Foreword by Dr. Adam Rudder

At the time this foreword is being written, we are living through a turbulent and potentially transformative moment in the history of Black presence in North America. The COVID-19 pandemic has shown us that our communities are still deeply divided along racial lines. In the spring of 2020, advocates from the Black community in British Columbia joined nationwide calls for the urgent need to deal with present-day inequities in employment, education, political representation and health that make Black communities more vulnerable to the virus that causes COVID-19. Initially they were met with the all too familiar Canadian response, one very much rooted in the politics and rhetoric of “colour blindness.”

As statistics on the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on Black communities slowly began to emerge, the brutal murder of George Floyd by the police ignited international protest and drew attention to the mistreatment of Black people by law enforcement in North America. Video footage taken at the time of the murder showed Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressing his knee on Floyd’s neck, ignoring Floyd’s “I can’t breathe” cries. Officer Chauvin’s knee remained on Floyd’s neck as the life drained from his body. Why is it important to evoke Floyd’s memory here, in the foreword of Crawford Kilian’s foundational work on Black history in BC? The reason is simple: a true commitment to confronting racism in our communities must go well beyond the celebratory proclivities of multicultural politics. Change requires accepting responsibility for the impacts of history on the present, and to do this we need accurate and sometimes bold histories that are unafraid to tell the stories that not everyone wants to hear.

When I first read Kilian’s Go Do Some Great Thing, I had nearly completed an undergraduate degree in history at Simon Fraser University. My undergraduate was an incredible experience for me as a Black Canadian, as it allowed time and resources for the study of Black histories and cultures from around the world. Despite my focus on African diaspora history, Kilian’s book was the first I had ever found on Black British Columbian history. Reading it, I was filled with a new sense of optimism regarding the possibility of British Columbia being a legitimate home for Black people. But I was left with another question: how had I been in school for fourteen years, and been exposed to European histories from all over the world, and yet knew nothing of what I was beginning to think of as my own history? Like most of my peers, I grew up through the education system assuming that Black people did not have a history in British Columbia and hardly ever thought to question why. It was made clear to me that I did not belong, a notion that was often reinforced by the now-cliché question, “Where are you from?” The assumption, of course, was that a Black person could not be from British Columbia.

Kilian’s book challenges the myth emerging from histories that portray Canada as the end of the Underground Railroad and a safe haven for runaway African-American slaves. If Canada truly was the promised land for Black people as slavery officially came to an end in 1863, it is surprising that more of them did not try to immigrate. The truth is that Black people faced nearly insurmountable challenges crossing the border into Canada and then making it their home. During the peak years of immigration from the United States between 1901 and 1911, fewer than 1,500 Black people immigrated from the United States to Canada.1 According to 1901 and 1911 Census of Canada statistics, the overall population of Black settlers enumerated in the province actually dropped during those years, from 532 in 1901 to 473 in 1911. There have been many studies on Canada’s “White only” immigration policies that were designed to discourage Black and Asian people—considered the least suitable immigrants—from settling in Canada.

In this third edition of Kilian’s book, revisions have been made in the selection of primary sources that describe Black people and their experiences. Recognizing that the inclusion of racial slurs is contentious in educational settings even at the graduate level, the author and publisher made a decision not to reprint some pejorative terms from the original primary sources, in hopes that the book would find a place in as many classrooms as possible. This edition does an excellent job of presenting the history of Black pioneers in a manner that is accessible to younger audiences while maintaining a commitment to highlighting the complexity of Black experience. That said, as an educator I believe that there is an urgent and ongoing need to confront the use of racialized derogatory language through education and candid discussion. We need to be engaged with what is potentially lost when we are not entirely frank about the violence and brutality of colonization.

In order to begin to understand Black history in British Columbia, and the experience of Black people here today, we must come to terms with the fact that racist language was used as part of a process designed to systematically rob Black people of their humanity. Not for nothing, early settler colonists sought to establish a community that spoke English, followed Anglo-Saxon cultural and political norms, and created a society that privileged those who were able to show and prove close proximity to the ideal of a White Anglo-Saxon settler colonist. One of the challenging aspects of doing anti-racist work in BC has been to convince people that Black, Indigenous and People of Colour still experience racism in Canadian society. According to the official story, we are lucky to live in Canada because it is a place where anyone can be successful, if they are willing to work hard. The flip side of this message is that if you aren’t successful, you must be lazy. History can help us to engage more critically with the myth of meritocracy by drawing attention to how our society has privileged White people. There is a growing body of data and scholarship that supports how race, gender and class continue to have real and measurable impacts on health and economic well-being in Canada. Suffice it to say, without a written history, BIPOC people cannot “prove” that they have experienced racialized exclusion when Canada continues to aggressively argue that race does not determine outcomes here.

The absence of Black experience from British Columbia’s official historical memory was not simply the result of absent-mindedness. Rather than being benign, the term “absenting” here is used to draw attention to the very active process that has rendered Black experience invisible in the official historical record. In fact, the absenting of Black history was not an isolated occurrence unique to British Columbia. This form of history writing has deep roots in European colonial expansion, which positions the White European man as the most advanced form of human being. It was precisely their superiority that gave them the authority to make decisions for inferior people—anyone who is not a White man. Within the logic of colonization, White men drive progress; therefore, in a modern industrialized society, it makes sense that White men are given positions of leadership and that their deeds, actions and thoughts be recorded to instruct future generations. In this way, the idea of progress was weaponized against Black people, whose contributions were sadly not noteworthy enough to warrant inclusion. It was in fact the duty, or burden, of Europeans to drag the reluctant African into the future, kicking and screaming if need be, for progress could wait for no man, woman, child or “recalcitrant Black.” In short, the assumed inferiority of African people and their descendants rationalized their exclusion from the official historical record. It is in this context, of a White settler colony coming to terms with aspects of its history that it is no longer proud of, that the title of Kilian’s book becomes revolutionary for its time: Go Do Some Great Thing.

Although, as Kilian admits, a detailed history of Black experience in British Columbia has yet to be undertaken, his book is instrumental in providing a foundation. Working off of James Pilton’s earlier MA thesis Negro Settlement in British Columbia, 1858–1871 published in 1951, Kilian has written a very accessible introduction to the history of Black presence in the province for both the casual and scholarly reader.

In 2001, in an article published in the Vancouver Sun entitled “We Like to Pretend,” J.K. Nesbitt encourages Canadians to put aside their romanticized memories of multiculturalism and racial “tolerance.” He quotes a correspondent from the Francisco Liberator who in 1864 sadly commented that “[p]rejudice is too strong in Vancouver Island. We have brighter prospects of political elevation under our own government than in any British colony on this coast.”2 Black Victorians contributed to the founding of Victoria, and they should rightly be remembered in our history books and celebrated as examples to follow for young Black people living here today. Kilian remarks that after all the prejudice and hardship that they had been through, after all the fighting they had done just to contribute to the growth of a strong and prosperous Victoria where they could raise their children, they had “gained little more than tolerance.” The accuracy of this statement still rings true for many Black people living in British Columbia today.

In our present-day post-Floydian context, organizations such as the Hogan’s Alley Society (HAS) attempt to mobilize the history of Black presence in British Columbia to draw attention to the Strathcona Black community that has been stifled by racist immigration and city planning policy. At the time of this writing, the email inboxes at Hogan’s Alley Society are filled with requests. Folks want to know, and very genuinely, what they can do? In response to this outpouring of concern from the larger community, HAS and members of the Black community in general struggle for new ways to think about allyship. Yes, this is a history about Black people, colonization and White supremacy written by a White man, and some readers might take issue with that. There is no doubt that some very problematic histories of Black people have been written by White historians. I remember discovering that Kilian is a White man and wondering why he would choose to write this book in the 1970s. That was right around the time when my otherwise loving White grandmother was turning over my little brown hand in hers and commenting on the whiteness of my palms: “I wish the rest of him was this colour,” she mumbled to herself. It was around that time when I heard family members call my father a nigger. When I look back into my imagination and search the archives of my experiences growing up Black with well-intended Canadians who were happy to condemn racist Americans from a safe distance, I now also find my own fictionalized version of Kilian. Perhaps he is digging through archives or searching through his scattered and scant collection of newspaper clippings and bits of hearsay, and for whatever reason thinking, “This story must be heard.” Perhaps I am reassured that post-Floyd is just the beginning. Perhaps in this moment we need to make some room also for thanking those forward-thinking individuals who saw an absence that also looked like an injustice and decided to play a role in setting the record straight.

Dr. Adam Rudder

Vancouver, British Columbia

September 2020

1 Francis R. Douglas, Richard Jones, Donald B. Smith, Destinies: Canadian History Since Confederation (Toronto: Harcourt Brace Canada, 1996), 133.

2 Vancouver Sun, January 11, 1971, 27.

Works Cited

Bristow, Peggy. We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1994.

Cavanaugh, Catherine A., and Randi R. Warne. Telling Tales: Essays in Western Women’s History. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2000.

Edmunds-Flett, Sherry. “A Home for Our Children in the Right Place: First Generation African Canadian Women and Their Daughters on 19th Century Vancouver Island.” Unpublished manuscript, 2001.

Hill, Daniel G. The Freedom Seekers: Blacks in Early Canada. Agincourt, ON: Book Society of Canada, 1980.

Kilian, Crawford. Go Do Some Great Thing: The Black Pioneers of British Columbia. Vancouver, BC: Douglas and McIntyre, 1978.

Lapp, Rudolph. Blacks in Gold Rush California. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1977.

Morton, Suzanne. “Separate Sphere in a Separate World: African-Nova Scotian Women in Late 19th Century Halifax County.” In Separate Spheres: Women’s Worlds in the 19th-Century Maritimes, edited by Janet Guildford and Suzanne Morton. Fredericton: Acadiensis Press, 1994.

Pilton, James. “Negro Settlement in British Columbia, 1858–1871.” MA thesis, University of British Columbia, 1951.

———. “Negro Settlement in Victoria.” BA thesis, University of British Columbia, 1949.

Winks, Robin. The Blacks in Canada: A History. London: Yale University Press, 1971.

Yee, Shirley J. “Gender Ideology and Black Women as Community-Builders in Ontario, 1850–1870.” Canadian Historical Review 75, no. 1 (1994).

Zaffaroni, Irene Genevieve Mari. “The Great Chain of Being: Racism and Imperialism in Colonial Victoria, 1858–1871.” MA thesis, University of Victoria, 1987.