Afro Canada: A key piece of work

Finally a chance to tell our History, with a capital H—the History that is usually passed on through time and generations… except when it has been erased, hidden or made invisible. Starting in August, Radio-Canada, CBC’s sister station, will present Afro Canada, a documentary series featuring four one-hour episodes. The work is monumental, ambitious and much-needed, as it will recount 400 years of Afro-descendant presence in Canada. The series, directed by Henri Pardo and produced by Eric Idriss-Kanago, Daniela Mujica and Henri Pardo, brings faces, stories, anecdotes and less familiar historic chronicles to television screens, with the intent to do justice to the African population that shaped Canada’s History from the seventeenth century to the present.

Now & Next’s Lead Editor met the individuals who brought this original docuseries to life. Three articles will present Afro Canada’s background, behind-the-scenes coverage, and key goals.

In the first article, director Henri Pardo and artist and history enthusiast Aly Ndiaye (aka Webster—one of the main voices we will hear throughout the episodes) talk about the creation of the project and its raison d’être, the partial erasure of History and its consequences, and the importance of sharing this knowledge. 

HOW IT ALL BEGAN 

Afro Canada is a project that is near to our hearts. Everyone, especially in the film industry, wishes to tell their story and hear their version of reality,” says Henri Pardo, series director and producer, through his company Black Wealth Media[DR1] . “This idea has been floating around in the industry and the Black community for a while. Who wants to get their feet wet and try to put together the missing pieces to tell this History?”

This is the history that is not taught—or is rarely taught—in schools. As is often the case when dealing with historical contexts surrounding colonization, slavery and subservience, the stories of the communities that suffered this harm rarely make it into official records. These are the missing pieces that were sometimes voluntarily erased, bringing about consequences that are still felt centuries later.  

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Henri Pardo and his crew on the set of Afro Canada. Photo credit: Sarah El Attar

Afro Canada’s key goal is to bring to light rarely studied and shared historical facts. Two factors made it possible for such a project to see the light of day in 2022, as Pardo explains. “There have been deaths in recent years. These deaths have been brought to the forefront by local protesters; consequently, institutions have begun asking questions and thinking about how they could tell these people’s stories. ‘With whom and how do we share stories?’ is one of the many questions asked. Second, as a community, we’ve been working on our narrative, our film storytelling, for years and we’re ready. So, the two came together and here we are.” 

Pardo says he approached Radio-Canada with the project, making it clear that he was doing “Afro-centric work with and for people of my background.” “We agreed that the time had come for a series on African-Canadian history. The decisive factor was that institutions had decided to change course and ask serious questions, especially with respect to working with the ‘right people,’” he says.

 Pardo and his collaborators opted for a deliberately “disrupted,” non-chronological narrative as a framework for the Afro Canada project. The project combines disconcerting and inspiring stories faithful to the communities’ aspirations with reports, archives, animation, and interviews with historians, sociologists, and descendants of renowned African-Canadians, to name but a few.

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Photo credit: Sarah El Attar

Dance, costumes and tableaux punctuate each episode and serve to move viewers and draw them in. At the heart of the series is a modern-day “classroom,” where youth of all backgrounds can learn their story and their History. The classroom is facilitated by teacher Elourdes Pierre and the unmatched popular history enthusiast Aly Ndiaye (Webster).

“We wanted to reveal the child within ourselves, which is why we incorporated a classroom at the heart of the documentary, representing a thirst for knowledge and understanding,” says Pardo. This is how we wanted to present ourselves for the target audience.”

Webster echoes Pardo’s thoughts, saying, “Our viewers are at about the same level as students in a classroom in terms of Afro-Canadian history. Nobody is familiar with this History; aside from individuals studying the history in question, almost the entire Canadian population is at the same starting point. The classroom is a useful metaphor and allegory to show us how familiar we are (or aren’t) with this History and how knowledge can be shared with others.”

THE ERASURE OF AFRO-DESCENDANT HISTORY IN CANADA

Artist and rapper Webster, well known on Quebec’s hip-hop scene, has always been passionate about this History. While he was studying history in university, however, he was stunned by the nearly complete silence surrounding the history of Afro-descendants in Canada. When he realized that this history was as old as that of European settlers and that slaves were in Canada as early as the 1630s, he felt he needed to fill the knowledge gap not only for himself but also for society at large.

“This is the history I would have loved to learn when I was younger, especially as a mixed-race African-Canadian. I was soul searching. Where do I fit in? This was how I came to rapping about that History; rap was my only way to communicate to the world at the time. Over time, I went from project to project, movement to movement, interview to interview to share knowledge of that History.”

Webster

Hidden history has many negative impacts on future generations. “Erasure is cruel. That’s exactly what it is. Erasing someone’s existence. When your history is erased, you have no reference points; you feel like you’re the only one who is going through something. And if you’re the only one, out of 38 million, why talk about it? Why take offence? Why celebrate, for that matter? Why celebrate sexual diversity? I think that erasure divides us. It separates us,” says Pardo.

Webster speaks of a “conscious and unconscious” effort made to render this History invisible and of “a denial that has proven effective.” “When you deny something, you necessarily talk about it. It’s impossible to completely deny something because in doing so, you mention it. Here, however, and particularly in Quebec, the history was denied from the start. Its first historians, such as François-Xavier Garneau, literally denied slavery in a context of racial purity.”

In the collective imaginary, many ignore or minimize the existence of slavery in Canada because it didn’t look like the “U.S. mass slavery system.” “Denial has proven effective,” says Webster, especially since fewer people were enslaved, and mostly in an urban setting.

Elourdes Pierre, Webster and their 'students' on the set of Afro Canada. Photo credit: Sarah El Attar

“Ontario and Nova Scotia had bigger communities. Take Africville[DR2] , just north of Halifax. The line of descent was more direct and apparent than in Quebec. As a result, we weren’t reduced to nothing in Ontario and Nova Scotia. A decision was made to exclude this History from their provincial narrative, which was definitely a choice, but people were in a position to actively speak up about the matter much more than in Quebec, where no one could put their finger on it.

Fighting against the erasure of history begins with education. Webster believes that Afro-Canadian history should be taught in schools across Quebec and in other provinces (British [DR3] Columbia has recently incorporated this history into its school curriculum). However, he says that we should not wait for governments to take the lead and that a number of initiatives could step in to counteract an outdated educational system. This is where the documentary plays a key role.

The Afro Canada classroom provides a glimpse of what teaching unfamiliar histories could bring about among children, namely, a healthy curiosity, candid questions, spontaneous discussions (none of the conversations in the classroom were scripted) and thoughtful reflection.  

“It’s quite the experience to sit down with young children and talk to them about their History. Just look at their eyes. They’re saying, ‘Really, truly?’ ‘Can this be?’ You just have to do it. You just have to dare. This sense of community is amazing and needs to be embraced,” says Pardo.

EVERYBODY’S BUSINESS

Revealing the truth about centuries of African-Canadian history takes on particular significance for individuals learning about the stories and battles of their ancestors for the first time. However, “This isn’t only about African-Canadian history; it’s about Canadian history. Period,” says Webster insistently.

And to reach as many people as possible, Pardo’s approach focuses on the real power of uniqueness. “The more personal the stories are, the more we find a sense of universality in our actions and life. I believe that everyone who appreciates us will make a conscious effort to understand and dive into our universe.”

According to Webster, the notion of white supremacy must first be acknowledged, as the country’s history, as it was told until recently, is rooted in the colonial system and institutions.

On the set of Afro Canada. Photo credit: Sarah El Attar

“Canada’s history is steeped in white supremacy, colonial history, European projections, colonization of the Americas, slavery. History was written from a white supremacist perspective until the second half of the twentieth century. The history taught was that of Euro-descendants since they were the ones who built the country. That is how it was presented. We didn’t talk about the presence of Black people nor Indigenous peoples, whose home this is. This is how white Canadians and Quebeckers studied history; most of the time they feel that the history of Canada’s Black and Indigenous populations doesn’t concern them. This is why I say it’s Canada’s history and not only the history of Afro-descendants. Now we have erased the white supremacist concept as predominant in society. But it founded our institutions and our identity! The notion of white supremacy has been erased but not the system or privileges that came with it”, explains Webster.

Henri Pardo agrees. “Once we acknowledge privileges, I think we’ll be able to share the pie equally. I hope Afro Canada will truly be the springboard to having conversations, telling things as they are, working on telling the truth and paving the way to a better future”.


Gaëlle Essoo
Gaëlle Essoo works for the Canada Media Fund as the Lead Editor for the Now & Next editorial platform. She takes part in the organization’s strategic industry-monitoring effort. Prior to joining the CMF, she worked as a producer for international news channel France 24 where she focused on programs dedicated to women’s rights across the world. She also worked as a press counselor for the Embassy of France in Canada.
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