Black Women in Canada
People of African descent have lived in Canada for centuries. According to historical records, Mathieu da Costa was the first to arrive in the early 1600s to serve as a translator between the Mi’kmaq people and French colonizers. Thousands of more Black people would arrive in the following centuries, to labour alongside of Indigenous slaves, first in New France and then the British colonies of Upper and Lower Canada. Others fled north, escaping slavery in the United States.
Today, 1.2 million people in Canada self-report as Black, including 620,000 women and girls.
Though slavery was abolished in 1834, Black people in Canada continue to face segregation in employment as well as all other areas of life. The United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent in its 2017 country report on Canada recognized the roots of anti-Black racism in the history of slavery, racial segregation and marginalization. These realities persist to the present day and impact the experiences and life opportunities of Black people born in Canada as well as those who have arrived seeking asylum or through immigration. Black women and girls, in particular, continue to live in poverty and poor health, experience significant levels of violence, and struggle to access decent employment, housing and public services.
This short report examines the experience of Black women and girls in Canada and is part of a larger project examining Canada’s progress on achieving women’s rights and gender equality. It has been 25 years since 50,000 activists, diplomats and world leaders met in Beijing, China to plan for a world in which all women everywhere—in all of their diversity—could live full and equal lives. The resulting declaration and platform for action was the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights.¹ Together with the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW),² the Beijing Declaration outlines some of the greatest obstacles to gender equality and how we can overcome them.
No country—including Canada—has finished this agenda as this discussion of Black women and girls reveals.
Today, more than ever, urgent and sustained action is needed to tackle persistent and profound barriers to change and to challenge entrenched norms and stereotypes. Success will only be achieved if Black women are equal partners and leaders in this work.
Black Women and Girls: Experiences in Education
Education is a foundational pillar within Canadian society and is publicly recognized as a “fundamental social good.” For countless Black students, however, educational institutions are places where they encounter “degradation, harm, and psychological violence.”³ The discourse of race neutrality⁴ or colour blindness prevalent in Canada’s education system renders the experiences of Black students invisible, while the research on Black children that does exist typically overlooks the perspectives of Black girls, compounding the significant barriers they face.⁵
Statistics from the Toronto Board of Education show that 20% of black students drop out of high school, double the rate for white (11%) and other racialized students (9%).
“Black students are also more than twice as likely to take applied courses in high school, making advancing to university difficult—nearly half of them won’t even apply to post-secondary.”⁶ These statistics highlight the failings of Canada’s public education system.
There exists a paucity of research and data on the experiences of Black girls (children and youth under the age of 18) in public education in Canada. We know that girls generally tend to outperform boys in elementary and secondary school, and that girls are more likely to graduate from high school.⁷ But we have few sources of information that track the experiences or educational outcomes of Black girls. We effectively have no information about the intersection of identities, such as LGBTQIA+, immigrant status, Afro-Indigenous, language group or presence of a disability.
Black scholars posit that overall, Black students experience schools as “carceral places characterized by neglect, heightened surveillance, and arbitrary and often extreme punishment for any perceived disobedience.”⁸
In particular, Black girls experience, and must contend with the “sexual stereotypes and perceptions of low educational aspirations and achievements”⁹ forced onto them. As Robyn Maynard argues, the purpose of schooling is to encourage the learning and practice of socio-cultural behaviours, to provide opportunities to cultivate the relations and minds of children and youth and to assist in building their futures;¹⁰ however, this is not the reality for Black students.
Many of the resources available discuss the mistreatment of Black children and youth within Canadian educational systems through their own words and understandings. This information details the violent experiences of many Black students in their interactions with teachers and peers, including verbal abuse such as “the regular use of the n-word”¹¹ and being placed within lower-achieving academic streams based on racist justifications and not actual abilities.¹² Black students also speak about the lack of attention towards their worries, interests and requests, and an unwillingness on the part of teachers and administrators to act on complaints of racism.¹³
The barriers that Black girls face in the public education system is one of the key reasons behind lower levels of educational attainment at college and university—although this gap has been closing. In 2016, 32.5% of Black women aged 25 to 34 years held a university degree compared to 36.5% of women who did not report being part of a visible minority.¹⁴
Education reform—based on research and evidence that centers and amplifies the experiences, voices and perspectives of Black girl-children and youth and employs an intersecting, anti-racist, anti-oppressive lens—is critical. “Educators need to be aware of how structures of inequities like racism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia operate in educational institutions.”¹⁵ When educational systems are structured equally and equitably, when programming adopts a holistic approach and is guided by the Black community, the experiences of Black girls within public education can and will improve.
Black Women and Health
Black women living in Canada face unquestionable health disparities and unnecessary poor health outcomes due to marginalization and social exclusion. Research shows that the cumulative impact of racism, discrimination, poverty and other structural and systemic inequalities profoundly impact the physical, emotional and mental health of all Black women in Canada.¹⁶
Black women are overrepresented in the national rates for most significant chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular and cerebrovascular disease, HIV/AIDS, lupus and hypertension.¹⁷ Diabetes rates, for example, doubled among Black women from 6% to 12% between 2001 and 2012. Black women also experienced the most drastic increase in rates of high blood pressure across any ethnic group in Canada, increasing from 20% to 27% over this time period.¹⁸
At the same time, there is little research on the health of Black women. In a recent scoping review, researchers surveyed over 2,000 studies for information on cervical and breast cancer in Black Canadians. Only 23 studies focused on these cancers in Black Canadian women and none of the studies reported the incidence, prevalence or mortality rates of cervical cancer or breast cancer for this population.¹⁹
This lack of health data continues to place Black Canadian women at risk.
Anti-Black racism has been identified as a key factor in the disproportionate experience of chronic illness such as depression which further undermines Black women’s ability to thrive.²⁰ It is also a significant barrier to Black women and girls accessing needed service and supports.²¹ Despite Canada’s universal healthcare system being touted as one of the best in the world, the bodies and wellbeing of Black women reveal the gaping cracks in our system.
Yet, in the face of this urgent crisis, Canada does not have a national Black health strategy and the province of Ontario, home to over half of the country’s Black population, has assigned limited healthcare resources to address the pressing needs of Black women.
Black Women and the Criminal Justice System
Black women are consistently and disproportionately vulnerable to incarceration—the result of “racial bias at all levels of the [criminal justice] system, from racial profiling to the exercise of prosecutorial discretion, the imposition of pretrial incarceration and disparities in sentencing.”²² Black women represent roughly 6% of all federally incarcerated female prisoners, but only 3.1% of Canada’s overall female population (aged 15 and older) according to the Office of the Correctional Investigator.²³
The criminalization of Black women in Canada extends beyond formal incarceration.
Racial profiling of Black women continues to be a practiced at every stage of the criminal justice system. In a 2017 report on racial profiling by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Black women shared their experiences attesting to this.²⁴ Examples included: Black women being stereotyped as sex workers when stopped by a police officer while driving with their white boyfriend; being characterized as an “angry Black woman” when speaking up for themselves in family court; or being followed and subjected to hyper scrutiny in retail stores because of suspicion that they were shoplifters.
Once incarcerated, Black women experience elevated rates of isolation due to separation from their families and lack of access to culturally appropriate services and supports (e.g., medicated creams and ointments for Black skin and hair care and other hygiene products; inadequate access to religious and spiritual support; lack of access to diverse educational and training opportunities). Black women also report being stereotyped as drug traffickers and addicts, as reflected in their compulsory enrollment in prison programming designed to address these challenges. They are often unfairly labeled as ‘trouble makers’ for simply congregating together to socialize within the institution.
This pervasive mistreatment of Black women heightens the likelihood and vulnerability of Black women to being targeted and ensnared by Canada’s criminal justice system. To respond to this and other systemic injustices faced by Black women in Canada, the UN Human Rights Council’s Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent recommended that Canada “[d]evelop a comprehensive national gender equality policy to address structural factors such as anti-Black racism that lead to Black-gendered inequality faced by women of African descent.” Canada has yet to do this while Black women continue to experience elevated rates of disadvantage at all levels of the criminal justice system.
Black Women in Canada’s Gendered and Racialized Labour Market
One of the biggest paradoxes of the Canadian labour market is that both men and women who identify as Black have higher labour force participation rates than their non-racialized counterparts.
In 2016, the labour force participation rate was 66.1% among Black women, over five percentage points higher than that of non-racialized women.²⁵ Yet, unemployment among Black women was roughly twice the rate of non-racialized women (12.2% vs 6.4%),²⁶ and their earnings gap was significantly larger (Black women earn 59 cents on average for every dollar that non-racialized men earn).²⁷
These data highlight the systemic challenges Black women experience, including discriminatory attitudes and behaviours, in attempting to achieve economic security. In general, Black women face greater barriers to getting jobs, well-paid jobs in particular, compared to other racialized and white women. They are over-represented in precarious and part-time employment which typically pays less and provides fewer hours of work overall. They experience long and frequent periods of unemployment, slower career advancement, and more “long term” entry-level jobs.²⁸
Studies also show that Black women are subject to discrimination on the part of employers who screen out job applicants with African, Asian or Muslim “sounding” names, or those who live in certain neighbourhoods, even when applicants have equivalent education and experience.²⁹ On their mission to Canada, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent expressed concern about the targeting of Black women and girls by police and the increase in their contact with the criminal justice system. This represents an additional barrier to employment because employers’ use of police record checks in the hiring process entrenches the exclusion of over-policed communities of colour from the labour market.
Taken together, discrimination in the labour force and growth in precarious employment have contributed significantly to high levels of poverty among racialized families.
Black women in particular are disproportionately entrenched in a cycle of poverty and marginalization that deprives them and their families of the resources necessary to fully participate in Canadian life.
According to the 2016 Census, one-quarter of Black women live below the poverty line in Canada, approximately twice the proportion of non-racialized women.³⁰ For Black women who are single parents family poverty is 65% compared to 26% for families led by white single mothers. Employment offers little protection from poverty. In the greater Toronto area, one of the highest rates of working poverty was among Black women at 10.5%, more than twice the rates for white male workers and white female workers (at 4.8% and 4.7%, respectively).³¹
Canada has instituted several programs to promote labour market equity, and inclusion and diversity in employment. However, the lack of intentional measures to recognize and combat anti-Black racism undermine their effectiveness in tackling the profound and persistent labour market inequalities experienced by Black women.
Black Women in Academia
The shortcomings of current employment equity programs are evident in the experiences of Black women in the academic workforce. The Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) reports that Black academics make up only 2.0% of all university professors, experience the highest rates of unemployment at 10.7%, and make 11.7% less than the average earnings of all university teachers.³²
Racialized women (including Black women) are the most under-represented among full-time, full-year (FTFY) professors and instructors, with 44.9% working on an FTFY basis in universities and only 31.5% in colleges. The comparative figures for non-racialized men were 61.8% and 51.5%, respectively. The size of the employment gap, in turn, is reflected in the size of the earnings gap. In 2016, racialized women professors earned 68 cents for every dollar earned by non-racialized men; college instructors earned even less at 63 cents on that dollar.³³
While there are significant gaps in available “equity and diversity” data, what does exist is enough to conclude that the academic workforce is neither representative of the diversity of the student body nor the labour force, a reality well-known by Black women navigating academia as students.
In addition to systemic discrimination, incidences of interpersonal discrimination on university and college campuses are common. Recent examples include incidences of racial slurs being used by professors in lectures,³⁴ professors telling Black female students that they are, both individually and as a community, unsuccessful in comparison to other racialized groups,³⁵ and Black female students being told they are “too dark” to sit at the back of the lecture hall.³⁶ Many incidents go unreported because of fears of backlash.³⁷
Working and studying in these environments have multiple, multifaceted effects on the research, careers, and quality of life of Black academics that do not end at graduation, or upon exiting the academic workforce.³⁸ While there has been little political intervention,³⁹ groups and individuals have taken up the mandate of supporting and celebrating Black and other racialized academics. One recent example is Canada’s first (now annual) Black Graduation celebration;⁴⁰ an event organized by Black female academics with the purpose of validating the experiences of Black academics, celebrating accomplishments, and increasing representation of Black academics for future generations.⁴¹
To date, attempts at equity and diversity policy in Canada have failed to address the systemic and interpersonal discrimination against and oppression of Black female academics, both students and those who are part of the academic workforce. In the absence of action and an intersectional lens being applied to policy reform, the Canadian government remains complicit in the oppression of Black female academics on and off campus.
Lack of disaggregated data reproduces historical and social barriers
One of the federal government’s main tools to achieve equality and rectify employment disadvantage is the federal Employment Equity Act. Introduced in 1986, this Act requires federally regulated employers to take proactive steps to increase the representation of women, Aboriginal peoples, persons with disabilities and visible minorities⁴² in the workplace to a level that reflects their presence in the labour market, and to identify and eliminate artificial barriers in the workplace that prevent designated group members from accessing jobs, promotions, training, etc..⁴³
The success of Canada’s employment equity legislation has fallen short of its goals. Following its implementation, organizations covered by the Act introduced employment equity statements and policies, but as intersectional feminist researchers have documented, many of these statements failed to mandate action and were not accompanied by the resourcing necessary to implement positive change.⁴⁴ In many instances, employment equity statements were offered up as evidence that change had already taken place, in effect, reinforcing and reproducing the status quo.⁴⁵
Researchers have also found that employment equity policies tend to increase representation “selectively.” The representation of white women in the university sector, for example, has increased at a faster pace than the representation of visible minorities.⁴⁶ This increase, in turn, is held up as an improvement for “women” in general, effectively marginalizing “the colonial and cultural relativity and subjectivity of womanhood amongst various groups.”⁴⁷
Similarly, the continued use of the term “visible minority” in the Census and other Statistics Canada surveys, as well as in legislation such as the Employment Equity Act, works to erase Black women, obscuring “the degrees of disparity in treatment and specific human rights concerns of African Canadians”⁴⁸ and masking the specific historical and social differences and barriers that racialized Canadians face.
Black women are twice made invisible by the use of this term. They are systematically subsumed in the identity of racialized women, and again in the broader category of women, despite experiencing significantly disproportionate disadvantage. As a consequence, the data necessary to better understand the labour market and related experiences of Black women are either not collected appropriately or are not collected at all. A further consequence is that Black women are not intentionally included in policy remedies that are developed to address gender disparities or race disparities.
Immediate action is needed to collect and report out on disaggregated data on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender and gender identity, ability, sexual orientation, faith/spirituality, age, immigration status, and country of origin. In addition, the government should remove reference to ‘visible minority’ in the Employment Equity Act. These actions will allow policy makers, community groups and all other stakeholders to better understand the lived experience of Black women and help to properly inform policy and programs (including employment equity and pay equity) that will effectively reduce disparities and improve the lives of Black women, their children and their communities.
Recommendations for Action
- It is recommended that the federal government: 1. Create a mechanism for overseeing, evaluating and ensuring domestic implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
- Develop a comprehensive national gender equality policy to address structural factors such as anti-Black racism leading to Black gendered inequality.
- Ensure that the new National Institute for Women’s Health Research is mandated and resourced to address the significant health disparities that Black women and girls experience.
- Design and implement a lasting and meaningful national plan to combat poverty that uses a human rights framework and takes the particular and diverse realities of Black women’s lives into account.
- Review the development of strategies to increase affordable housing and end homelessness and ensure that those strategies are gendered and include an intersectional analysis that addresses anti-Black racism.
- Reform the Employment Insurance program to ensure equitable access to benefits and training for precariously employed workers and temporary help agency workers.
- Provide start-up funds, capital, mentorship and other needed supports to help boost entrepreneurship, another key strategy for improving the economic security of Black women.
- Immediately engage with Black community organizations and Black community experts, across the country, through in-person meetings, specialized task forces and working groups, to consider mechanisms and measures needed to address entrenched anti-black racism that causes and perpetuates Black women’s economic inequality.
- Develop an annual reporting mechanism that coordinates the collection of race-based statistics with the goal of monitoring and improving the status of the Black community in Canada with particular attention to Black women and children.
¹ UN Women, Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.
² The Convention of the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979, defines what constitutes discrimination against women and sets up an agenda for national action to end such discrimination.
³ Robyn Maynard (2019), “Canadian education is steeped in anti-Black racism,” The Walrus, December 9, 2019.
⁴ Karen Robson (2018), “Why won’t Canada collect data on race and student success?” Brighter World.
5 Kimberly Moore and Celine Gibbons-Taylor (2018), “Resistance is our ancestral knowledge: Incorporating roots of resistance into the education of adolescent Afro-Caribbean girls in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA),” Critical Schooling, pp. 99-123; Erica Neeganagwedgin (2013), “Narratives from within: Black women and schooling in the Canadian context,” Alberta Journal of Educational Research, 59(2): 226-246.
6 These figures are for the 2006-2011 cohort. Veronica Appia (2019), “Closing the Gap: Why are Black students in Toronto less likely to thrive?” toronto.com, June 17, 2019.
7 Martin Turcotte (2011), “Women and Education,” Statistics Canada, Catalogue no. 89-503-X.
8 Robyn Maynard (2019).
9 Janet Senow (2019), “Black girls and dolls navigating race, class, and gender in Toronto,” Girlhood Studies, 12(2): 48-64.
10 Robyn Maynard (2019).
11 Carl James (2019), “Black students in Ontario schools fighting to thrive in the face of anti-Black racism,” By Blacks, August 29 2019,
12 Robyn Maynard (2019); Olufunke Oba, (2017), “It takes a village – schooling out of place: School experiences of Black African youth in Waterloo Region,” Doctoral dissertation: Wilfrid Laurier University.
13 Carl James (2019).
14 Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue No. 98-400-X2016286.
15 Carl James (2019).
16 African Canadian Legal Clinic (2008), Report to Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in Consideration on the Review of Canada’s 7th Periodic Report.
17 Tharao, W. and Massaquoi, N. (2013), Black Women and HIV/AIDS, Contextualizing their Realities, their Silence and Proposing Solutions. In A. Miles (Ed), Women in a Globalized World, Transforming Equality, Development, Diversity and Peace, Toronto: Inanna Publications and Education Inc; Curling, D., Chatterjee, S., Massaquoi, N. (2009), Women’s Transnational Locations as a Determinant of Mental Health: Results from a Participatory Action Research Project with New Immigrant Women of Color in Toronto, Canada. In Pathways, Bridges and Havens: The Psychosocial Determinants of Women’s Health. Edited by J. Gallivan and S. Cooper, Sydney: Cape Breton University Press; Veenstra, G. and Patterson, A. (2016), “Black-White health inequalities in Canada,” Journal of Immigrant and Minority Health, 18(1), 51-57; Siddiqi, A., et al. (2017), “Associations between race, discrimination and risk for chronic disease in a population-based sample from Canada,” Social Science & Medicine, 194 (Complete), 135-141.
18 Chiu, M., et al. (2015), “Temporal trends in cardiovascular disease risk factors among white, South Asian, Chinese and black groups in Ontario, Canada, 2001 to 2012: A population-based study,” BMJ Open 2015.
19 Nnorom, O., et al. (2019), “Dying to learn: A scoping review of breast and cervical cancer studies focusing on Black Canadian women,” Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, 30(4), 1331-1359.
20 Public Health Agency, Canada (2007) (Atlantic Region), An Environmental Scan of Mental Health and Mental Illness in Atlantic Canada; Etowa, J. B., et al. (2017), “you feel you have to be made of steel”: The strong Black woman, health, and well-being in Nova Scotia, Health Care for Women International, 38(4), 379-393.
21 Sheryl Nestel (2012), Colour coded health care: The impact of race and racism on Canadians’ health, Wellesley Institute; Sinai Health System (2017), Black Experiences in Health Care Report: Symposium Report; Kisely, S., Mikiko, T. and Langille, D. (2008), “A Population-Based Analysis of the Health Experience of African Nova Scotians.” Canadian Medical Association Journal, September 23.
22 Human Rights Council (2017), Report of the Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent on its mission to Canada, A/HRC/36/60/Add.1, p. 8.
23 The Correctional Investigator Canada (2017), Annual Report 2016-17, p. 56; Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016190.
24 Ontario Human Rights Commission (2017), Under Suspicion: Research and Consultation Report on Racial Profiling in Ontario.
25 Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue No. 98-400-X2016286.
27 Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue No. 98-400-X2016210.
28 Sheila Block and Grace-Edward Galabuzi and Ricardo Tranjan (2019), Canada’s Colour Coded Income Inequality. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
29 Colour of Poverty-Color of Change (2019), The 2019 Fact sheets: Understanding the radicalization of poverty in Ontario, Canada.
30 Statistics Canada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016211. Poverty rates were calculated using the Low Income Measure (after tax).
31 John Stapleton, et al. (2019) The Working Poor in the Toronto Region: A closer look at the increasing numbers. Metcalfe Foundation. The working poor are defined as those between the ages of 18 and 64, outside of school, living independently, with an after-tax income below the Low-Income Measure (LIM), earning at least $3,000 a year.
32 Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), Underrepresented & Underpaid: Diversity & Equity Among Canada’s Post-Secondary Education Teachers.
34 Jacquelyn Lebel (2019), “Western University professor apologizes after student calls out his use of the n-word,” Global News (London), October 28, 2019.
35 Justine Wallace (2019), “We’re Not All Nice”: Exploring ideological constructions of Canada and ‘Canadianness’ from the perspectives of Black women of the Second Generation,” Major Research Paper, York University.
36 Hillary Johnstone (2019), “More black profs needed at U of O, students say,” CBC News (Ottawa), November 21, 2019.
37 Johnathan Juha (2019), “Western University student who called out professor over 'n-word' facing racist backlash,” London Free Press (London), October 31, 2019.
38 Jen Katshunga (2019), “Too Black for Canada, too white for Congo: re-searching in a (dis)placed body,” Open Democracy (United States & Canada)
39 Isalean Harris (2018).
40 Emma McIntosh (2017), “University of Toronto hosts first Black graduation ceremony,” The Toronto Star, June 22, 2017.
41 Nasma Ahmed and Jessica Kirk (2017), “University of Toronto students host Canada’s first black graduation,” YouTube, Video File. June 29, 2017.
42 The Employment Equity Act defines “visible minorities” as “persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-White in colour.”
43 The Act applies to about 10% of the Canadian workforce. All other workplaces come under the jurisdiction of provinces and territories, none of which have Employment Equity legislation in place.
44 Isalean Harris (2018), “Where are all the Black female faculty? Employment equity policy failures and the overrepresentation of whiteness,” Master’s Thesis, Saint Mary’s University.
45 Sara Ahmed (2012).
46 Isalean Harris (2018).
48 UN Human Rights Council, Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (2017), p. 5.
Image notes from the Education section: StatisticsCanada, 2016 Census of Population, Catalogue no. 98-400-X2016211 Low-income measure, after tax (LIM-AT). Racialized population is used to describe groups that identify as one of 13 visible minorities, defined as Statistics Canada as "persons, other than Aboriginal peoples, who are non-Caucasian in race or non-White in colour.” Non-racialized population is used to describe people who are not "visible minorities." This includes people who identify as Caucasian in race or White in colour as well as Indigenous peoples.