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Excerpt: Setting our Historical Context

This excerpt has been condensed and re-ordered from its original text [Submission to the B.C. Government on Accessibility Legislation] in order to provide a concise historical analysis of the colonial inception of Canada and its devastating impacts on Black and Indigenous peoples. Find the full report here.


The term intersectionality was coined by leading Black woman thinker, scholar, and writer in the field of critical race theory and law, Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term to help explain the multiple oppressions experienced by Black women. Doctor Crenshaw describes intersectionality as a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. This academic and mainstream term is now at the forefront of national conversations about racial justice, ableism, identity politics, and policing — and over the years has helped shape legal discussions. 

It is within this framework that we understand the relationship between the enslavement of Africans and urbanization as one that must continue to be examined, as the trans-Atlantic slave trade not only transformed the global economy but set the ground work for the emergence and development of maritime cities and towns. As colonial authorities settled and colonized the Americas, manipulation and segregation as a form of power and coercion operated through a ‘sanitation syndrome’ to convince white settlers that the Indigenous population and the enslaved Black labour force posed a viable threat to the health of European settlers. As a result, the Indigenous population was dramatically displaced and reduced in numbers. Those that survived were segregated and relegated to federal reserves.

Whether we choose to recognize them or not, hierarchies of racial exclusion have always been deliberately and strategically designed into our built and economic environment; beginning with the colonization and enslavement of African people. When considering space, place and history, Black presence in Canada, since the 1600s, is inextricably linked to the history of the enslavement of African people and the colonial economic enterprise of the time (The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2019). In order to move forward with the North American colonial project, Europeans had to conceptualize Africans as deformed beings “between human and animal and as such only fit for servitude” (James Hunt, On the Negro's Place in Nature, 1864 ).


Today, we live in cities that have been split and dissected into parts that are a product of their histories, the ‘native city’, the ‘black and racialized city’ and the ‘healthy livable white city,’ also perceived to be the only “true part of the city.” We saw this across Canada, and here in British Columbia through racial and exclusionary zoning and the expansion of racial restrictive covenants. These covenants divided neighbourhoods and forbade the Indigenous population along with racialized communities including 'Asiatics and people of African descent' from purchasing property in "whites only" subdivisions (CBC, 2014)...For example, we saw this exact scenario play out – right here in Canada - in Vancouver with Hogan’s Alley, where the first and last substantial Black community existed and was expelled with the construction of the viaducts. A Black neighbourhood was decimated by automobile infrastructure - a highway. 

We see discriminatory policies being re-enacted today during a crucial intersection of evolving crises across cities including a housing, transportation, opioid, racism, classism, ableism, environmental and gendered crisis. The shifting cultural memory of perceived discriminatory policies of the past continue to manifest intersectionally in anti-poor and ableism bylaws referred to as “Safer Streets Bylaws,’ that are being enacted across British Columbia and Canada. 

The United Nations has declared this to be the International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024), a declaration that acknowledges that people of African descent represent a distinctly oppressed group whose human rights have often been institutionally neglected due to anti-Black racism of which ableism is embedded within. Although the Canadian government has recognized the IDPAD, provincial and municipal recognition and measures towards the objectives of the International Decade have yet to be realized, in British Columbia, including progress towards redress, promoting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of people of African descent, and encouraging a greater knowledge of and respect for the heritage, culture, and contributions of these communities to cities across North America, including Canada and societies around the world. Moreover, apart from recognition and celebration, special additional attention must also be paid at all levels of government to community development and land use issues. This should [also] include the historical and continued housing discrimination that Black people of African descent with or without disabilities are likely to face in Canada, the historical and current displacement of Black peoples of African descent from communities through urban renewal projects, and the over-policing and racial discrimination experienced by Black peoples of African descent on public transportation through transit fare evasion policies in Canadian cities.

Amina Yasin is an Urban Planner, working across development and policy planning at the City of New Westminster, in B.C. She is also a Vancouver City Planning Commissioner, a volunteer member of Hogan's Alley Society, and Co-Chaired the Canadian Institute of Planners Social Equity Committee.