A new initiative in B.C., which has emerged from the Black Shirt Day movement, aims to spark important conversations about anti-racism and unity among various ethnic groups.
Kamika Williams, president of Ninandotoo Society — 'nina ndoto' is the Swahili word for "I have a dream" — said she created Black Excellence Day after consulting with various community members, including the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre and the B.C. Human Rights Commission.
"Black Shirt Day last year had great success ... however, it came to our attention that the term 'black shirt' was very traumatic for survivors of the Holocaust and survivors of fascism," said Williams.
Williams says Black Excellence Day is designed to highlight the past and present struggles of Black and racialized Canadians — something she said was missing from her textbooks.
"There was definitely a lack of representation ... going through history books, a lot of the curriculum is very white-focused, Eurocentric. There's a lot of whitewashing about the struggles of Black Canadians," she said.
United against racism
Geoffrey Druker, chair of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Pacific Region, said he was shocked when he first heard the name of the initiative.
"We were kind of gutted. It was painful because we still have Holocaust survivors among us and anybody who suffered from fascism and black shirts would have been hurt," said Druker.
Druker said he supports the cause, but the terminology could be triggering and highlights the painful past experienced by millions of Jews.
"Because of the history of black shirts in the 20th century, the black shirts were worn by Italian fascist squads ... they were a violent group who prosecuted the socialists, communists, Catholics, Republicans, trade unionists. Hundreds died," he said.
When Druker reached out to Williams, she jumped at the opportunity to collaborate with the Jewish community to create a new movement with a more inclusive name.
"Most of the consultations were focused around building solidarity ... how do we move forward, how do we work together, how do we stay unified and combat racism together," said Williams.
June Francis, director of the Institute for Diaspora Research and Engagement at Simon Fraser University, says in order to truly combat systemic racism, history has to be told through a multi-cultural lens.
"We need to reconstruct, reinterpret and retell Canadian history in a more accurate form, with other perspectives other than a white lens and points of view and a colonial point of view. That includes, of course, and is foundational to our history ... the role of Black people and their perspective that has been erased," she said.
Second annual Black Shirt Day
Steven September, the chairperson of Anti-Racism Coalition of Vancouver (ARC), says this is the second year Black Shirt Day will be recognized in Canada.
He said the movement initially started when members of the organization asked their children what they learned during Black History Month.
"Every single one of them said, 'Oh, we learned about slavery,'" September told CBC News. "Well, that's not right. I need to do something about it. So we had a discussion and came up with an idea."
Together, he said, they came up with Black Shirt Day and decided to dedicate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as the day to mark the civil rights struggle of Black Canadians and push for the inclusion of more Black history in school curriculum.
He said more than 17,000 people signed a petition to have the day recognized across the Lower Mainland as Black Shirt Day.
"It's actually born out of a need to have a history lesson and education. We want to educate the public as much as possible." September said. "It's not just about Black people, it's about racism, but most of it being written from the Black experience."
Erin Lakoff, with the Independent Jewish Voices of Canada, said when they were approached by ARC about endorsing Black Shirt Day, they "wholeheartedly" agreed.
"For us, we're a group that's primarily focused on working toward peace and justice in Israel, Palestine," Lakoff said. "And of course, that is linked to being engaged in an anti-racist struggle here at home."
He said he understands why some people in the Jewish community might find the terminology — black shirt — offensive and triggering but ARC's goals align with their mandate of peace and unity.
"I would really hope that we can move beyond the words or the labels around this and just engage with the substance," Lakoff said. "We should be there as Jews to support anti-racist movements and struggles in an uncompromising way."
September said several schools across Canada will commemorate Jan. 14 as Black Shirt Day this year.
"The University of Calgary, along with other schools in Alberta, Ontario and Saskatchewan are showing their solidarity with British Columbia," he said.
Black Excellence Day
The province is proclaiming Jan. 15 as Black Excellence Day. If the day falls on a weekend or holiday, as it does this year, it will take place on the preceding Friday.
Williams says more than 20 school districts will be participating in the inaugural year.
"Change comes slowly, but it's great that they've acknowledged it. They acknowledge that there's a need for this day and it hopefully is going to make a great impact," said Williams.
Francis says the province is taking a step in the right direction, but it's just a start.
"I think it will bring a tremendous amount of self awareness and identity confidence for Black students. But I also know that it also opens a space for other racialized groups. It will change the way we view ourselves. And I think create more understanding across the board," said Francis.
In a statement to CBC News, the Ministry of Education says education is a powerful tool to create racial equity and equality.
"We understand there is much more work to be done to ensure an anti-racism lens is core in B.C.'s education system. That's why we are working with community organizations ... that support anti-racism, celebrate diversity, and advance inclusion."
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.