such high-profile magnificence lends energy to the grassroots, where many regular Black women are active in movements and groups that push back against exclusion and discrimination. Those achievements are happening worldwide, but in Canada, it’s frustratingly rare for Black women’s issues to get mainstream attention.

Too often, Black Canadian women are left out of the national conversation–though to be fair, Canada tries to avoid any discussions of anti-Black racism at all. Instead, it points the finger at race relations in the United States in an attempt to argue that it’s not so bad here. That’s a hard thing to disprove, since race-based data collection—an essential practice in the U.S. and U.K., one that has been used to understand health disparities within racialized communities—is barely implemented in Canada.

This knowledge gap leaves Black women at a double disadvantage, since we’re both a gender and racial minority (the term for anti-Black misogyny, by the way, is misogynoir). Our limited race-based data reveals the results: In Canada, Black women are still discriminated against in the healthcare system, where we face alarmingly high rates of maternal death. We continue to be victims of police and state violence, and in the workplace, continue to be paid less than both white men and white women.

Canada has a lot of work to do to ensure a better quality of life for Black women. Here, we talk to five women about what it means to be Black in Canada today, and how our history affects Black women’s present and future health, families and lives.

On Motherhood: Tanya Hayles, Toronto

In 2015, Hayles started Black Moms Connection, an online group focussed on race-specific parenting concerns, after realizing how uncomfortable she often felt when discussing how to raise her then-two-year-old son. It has grown into a worldwide community of over 9,000 members and holds conferences and summits in Toronto.

“In online mom groups, there are posts like, ‘I feel like having a bottle of wine today because parenting is hard.’ Be an Indigenous or Black person saying that on Facebook and see how fast [the Children’s Aid Society] is showing up at your door to take your children. Black and Indigenous mothers get our children taken from us at higher rates than our white counterparts. We don’t get to be 4/20-friendly moms out loud. That is not a luxury that we have.

For Black mothers, navigating the education system and its inherent biases against Black parents and children is hard. It’s about figuring out how to advocate for our kids and be heard. There’s also the issue of how to talk to your children about race, from encounters with the police and how to react if someone calls you the ‘N-word,’ and what that even means. People assume we’re just a bunch of Black single unmarried mothers, on welfare here and with multiple children from multiple fathers, which is not true. There’s just a lot that you carry.

I think the biggest struggle is trying not to let [all] that impact how you raise your children. That is the biggest struggle of being a black mother, that it is very much a political act, a revolutionary act, because it’s not just having to go through life thinking about how to raise him to become a good human being. I have to make him aware of the earth that I’ve given him and the society that he’s been born into without it letting it dim his shine.”

On Art: Deanna Bowen, Toronto

Bowen is a visual artist whose work combines photography, video installations, performance, and sculptures. Her latest exhibition, “A Harlem Nocturne,” is on at the McMaster Museum of Art in Hamilton, Ont., until May 9, 2020. It explores her family’s maternal lineage in Vancouver, debunking the myth that Black people–and their histories of struggle and resistance–don’t exist on Canada’s west coast.

“As a Black woman in the Canadian art world, it really has been incredibly challenging to get past being used by predominantly white museums and institutions as that token Black woman and artist. You hit the pitfalls of being termed ‘difficult’ or ‘uppity’ or mean or angry, just for pushing back and insisting on being treated fairly and being given opportunities.

My practice is rooted in an institutional critique of being a Black, queer, feminist, left-leaning artist who takes up the lack of Black representation in the institution. It’s been a challenge to build a career on political activism as well as artistic merit as a Black woman, because Canada’s just not interested in resistance of any kind.

We don’t talk about Black women in our art history at all. And yet in my art world, most of the people that I am working with are Black women and women in general. There hasn’t been nearly enough attention put on the brilliance of Black women. We’ve been holding it down forever.

I look at my art making as a means to write history, and most of the women I know are deeply committed to writing Black history through their art and through their community activism. If we are taking up that task of naming our history and defining ourselves in work, we will build that history that we’ve been so sorely lacking.”

On Justice: Kanika Samuels-Wortley, Waterloo, Ont.

Samuels-Wortley studies interactions between Black people and Canada’s police, courts and prisons. Her work on Black women and girls began in 2016, after an American colleague pointed out a lack of specific data about Black women in the Canadian justice system. A PhD candidate at the University of Waterloo, she just published a study in the journal Race and Justice that focuses on Ontario’s Durham Region. She found that Black youth there are more likely than white and other non-Black youth to be charged for minor criminal offences.

“For Black women and girls in Canada, there is no recent [race-based] data on their situation within the criminal justice system. This is problematic, because Black and Indigenous women are now considered the fastest growing populations in the correctional system in Canada. There may be a potential relationship between how poverty and gender play into crime, and the type of offences that place Black women in prison.

Black and Indigenous women are the most likely to live in poverty in Canada. The unemployment rate for black women is 11 percent, compared to seven percent of the general population. The limited data available suggests that incarcerated Black women did not use drugs themselves, but felt forced to sell or traffic in an attempt to escape poverty. That means that Black women are facing increased police surveillance and subsequent criminalization, as opposed to a critical examination of the structural conditions that place them at a higher risk of poverty in the first place.

As an academic, I will always say that data is power. If we don’t have race-based data to show where potential interventions or preventative strategies can happen, then we will never be able to address the issues that are specifically impacting Black women and girls.”

On Health: Notisha Massaquoi, Toronto

As the former executive director of Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, a community health centre, Massaquoi spent 21 years helping to provide primary healthcare to women of colour. She is now a health equity consultant focussed on how bias and the lack of race-based health data affect Black women’s health, in order to develop early prevention and treatment programs.

“When you look at chronic illnesses, Black women are overrepresented in the rates of diabetes and hypertension in Canada and have the highest rates of HIV across the province of Ontario. Low birth-rate babies are more likely to be born to Black mothers and we have higher rates of maternal and infant death. We are also overrepresented in all female-specific cancers, such as cervical and breast cancer, and we have more aggressive forms of cancer that need to be detected earlier than Canadian screening guidelines indicate.

There’s a lack of research done on the reasons why Black women are overrepresented in health care issues. And so we don’t have any solid health information or data that can guide health care providers in terms of early prevention and early detection, or specific programs geared towards ensuring that Black women receive health care earlier so that issues can be addressed effectively. We’re looking at poor health outcomes when it’s too late.

I’m seeing more Black women entering into the medical profession and senior scientist roles as well as decision-making roles. That’s where we’re seeing a difference–people actually conducting research and developing effective treatments for Black women because they’re invested as Black women.”

On Speaking Up: Atong Ater, Ottawa

As a student at Carleton University’s School of Journalism and Communication program, Ater encountered consistent racism from both teachers and students. Fed up, she wrote about her experience in a CBC essay last year, just before she graduated with her masters. The school retweeted the story, but spelled Ater’s name wrong.

“Being a Black woman at university is isolating. I did my undergrad and my masters at Carleton University, and in all that time, two Black women were my professors. Existing in these spaces takes a lot of mental energy. There would be days when I was just tired because something would happen [on campus] and I didn’t know why. There were no other people of colour or Black women in the room who I could look at and be like, ‘This was real, right?’ It shakes you.

When I was in the journalism program, I was very much evaluating whether to engage in classes. I had to do what was necessary to be mentally and emotionally OK to get through those two years. But since I’ve finished the program, I began talking about the situation…and hopefully bringing about change. I struggle with how open to be about these things publicly. With that comes the online hate that women and people of colour, particularly Black women, get for expressing opinions. So it’s just trying to find a balance for me.”

Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.