When Myrna Lashley first learned she would be one of two Montreal Black History Month spokespersons for 2018, she was delighted. “I think it’s important for people to see those from their community who they feel have succeeded and important for non-black people to see blacks in fields outside of sports and music.”
Lashley says lack of awareness of the long-term and diverse contributions of the black community does a disservice to society and to black youth in particular. “We are engineers, doctors, bricklayers, mathematicians. We do everything everybody else does.”
Currently a professor in McGill University’s psychiatry department, Lashley was the first black associate dean of John Abbott College and a director of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. She serves on a committee of experts studying racial profiling, commissioned by the Montreal police department, and her research interests include cultural aspects of youth mental health, and of radicalization leading to violence.
She says that while Black History Month is important, it’s a highlight and not the whole story. Lashley would like to see black and indigenous history included in the school curriculum and mentions Canadian and international historical figures students would discover, like John Ware (1845-1905), Canada’s first black cowboy who helped create Alberta’s ranching industry, and inventor Elijah McCoy (1844-1929), immortalized in the phrase “The real McCoy.”
Though slavery and its aftermath make up an important and tragic part of black history, there are stories of heroism, resilience and excellence. “A lot of people don’t know that author Alexandre Dumas was (half) black, that the empress Josephine was half-black from Martinique.”
Having come to Montreal at age 12 from Barbados, Lashley has experienced racism first-hand, perhaps most in Halifax, Nova Scotia, when as a young adult she had served in the Canadian Navy. “No member of the Canadian Navy was allowed to go to Africville. But in Halifax a man refused to rent me an apartment. The people I met from Africville were those who gave me solace.”
The story of the seaside community is another chapter from Canada’s black history that deserves to be better known. Founded by black settlers in 1848, Africville was a place where families built homes on their own land, becoming a haven where they could escape the racism of the big city. The community was demolished in the 1960s, with its residents forcibly relocated.
Lashley distinguishes individual racism from systemic racism. She gives as examples of the latter, offensive language used unthinkingly, such as “I’m gonna jew him down” and portraits of prominent people displayed in a hallway of an institution, where the absence of blacks and women goes unnoticed.
“Systemic racism exists throughout society. We’re all recipients of that teaching, we’ve all been exposed to it. It is harder to combat because people don’t realize they are doing it. To them it is normal not to see a woman’s picture on the wall.”
As an individual, Lashley has tried to change things but adds that you can’t let racism control you. “Then, you’ve lost, it’s the beginning of your spiritual death. What I’ve said is ‘yes, racism exists, now how am I going to beat it?’”
Over the years, working with the police, she says she has seen real changes and feels hopeful. “Racial profiling is changing. I am not making excuses, but change comes slowly, it does not happen overnight. There are people who are ingrained but they are slowly retiring. I see young people who have friends from all different communities, people inter-marrying, more people of colour entering into the Montreal police. I put all my faith in young people.”