Canadian Black History Stamps

I used to collect stamps as a child. Come to think of it, I don’t remember anyone else who did so. African and Asian postage stamps were my favourite as they were larger, colourful, and had marvelous images of birds, flowers and butterflies. I gave up collecting stamps when I started collecting life lessons.

Postage stamps are like a peephole into a country’s living room. The scraps of paper are not just a means to an end – proof that you paid a tax to mail a letter – but are part of the everyday visual culture that surrounds us. Stamps are overlooked as they are small, cheap and disposable. But take a closer look and they are a record of who and what a country values.

The first postage stamp was issued in Canada in 1851. Josiah Henson was the first Black person featured on a Canadian stamp. He made the debut in 1983. There are 22 Canadian postage stamps with a Black History connection.

As stamps are printed by the central government, they reflect the official version of the country’s identity. New stamps come out every year. Tracking the changes of their images can show the changes in a society.

Let me stop here. This was meant to be a quick and simple blog post celebrating the latest Canadian Black History Month stamps.

The trouble with learning to think critically is that that part of my brain never shuts up. So while I can admire the stamps, my head goes to deconstructing how they reflect the dominant ideology of a society. It is surely no accident that Josiah Henson was the first Black Canadian memorialized on a stamp. He is the perfect icon of Canada as the land of freedom for Black people fleeing slavery in the USA. That was true. And it also hides the two centuries of slavery in Canada. That part of the story is rarely told so that it does not besmirch the national reputation.

The Black Canadian stamps feature athletes, musicians, politicians and historical figures. I think it is significant that quite a few activists are included. Their presence indicate that our life here has not been easy. Perhaps one day Canada Post may have to print a stamp commemorating Black Lives Matter.

Here is a pick of five Canadian Black History stamps. They area a fitting memorial to the woman and men who fought for our place in the snow.

canadian black history stamps

Lincoln Alexander and Kay Livingstone are on the 2018 stamp. Alexander (1922-2012) was the first Black politician elected to the House of Commons and the first Black Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. Livingstone (1918-75) was a feminist and activist championing the rights of Black Canadian women.

canadian black history stamps

Josiah Henson (1789-1883) escaped slavery to find freedom in Canada, via the Underground Railroad. He became the model for the hero in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson wrote his own autobiography called The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself. Henson’s stamp was issued on the centenary of his death.

canadian black history stamps

Black Canadian men who fought in World War I are honoured on the 2016 stamp. The men were from the No. 2 Construction Battalion. As segregation was part of army life in Canada, Black men had to protest to join the war effort. When they did so, most were placed in an all-Black unit, the No. 2 Construction Battalion. Black Canadians fought in the major battles of the war including Vimy Ridge and Passchendaele.

Mathieu Da Costa is the first Black person recorded in Canada. He was a translator and businessman in the fur trade between Indigenous people and Europeans in the 1600s. Da Costa was from modern Ghana. African translators like him were not uncommon in the international trades across the Atlantic Ocean.

Incidentally, I learned to sail in a tall ship like the one featured in the background of Da Costa’s stamp. This time I was crew, not cargo.  My sailing adventures are in Sailing on a Half Moon.


This Is My Climate Change

There are still a few people out there who don’t believe that the climate is changing. And it is not because they are stupid. In fact they are among the most rich, powerful and educated of people. They work very hard to disparage scientist working on climate change, and to spread fake news denying that it is happening. More on this later.

This is what climate change looks like in my neighbourhood. Back in the spring the annual Paddle the Don canoe festival was cancelled. The spring floods were at record levels making the river too fast and dangerous.

A few weeks later I led a 15km hike in the Beaches area of the city. The final leg of the hike was along the boardwalk. At least that was the plan. On the day of the hike ten foot waves smashed against the boardwalk. Sections of the beach were closed and sandbagged to stop the land from disappearing. Toronto had not seen such furious storms in almost a century. We watched in awe as Mother Nature unleashed her power, tumbling deck chairs and planks as if they were mere pebbles.

My hiking club cancelled its annual Thursday evening walks over at Toronto Islands in the summer. We could not get there as the ferries were not running. The Island’s docks were flooded. The Islands remained closed until late summer, waiting for the water and the excess mosquitos to retreat.

The rest of the summer was marvelous. Lots of sunshine and blue-sky days. However, the summer was still here in the autumn. In fact September was hotter than August, some days the temperature was double the normal range.

Winter is supposed to be around the corner. The ski industry is praying that it will actually snow this year. In the last few years, the white stuff has been unpredictable. If there are no flakes in the city, people assume that there are none on the ski trails and slopes as well. So they don’t go.

And if they did go, there was a good chance that they would be skiing on man-made snow. Yes, there are machines that make snow. With the weather so unpredictable the snow making machines are doing a great business.

This climate change is caused by us humans.

In Canada our love of the good life – big cars, big houses and enough food to throw away – comes at a huge environmental cost. The more oil we burn and forests we cut down, the warmer the planet gets and the more variable the weather. Things are so unpredictable that a few more Hurricane Hazels might be in the wings.

There are ecological limits to life Earth. We cannot go on pretending that humans are so exceptional that the laws of nature don’t apply to us as well.

We know what the issues are, we know we have to act, but we do nothing. It seems we would rather wait for the apocalypse than take action to avoid it. The dinosaurs had no choice. Their exit from the planet really came from the heavens above. Ours will be from our own hands.

Some pretty powerful interests want to keep it that way. Millionaires want to continue making their millions. When climate change gets really bad they think they can buy their way out of it. They have already bought the politicians who should be taking action. Mother Nature can’t be bought. We can act now or wait for more floods, wildfires and hurricanes to pay us a visit.

Sailing on a Half Moon

A Black View on Climate Change

An opera about Black people, climate change and dub poetry. Lukumi is a fascinating show on so many levels. In the first place it puts Black people at the centre of the environmental debate.

Look at the conservation, outdoor recreation and environmental movements, and all one sees is a river of white faces. It is easy to assume from the images that there are no Black people in Canada. Lukumi puts the colour back into the environmental debates.

Starring D’bi Young as Lukumi, the opera is set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have destroyed nearly everything. Lukumi, a reluctant warrior-goddess, must journey to the depths of the Earth to find the roots of the tree of life. It might be too late, but a seed from this tree could heal the planet.

Lukumi must conquer her own doubts, travel through a nucleared landscape and convince other animals to help her. And she must battle the black skins in the white masks. These are the soldiers hunting for bleeders, the few women who are still fertile, to restock the nuclear-ruined population.

The opera is also a journey through Black music. The live band shifts from African drumming, to gospel and to jazz. The melody and reggae beats of dub poetry weaves the whole thing together. The large cast are excellent singers. The music is co-composed by Waleed Abdulhamid and D’bi Young.

The opera is not all bleak. Humour comes from Daniel Ellis, as Anancy, a versifier, shape-shifter and unreliable giver of wisdom. The trickster admits that his words have to rhyme, even if it means that half the time the sense is left out. The sound-bite is what matters.

Lukumi is produced by Watah Theatre. The professional company ‘specialises in producing political theatre from a radical queer Black feminist lens.’ The founder is D’Bi Young.

Lukumi mixes African, Caribbean and Indigenous myths to create something uniquely Canadian. It is not the official myth of Canada as a happy land of multicultural people. Rather, the opera exposes how pollution, mining and fracking disproportionally affects Indigenous people in Canada. The opera is a call for environmental and social justice. It we don’t clean up the mess, in the end humans won’t matter. We will be no more.

The opera is at the Tarragon Theatre September 22-October 14, 2017.

Black History Walks Toronto


Toronto Black History Tour

Come and celebrate Black History and Caribbean life with us in Toronto next summer. The Caribana Caribbean Carnival is the biggest street party in North America. On the tour we will visit the stops on the Underground Railroad, hear some great music, eat spicy Caribbean food and dance along the bands.

Let’s make this trip real. There is a lot of Black History and Caribbean sunshine in Toronto. The tour also includes a trip to see Niagara Falls – one of the great wonders of the world. There we will learn about its Black History as well as enjoy a wine tour.

This tour is part of my Daydream Black History Tours around the around the world. They combine the best of adventure, travel and history – all from our unique Black perspective. The trips are a daydream right now. Let’s see if we can turn them into reality.

toronto black history tour

Tour Highlights

  • Caribbean carnival in Toronto
  • Visit Niagara Falls and explore its Black History
  • Walk in the footsteps of Harriet Tubman
  • Underground Railroads stops in Oakville and Hamilton

Daily Itinerary

Day 1 – Arrive in Toronto

Day 2 – Niagara Falls and Niagara-on-the-Lake Black History tour

Day 3 – Toronto Black History walking tour, part 1

Day 4 – Caribbean carnival in Toronto

Day 5 – Meet Harriet Tubman

Day 6 – Oakville and Hamilton Underground Railroad tour

Day 7 – Toronto Black History walking tour, part 2.

Day 8 – Depart Toronto

toronto black history tour

Facts File

  • 8 day land tour.
  • Minimum 30 and maximum 50 participants.
  • All meals and accommodation included.
  • All tours lead by Black History experts.
  • Start and end in Toronto.
  • Comfort level – enjoy bus rides and able to walk for about two hours each day.
  • Accommodation – comfortable hotel.
  • Departure – August 1-8, 2018.

Who wants to come with on this Daydream Black History Tour? Let’s see if we can make it real.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London


6 Happy Black Films at TIFF

I kept looking at Danny Glover, trying to recollect where I knew him from. Did we meet at a concert, at an office party, or was he an ex-boyfriend of my friend?

Someone called out his name. Glover turned, smiled and waved. The posse of photographers swarmed and jostled each other for the shots. It felt like I was trapped in the middle of a rugby scum. And I was the only woman in there. And the smallest person too. A photographer pushed me in front of him, and hovered over me so that I too could take a snap. I was playing paparazzi. These guys were professionals.

That was a years ago at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I learned then that I was not cut out to be an entertainment blogger. After spending hours memorizing the faces of visiting film stars I had not recognized the one right in front of me.

It got worst.

At a special screening I did not get why the slim guy entering the discussion stage, wearing a suit, dark glasses, and get this, gleaming white running shoes, got a standing ovation. It was Taye Diggs.

TIFF – the world’s biggest film festival – starts this week in Toronto. Black film stars are regulars at TIFF. I can still remember the champagne style buzz when Chiwetel Ejiofor walked the red carpet. Lupita Nyong’o was then a beautiful but unknown starlet. Their film 12 Years A Slave went on to make box office and Oscar history.

There are plenty of films with Black actors for viewing at this year’s TIFF and some of the stars will be in town. Look out for Halle Berry, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart and Octavia Spencer.

TIFF films are categorized by region, and not by race or ethnicity. I scrolled through several regions to find what I was looking for. I wanted films with Black actors, shot by Black directors, with happy endings.

So here is my list of six happy Black films at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival:

  1. The Royal Hibiscus Hotel. Will the cook open her restaurant or will the rich playboy burn her dreams? Got to find out in this Nigerian romantic comedy.
  2. Felicité. A Senegalese film about a plucky Kinshasa nightclub owner learning how to ask for help, before her club goes under.
  3. Looking for Oum Kulthum. An Egyptian-Persian film about a legendary singing diva.
  4. Sergio and Sergei. How a Cuban radio operator connects with a Russian astronaut stuck in space as both wait out time.
  5. Sheikh Jackson. A comedy on how the death of Michael Jackson shakes a huge fan – an Egyptian imam.
  6. Grace Jones. A documentary on the Jamaican-American model, singer and out and out diva.

Heartbeats in Africa: A Memoir of Travel and Love


10 Things Tourists Notice About Toronto

When I started the Black History Walks in Toronto, I assumed that my clients would be older, come dressed in linen and sun hats, and of course, wear sensible walking shoes. And most would be white.

My theory was based on the people that I see on heritage walks in the city. I stand out in these crowds of history buffs as I am younger and Black.

Well, my assumptions were plain wrong. I have had every ethnic group on the Black History Walks. There were Black people and white people. And Latinos, Arabs and Asians. To my surprise about a third of the people on the walks are Canadians, some coming from the suburbs of Toronto.

The one thing my clients have in common is a curiosity about Black history in Toronto. Most thought there was little. In the walk, we talk about an African Canadian history that goes back to 1600s, and specifically in Toronto, to 1796 when the modern city was founded on Indigenous land.

As part of the walk, I ask people what are the things that they notice about Toronto. Some of their answers were unexpected. Here are ten of the memorable ones.

1. Few Police Cars. An African American student was surprised that there were so few police cars on Toronto’s streets. In his home in Erie, Pennsylvania, police cars are on every intersection. But only in the Black areas of the city. He feels like he lives in a garrison. He was amazed that stores in Toronto accepted his credit card, without asking for other identification like his driver’s license and phone number.

2. Colonial Legacy. A woman from South Korea found it easy to move around city. The pattern of street names – King, Queen, Adelaide and so on – were the same in her travels in Australia and New Zealand. The British colonial legacy was alive in the former colonies.

3. Green City. A white woman from suburban Oakville was astonished that the city centre was so green. She had never noticed the trees in all her years of driving through Toronto. The walk goes by a ravine and several large parks.

4. Diverse City Centre. A French woman was astonished that the city centre was so multicultural. In Paris, Black people and immigrants live in the suburbs, cut off from the opportunities and vibrancy of city life. The woman now lived in a small city in Ireland. She had left France as was tired of being passed over for promotion. Her education was fine. Her performance was fine. Her skin was not.

5. Pawn Shops. The Latino couple from New York noticed the lack of pawn shop, beer stores and cheque cashing shops as we passed a sketchy area of the walk. These businesses line the streets in poor areas of their city.

6. Fearless after the Terror. A Black French woman jaywalked across the streets. She ignored my caution to wait with the rest of the group for the cross walk signal. She was dining with friends when the terrorist attacked the restaurant in Paris. She spent six hours locked inside and hiding under the tables, unsure if she would live or die. Nothing scared her after that night.

7. Blacks in the City. A student from Vancouver was astonished that so many Black people live in Toronto. Her home city is racially segregated into Chinese, South Asian and White areas. And the groups rarely mix. She felt invisible as a South Asian walking around Toronto. She liked that feeling.

8. Grave Matters. The African American friends were amazed that the graves were in the ground. In New Orleans tombs are above ground, so that they don’t float to the surface in the frequent rains and floods. Or wash up on the streets, half-rotting, like they did in Hurricane Katrina.

9. Rude Canadians. A British woman had just finished her master’s degree in Toronto. She was fed up with people asking her where she was really from. Canadians could not seem to get their heads around that Black people lived in England too.

10. Less is Better. “I feel less Black in Toronto. Nobody is looking at me and expecting trouble.” This was from an African American man, on a long weekend break from Los Angeles.

The Black History Walks are more popular than I expected. They won’t make me rich, but they supplement my tiny PhD scholarship. The walks are a good indicator of the thirst for a more inclusive history of Toronto. Black people have lived in the city from its very birth.

50 Places: A Black History Travel Guide of London