Black history month doesn't get a lot of attention in Canada. A quick search pulls up a few small news stories here and there - one about Canada Post's new stamp commemorating MLB Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins, another about how local artists, musicians and writers are meeting up in Calgary to jam.
Our country was never gripped by a difficult civil rights movement, nor the L.A. riots, nor headline stealing photos of oppression at the end of a stick. And, as with most events in our nation, we don't have Hollywood to mythologize and bring them to life. As a result, we often shrug off our past as something uneventful and bland. This is dangerous, especially when it comes to human rights.
I would hazard a guess that what many of us remember most about black history in Canada is summed up in the striking Canadian Heritage Minute where Liza waits for her father to cross the border on the Underground Railroad hidden in a shipment of pews.
During those dark days Canada was a beacon of freedom and helped save more than 20,000 people from the whip of oppression. Unfortunately, the history of black Canadians isn't so tidily wrapped up.
Slavery wasn't abolished across the British Empire until 1834, and during the 19th century and before, both white English and French Canadians were often moved by the power of prejudice.
Following the American Revolution in 1783, United Empire Loyalists brought slaves with them to settle in Canada and were allowed to keep them. And many Black Loyalists who fought for Britain were promised land if they came to Canada, only to arrive and find those promises had evaporated.
This led to ghettoization, especially in the Maritimes, where in July 1784 Canada's first race riot broke out over the fact that Black Loyalists worked for less pay than white settlers since they were more desperate to survive.
But one of the most stunning stories to emerge from the time before Britain's Slavery Abolition Act is that of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a slave in New France. I learned of her story during a tour through Old Montréal and became captivated by her love, defiance and bravery in the face of oppression.
On April 10, 1734, 46 buildings in Old Montréal were consumed by flames. Marie-Joseph was fingered as the incendiaire and tried and hung under the assumption that she had started it to escape with her French lover before being sold to a man in Québec City for 272 kilograms of gunpowder.
It's gripping tales like her's that force us to reflect on the past and use its power to help us shape our country for the future.
By 2030, the growth of our population will be primarily driven by immigration, yet a steadily growing number of long-term immigrants with university degrees find themselves working as clerks, truck drivers, salespeople and taxi drivers.
We want to give them hope and a place to grow, rather than have them forced into a tight situation as the Black Loyalists were. We can do this with better English as a Second Language programs and streamlined processes for recognizing foreign credentials.
As Martin Luther King, Jr., said in 1967, "Canada is not merely a neighbor of negroes. Deep in our history of struggle for freedom Canada was the North Star."
Let's continue to strive to live up to that, no matter the colour of the skin of those who reach our shores.
This post originally appeared at Canadian Geographic online.