Black History Month is celebrated in February each year across Canada and the USA. In the spirit of celebration and education, WORD Mag will offer several stories from our vaults that continue to be relevant. Enjoy!

The Blacks in Canada: A History

Robin W. Winks

(McGill-Queens University Press, 1997)


In 1960, Robin Winks undertook what he thought would be a four-year project. He finished in 1969. Last year, he published the second edition of The Blacks in Canada: A History. The book is notable for the vastness of its research and marks the beginning of what needs to be done in this area.

Winks started the book with the year 1628 and Oliver Le Jeune, a young man brought from Africa and sold as a slave in New France (now Quebec); the first recorded slave. Before all of you Black history buffs get upset, Winks digressed and mentioned Mathieu de Costa, a servant who worked for the Governor of Acadia in 1608. It is argued that de Costa was the first African in Canada.

Besides slavery in Canada – which many people think only happened in the U.S. – Winks examined abolition, communities west of the Rockies, sources of strength: the church, the schools, and the press, and self-help. The work treated the Black presence in Canada as more than a footnote: Blacks built communities in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario, Quebec and The Maritimes. Blacks were politicians such as Mifflin Gibbs who advocated for British Columbia to join Confederation. Blacks were spiritual people – the first and most important institution in many Black communities was the church. Blacks participated in World War 1 in the No.2 Construction Battalion, a segregated unit that built roads and bridges in France.

Winks, a professor at Yale, went all over the world to research The Blacks in Canada; including Jamaica, Sierra Leone, and Britain. He conducted interviews, examined photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, and anything he could find that would help address three problems that came out of his research in Canadian American relations. He wanted to “reveal something of the nature of prejudice in Canada.” He also sought to examine Canadian attitudes towards immigration and ethnicity and how they differ from American attitudes. The third and crucial consideration was his “desire is to show the Negro as an actor in the context of an emerging national history.” In many works on Blacks, Blacks are shown as passive receivers of action.

By focusing on leadership in Black communities and the wider community, Winks showed Blacks with backbones, spirit, drive, and competency. He looked at the problem of unity in the Black community by highlighting seven waves of immigration. Each new wave clashed with the previous one.

All Winks’ work, including his research notes, are available in the Schomburg Centre in Harlem. In his section, Notes on Sources, Winks tells the reader where other notes are and what archives he visited.

Winks did not alter the second edition, consequently, it still reads with a perspective from 1969. In the preface though he mentioned some areas that should still be pursued including the period after World War 1, Black Women, the KKK, and Halifax.

His final chapter, “The Black Tile in the Mosaic,” left him perplexed, “while I still support many of the conclusions reached in that chapter, I no longer think the image is appropriate.”