Wednesday, March 2, 2011

How the Blacks Created Canada by Fil Fraser

The title is provocative - approaching the hyperbole of How the Irish Saved Civilization and How the Scots Invented the Modern World - but Edmontonian Fil Fraser makes clear he means that the creation of Canada is ongoing and collaborative. The scope of the book is huge, spanning 400 years of Black contributions to Canada's history.

The first chapter tells the important story of the Crown Colony on Vancouver Island in the mid-1800s, and how a large settlement of Blacks recruited from San Francisco helped to keep British Columbia from falling into American hands. Chapter 7, "The Caribbean Invasion" gave me pause, since "invasion" has such negative connotations. The praises in his text make it clear that this is not meant as a slur, however; he talks about such luminaries as Rosemary Brown, Donovan Bailey, Austin Clarke and Michaelle Jean. Plenty of relatively unknown people are also included, which is a strength throughout the book. In the same (seventh) chapter, Fraser calls John Diefenbaker "Canada's first 'Black' prime minister" because he was a proponent of minority rights. (As far as I know, all of the other Blacks that Fraser profiles are, or were, actually of African heritage.)

Fraser does go overboard in his enthusiasm: "[George Elliott Clarke's] sparkling, dynamic, 'with-it' personality destroys stereotypes on contact." (Wow! On contact?) Fraser is also prone to unsubstantiated pronouncements such as: "Without the sustenance they derived from the church, it's unlikely that many of the Blacks who helped to create Canada could have succeeded."

While Fraser's tone is avuncular and his rambling storytelling style tends to circle and occasionally repeat, his passion for his subject is undeniable. The content is interesting and easy to absorb. There is much to admire in this ambitious undertaking.

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