When we think about segregation we often don't think of Canada. As Canadians, we hold tightly to the national myth that we are the world's friendliest country. The truth is, many of the racialized inequities that we attribute to our neighbours to the South are realities right here at home. Businesses, schools, churches, hospitals, housing, and public spaces in Canada were segregated either:
Formally, through legislation or court decision
Functionally, through threats of violence or indignity.
Black communities in Eastern Canada, where the majority of Canada’s Black population lived until the 1960s, were physically segregated from white communities. The passing of the Human Rights Act in 1977 made it unconstitutional to discriminate on the basis of race, but change was not immediate. The last segregated school in Canada, in Lincolnville Nova Scotia, closed in 1983.
These indignities extended into the outdoors. Parks and public lands were functionally segregated and businesses that operated within them were permitted to discriminate, due to the 1939 Supreme Court of Canada decision in Christie v York which allowed private businesses to refuse service on the basis of ‘freedom of commerce’. Canadian National Parks did not have formal segregation policies, but maintained segregation practices to appeal to racist domestic sensibilities and American tourists. This typically meant Black people were only welcomed to perform back-of-house labour but could not recreate in the parks. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King were refused service at Fundy National Park in New Brunswick in 1960.
Image: A letter to a guest at Fundy Park Chalets refusing service to their Black travel companions
While these practices were outlawed in 1977, this racist history is within the living memory of the Black community. This was the generation of our parents and grandparents who were raised understanding that outdoor spaces weren’t welcoming and were often unsafe for them. These generations raised their own children to avoid these spaces for their own safety, thus teaching the next generations to self-segregate from the outdoors. Further, regardless of changes to the law, Black people continue to face threats and realities of racism, indignity, and violence from both the public and officials in outdoor spaces, reinforcing that outdoor recreation is ‘white folks’ business’. Functional segregation becomes a vicious cycle: when spaces are historically regarded as ‘white’, the Black people who do come to recreate have often been perceived and treated as suspicious or threatening, discouraging them from participating in those spaces.
So, why should this matter to Protect Our Winters? Because there is no environmental justice without social justice. We know this, and typically we think of this in terms of environmental racism and how marginalized communities are statistically more likely to be impacted by unclean air, unclean water, and rising sea levels. What we need to understand is that breaking down the cultural barrier to the outdoors is also climate action. Individuals who find joy in and have a personal relationship with the outdoors are three times more likely to advocate for environmental protection.
Alright, so where do we start: Meaningful representation. A short phrase that is complex and often misunderstood. We start by understanding that meaningful representation is not who you select to model in marketing campaigns, it’s who you invite to the table. It’s ensuring diverse perspectives are included on the ground, in the board rooms, and everywhere else decisions might be made. Don’t worry, there’s enough of us to go around.
That is my challenge to all of you. Not just for the month of February but every month. Think about all of the figurative tables that you sit at. This could be a formal table like a corporate board room but also think about your community groups, non-profit work, sports leagues, hiking groups or anywhere else you gather. Then, consider who’s not there and why they might not be.
Now, use your power to change it.
A Note About Indigenous Liberation
Kris says: I'm feeling weird, writing about Black liberation on Turtle Island without also writing on Indigenous liberation, land sovereignty, and ecological science. Although this piece is to align with Black history month the facts are one is impossible without the other.
She’s right. So, watch out for Part 2, coming out in early Summer, where we’ll talk about why truth, reconciliation and equality for Indigenous people is inseparable from climate progress.
About the Author
Kris Cromwell is a Black bi-racial settler based on Treaty 6 territory. She is the host of the BIPoC Outside Podcast and a Ph.D. student researching the contested histories, and racialized geographies of exclusion, in the Rocky Mountain west.
Listen to her conversations with rad athletes, activists and change-makers at www.bipocoutside.com