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.
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.
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.
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.