As a country progresses and societies evolve, its citizens experience a litany of firsts. Technologies improve, services expand, and laws shift to bring more order, define the roles of governing bodies, and provide its citizenry greater protections. Canada is no different, but for people of colour, the benefits and entitlements afforded with each progressive stride are often delayed, in some cases by decades or generations. Even with limited effort, we can conjure an extensive list of inquiries: Who was the first Black person to legally own land in Western Canada? Who was the first non-person of colour to have a bank account at an established Canadian bank? Who was the first Black person to successfully secure a mortgage or even a business loan? Who would we recognize as the first established Black business owner in Western Canada, or even within Alberta? Exact answers are elusive. The pervasive issue of scant documentation within the Black community extends Canada-wide. Race-based data and records of successes within racialized communities are limited. This lack has unfortunately made it difficult for Black people to quantify and effectively articulate the levels of discrimination experienced when engaging with a system that was historically designed to keep them excluded.
A true exploration of the historic development of Black enterprise nationally or even in Western Canada would entail a complex cross-examination of immigration records, changes in legislation and public policy, and archived court and corporate records. While this piece is not afforded such an in-depth review, we can connect some other readily accessible information to provide context. We will briefly discuss how discriminatory practices throughout Canada’s history continue to impact Black entrepreneurs even today.
The means by which discrimination was practiced in Canada were not limited to a single strategy (it still isn’t). As the term ‘Systemic Racism’ implies, Canada, as did all colonized nations, effectively integrated policies of exclusion that impact all areas of financial growth, security, and stability for minority groups. While educational texts often highlight that escaped slaves found their ‘freedom’ in Canada, they certainly were not afforded equitable considerations under the law. In neighbouring Vancouver, for example, as late as 1965, real estate contracts included a clause that read, “That the Grantee or his heirs, administrators, executor, successors or assigns will not sell to, agree to sell to, rent to, lease to, or permit or allow to occupy, the said lands and premises, or any part therefor, any person of the Chinese, Japanese or other Asiatic race or to any Indian or Negro.” Closer to home, in Calgary, similar overt strategies of exclusion were implemented. In the 1920s, using restrictive covenants, People of Colour were restricted to the boundaries of railway yards; homeownership outside of this border was barred.
Instinctively, one would think that the natural course of action in a country that lays claim to ‘democracy’ would be to vote for representatives that could influence changes in the law. The glitch in that plan, however, ties back to property ownership. On paper, Black Canadians transitioned from enslaved persons to British subjects (between 17939-1834) and should have been afforded similar rights as any White Canadian. Up until the 1920s, however, a person would be required to own property and have taxable income in order to vote.
Generational wealth, particularly in the Prairies, is often built on land ownership. Why is this important? Because access to generational wealth gives many young entrepreneurs not only a safety net but the startup capital needed to build their enterprise. Consider the impact of these policies on a Black businessperson hoping to own a traditional mortar and brick establishment. Consider too the impossibility of bridging these gaps in ownership that are 50 - 100 years wide, counting merely from the time the first escaped slaves migrated to Canada. Consider the sheer frustration of simply wanting the opportunity to be self-sufficient but facing such well-constructed barriers at every turn.
It’s not to say that these laws around land ownership and voting were able to fully extinguish the Black entrepreneurial spirit. Innovation and tenacity have fuelled Black endeavours in the most unwelcoming environment. The lesser-told stories of Lucille Hunter (1878-1973) are documented. One of the few Black settlers in the Yukon who rode in during the Klondike Gold Rush. Although most of her life was spent in labor at the gold mines, at the age of 64 she established a laundry tent in Whitehorse to sustain herself after losing her husband. Meanwhile, on the opposite coast, Rose Fortune, whose family escaped from a Virginian colony to Nova Scotia, established her business transporting luggage for passengers from the ferry docks to Annapolis hotels using wheelbarrows and providing wake-up calls to travellers.
Canada today certainly boasts inclusivity on global platforms. Yet, conversations within any racialize community reek with accounts of discrimination in business and banking. One of the effective strategies to maintaining discriminatory practices is to undermine the validity of a claim. Time and time again, Black entrepreneurs and businesspeople are asked to ‘prove’ their experience, yet, the ruling bodies have avoided collecting the necessary data to effectively quantify these issues. In the wake of new Black consciousness and support across Canada, a number of funding opportunities have arisen, yet, the requirements for qualifications and complicated terms of repayment are often moving targets.
The Government of Alberta along with countless grassroots organizations are riding this wave of change. Up to $400 million dollars in funding has been earmarked to support the sustainable growth of Black businesses. However, history has shown us that simply funnelling finances absent of a solid strategy and while remaining tone-deaf to the root cause of the issue can make for slower progress. The latest support strategy announced in December of 2021 is the creation of the Black Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub. Working through Carleton University and the Dream Legacy Foundation, the mission, according to the news release, is to “conduct research and collect data on Black entrepreneurship in Canada and identify barriers to success as well as opportunities to help Black entrepreneurs grow their business.”
The Honourable Mary Ng, Minister of International Trade, Export Promotion, Small Business and Economic Development shares, “Black Canadian business owners and entrepreneurs make significant contributions to the Canadian economy and to the communities around them, but they continue to face systemic barriers, many of which have been greatly increased by the pandemic. Our government’s investment to establish the Black Entrepreneurship Knowledge Hub will lead to a better understanding of the barriers Black entrepreneurs face and help identify opportunities for growth. This is another important step toward a more inclusive, more just, and more prosperous Canada now and for future generations.”
Together these are not the ‘solutions’ however they are steps in the right direction. The work of acknowledging the issue, an openness to support (willingly or coerced), and building strategies towards sustainability must still be combined with active work against anti-Blackness.
So what is the status of Black-owned businesses today in Alberta? Andrea Bailey Brown of Bailey Brown Business and Franchise Consulting has supported Albertan businesses over the last 5 years as a consultant. While she also admits that the issue of scant race-based data makes it difficult to quantify her observations, she has noted that Black-owned businesses lean heavily toward either the food industry or the beauty industry in Alberta. The trend is reflective of the Black immigrant population wanting to maintain cultural traditions around food as well as the niche created around servicing Afro-textured hair. “Black business owners also participate in less obvious markets like healthcare, construction, and automotive services; As a Black Community, we need to become better at sharing these ‘hidden’ resources.”
Specifically to Black entrepreneurs hoping to leverage opportunities, Andrea offers a few quick pointers: Always document a thorough business plan. This is critical particularly when seeking funding. Banks and lenders are typically risk-averse; a solid business plan that addresses all their questions can place you in a more favorable position. Also, get educated around the different types of funding available - loans from a bank are not your only option. Networking is essential. Place yourself in environments that you aren’t typically expected to be and leverage the connections that you make. Ask detailed questions, particularly in the face of rejection. Use the responses to fine-tune your approach. Be resilient in your pursuit - if one particular angle isn’t successful for funding, push forward to the next.
In spite of a delayed start and a history riddled with hurdles, the future of Black-owned businesses remains bright. For Albertans and those in the Prairies, the conversations about the value of Black enterprise are finally being heard. Understanding some of the history serves to provide context to current issues that we face. The hope is that the information will propel us into the next phase of progress.