African Canadian History Transcript

Sylvia D. Hamilton: Good morning everyone! Good morning, let me hear you.

Audience: Good morning!

Sylvia: Thank you, thank you for the introduction I really appreciate the opportunity to be with you this morning and to share something about my work.

I grew up watching Pierre Berton on Front Page Challenge, and for many years, I've been introducing students in my documentary classes to the 1957 National Film Board film classic City of Gold, which he narrated.

It's the story of the Klondike Gold Rush and his hometown of Dawson City. Directors Colin Low and Wolf Koenig make expert use of archival black-and-white still photographs to tell this story. It is well worth your twenty-two minutes, so please head over to to look at this film.

I am the grateful daughter of Marie Nita Waldron and Gerald Mac Hamilton. The granddaughter of Ida Grosse and Gilbert Hamilton, of Hattie Kellum and Barbadian William Waldron, the great grand granddaughter of Charlotte and Charles Grosse.

My ancestors, War of 1812 Black Refugee Survivors, had imagination in bucket loads, otherwise I would not be standing before you. They imagined a life beyond chattel slavery in Georgia. A life with freedom and dignity. A different world.

They imagined something for themselves, for their children and for me, a proud, grateful beneficiary. They acted on what they could imagine, what they could dream.

A question I am most often asked is: Why did you begin making films? Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison once said, and I quote, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written, then you must write it."

Alice Walker, poet, novelist, extended this thought saying, "In my own work I write not only what I want to read “I write all the things that I should have been able to read."

This sums up why I decided to make films about us – African descended people in Canada and in Nova Scotia. Film is an ideal medium; it travels across time and geography.

I come from the African Baptist tradition of testifying, of being a witness. This witnessing was the goal of my entry into the use of film as a medium to reveal our lives and experiences.

Filmmaker Saint Claire Bourne once said, “Everyone should have the right and opportunity to see themselves reflected in the cultural expressions of the land in which they live.”

What I came to understand, and wanted my work to demonstrate, is that African Canadian history is Canadian history and acquiring its knowledge and understanding is important for everyone.

For the longest time, our voices in Canada were absent from media of all kinds. When one did read about us or see us we were presented in stereotypical roles or as problems to be solved. Our situation is still not in any way equitable but changes are afoot.

It remains vital for me to tell stories from these perspectives, and in spite of overwhelming odds, our ancestors made a way out of no way. They stoked the fires of hope. They believed in a better future. I am here because of them and I am their witness.

How does one begin the process of visualizing a buried and ignored history? First, I create a multi-layered research map with categories such as documentary text and visual evidence, oral narratives, material objects and geographical locations.

My first steps take me to people; people that I know in community and then to archives to excavate the private sphere of family photographs and the public sphere of government archives and historical societies and both remain essential to my work.

Early experiences in the Archives of Nova Scotia in the 1970s cracked open possibilities. I remember reading original copies of the minutes of the African Baptist Association from the late 1800s.

I was struck by the level of detailed information they presented – a picture, a landscape of black communities in Nova Scotia. It felt as if I was actually touching my history. Up to that point, in schools and even university, I had little, if anything about me.

That experience settles something within me, within my bones. From then on and up to the present day, I've been engaged in the process – trying to understand, trying to understand and uncover my sense of history. To find ways to bring those stories to public view.

I knew first, though, that I would have to dream then to write the projects into being. In my first documentary, Black Mother Black Daughter, co-directed with Claire Prieto of Toronto, Cleo Whiley sits at her dining room table showing her friend Lavinia Harris her treasured family photo album.

The photographs are a visual map and archive of the interior lives of African Nova Scotians. They chart experiences, moments of presence that are invisible to the broader society, that in spite of its best efforts was not able to erase them. Ignore them yes, but never erase, or eliminate them because of the visual evidence of family archives, of family bibles preserving the genealogy.

I also use images from public archives and historical societies. When I saw around me in community had no parallel in what I saw in media or in educational studies. I wanted to visualize what I saw.

One of the biggest challenges was convincing the women that their lives, their stories mattered, were worthy of capturing on film. The Nova Scotia Vignettes produced for the CBC in 1996 were a series of 10 documentary shorts with run times of 60 seconds and 30 seconds.

The people who were featured would often tell me they were stopped on the street. People said to them: you must be important, I saw you on TV. That gave them a sense of pride.

In Walk Through Time, I created a visual montage of still images and archival footage underscored by the voice of African Baptist minister and educator Dr. W.P. Oliver and he says, quote, "Even just to look at their faces, expressions, tells me something of their life experiences.” We'll watch that now.

Video: “Even just to look at their faces, expressions, tells me something of their life's experiences. You see, life for them was a matter of survival. Work played a great role in their development and they developed not only in their character - development of character."


"To understand our past and our culture enhances the individual as well as the community. It enables others to appreciate other humans, who may superficially differ but are basically the same. And we discover human values."

Sylvia: My next slide will show an image of a young Black man in dreadlocks. It's an iconic image with the famed Bluenose as his backdrop but he is centered. This is not a postcard you've seen before.

It's from Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia. The themes of the film – youth empowerment, identity, race –are still current in Nova Scotia and across Canada within many different communities. 

Several young people featured in this film have told me of the positive effect being in the film had on their lives. One is a lawyer, one an educator, another returned to university after having been in the workforce and another works with youth.

My work comes with enormous moral and ethical responsibilities. People trust me with their stories, their lives, that I put on screen. In the larger context, I struggle though against the superficial knowledge that many Canadians have about African people in this place.

But like my ancestors before me, and perched on their shoulders, I navigate my way through rough waters of ignorance, willful and otherwise. This work becomes my way of talking back to interpretations that have erased us from the constructions of Canada.

With this work, what I tend to think about is speaking directly to African descended people in Canada, but also elsewhere. Other viewers come into the conversation and that's what is so encouraging for me. They engage in the conversation; those circles about this work.

Portia White was a trailblazing artist whose legacy is with us today. She was the first Canadian artist to receive state support, so here's a vignette about Portia White.

Video Narrator: "Contralto Portia White, born in 1911, Truro, Nova Scotia."

Portia White: "Nobody ever told me to sing. I was sort of born singing and I think that if nobody'd ever talked to me that I wouldn't be able to communicate in any other way but by singing. I have this dream. I was always bowing in my dreams and singing before people and parading across the stage. There's a very little, girl."

Video Narrator: "And sing she did, in five languages, from 1940 to 1967, in towns and cities across Canada and abroad. Her repertoire ranged from classical to folk to spirituals. Audiences praised her, critics raved about her intelligence and artistry. Portia White died in 1968 in Toronto, Ontario at the age of 57."

Sylvia: I made a film about Portia – a longer film – and that was in 2000. What impressed me was the palpable imprint Portia left on anyone who saw her perform and those who studied with her. She touched so many hearts.

My work is preoccupied with at least two fundamental questions: whose memories have we failed to represent, and what memories do we not want to represent and why?

The enslavement of African-descended people and its pernicious legacy in Canada sits at the cusp of these troubling questions. Whether we wish to remember or not, the educational segregation of African children in Canada and elsewhere is a product of the system of chattel slavery.

The Little Black School House was made in 2007, so we have a clip of that now.


Video: "I don't think it was contemplated that we were to be full participants in democracy. Consequently, it's consistent with that ideology that we need not be educated because it's not for us to be full participants in democracy and so the education system, or lack thereof, that developed reflects that overall philosophy toward African peoples, in my opinion, in Canada.

In grade 9, we had domestic science. We were doing the manicure set and there was a girl named Lucy and I thought we were good friends. I looked at her and I said, do you want to do me first or do you want me to do you? And she looked at me and she says, "I'm not touching you." That was so humiliating.

So anyways, I got up and I went out and told my teacher that Lucy didn't want to work with me so the teacher said, "did anybody else here want to work with Clayton?", and the kids just put their heads down, snickered the girl's. And nobody did. And I just sit there by myself, and nobody knows what that felt like."

Sylvia: What the people who appear in my films remember, they remember for all of us. In my case, my work has been over many years and I have many, many people to thank. I could not do it without them and if I were to do a credit roll, it would be very long.

I'd like to close with a short video. It was made by Charlie Pinhorn, a grade four student at Donkin Gowrie School in Cape Breton. It was sent to me by her parents and it brought me to tears. Her class was assigned a project. She chose to create a video about me.

So I appreciate your attention and we're gonna skip ahead to Charlie's video.

I don't have time to tell you about Dr. Carrie Best, just to say she deliberately challenged the Roseland Theatre about five years before Viola Desmond did. So she deliberately challenged that same theatre.

But let's look at Charlie Pinhorn's video.


Charlie Pinhorn: Sylvia D. Hamilton is a Nova Scotia filmmaker, writer and artist. Hamilton grew up in Beechville, Nova Scotia, a community founded by their African refugees from the War of 1812.

As a child, Hamilton attended an African Nova Scotian elementary school. She switched to a non-segregated high school outside of her community. In this school, Hamilton experienced what she called "a very alien environment."

Her tough experiences led her to becoming an independent filmmaker who produces and directs films through her very own, Maroon Films Incorporated. How cool is that?

Through her films, Hamilton tells the stories of struggle and racism of other African Nova Scotians. Here are some of her most famous works: The Little Black School House is a documentary about the history of segregation in Nova Scotian and Ontarian schools. 

Hamilton's first documentary, Black Mother, Black Daughter, was co-directed with Claire Prieto, who, by the way, was also one of the first African filmmakers in Canada, and it had an all-female crew. This film invited African women to share their experiences.

Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia is a documentary about the failure of the education system to represent African culture.

Today, Sylvia Hamilton not only has her own production company, she also teaches journalism at King's College in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Maybe she'll teach me someday.

I chose Sylvia for my project because she reminds me a little bit of myself.


Anne Trepanier: Thank you. Thank you for reminding us that we're witnesses and that we must commit to these engaged conversations. Would you have questions, please line up behind the microphones in the audience. We have time for two or three questions.

Nancy Payne: My name is Nancy Payne. I'm the editor of Kayak magazine and I'm always looking for broader ideas about who's not included in the picture of maybe some of the ways we've told history in the past, so it's really exciting to hear about about your work. I have one quick question and maybe one longer one.

The quick question is: Is your work available online through the NFB or how can we, all of us who are excited about seeing the whole films now, how do we do that?

Sylvia: Thank you for that. The first two films I made, Black Mother, Black Daughter and Speak It! are NFB.

The other films I've produced myself, so you could simply send me a Twitter message and, perhaps what I'll do is give Joanna at the organization a bibliography of where you can find the film's and find the work. Many of the articles are available online that I've written. I think if you go on my website there's a list of things, so I'd be happy to be in touch with you, thank you.

Nancy Payne: Oh wonderful! And then the longer question is: I was really taken by what I got was the idea that the act of filmmaking was also really important in all of these instances because it was allowing people to see themselves and hear their stories as being important. And you alluded to the moral and ethical dimensions of that, which I imagine are pretty significant. I wondered if you could just expand on that a little bit.

Sylvia: Thank you. When you're making a documentary film, you're dealing with people, their lives, their experiences, what they have to say and you build a trust relationship with them. And if they don't trust you, then you're not able to dig deeply and to, in fact, give the give the public the story that they want to tell.

And so ethically, you have to really be conscious of your own moral landscape – what's right and what's wrong – and once you know that, when you're dealing with people then I think it's a lot easier, but there are many times you might be in a situation where ethically it's not right to tell a person, a particular part of a person's story.

And when I teach students, I talk to them about them thinking about how do they understand the world? What's their perspective? What is their own morality? And how do you think about that when you're dealing with other people?

So a documentary particularly has that engagement with the individuals in the films, but also the engagement with you as an audience, because the audiences will come to documentary thinking about the fact that they are true stories and if you betray that trust then you've betrayed it on many, many levels. And you've betrayed yourself as well.

Nancy Payne: Thank you.

Sylvia: Thank you.

Sandrinette: Hi Sylvia. Congratulations!

Sylvia: Thank you. Sandrinette?

Sandrinette: Yes.

Sylvia: One of my former students. Thank you for coming.

Sandrinette: Yes, I wanted to ask a question just for the audience as well because you didn't have enough time to talk about Carrie Best. And for me, it bothers me as to why so many people don't know about the history of what she did and how she confronted segregation, so I was hoping that you could tell us a little bit more about Carrie Best.

Sylvia: Thank you. Sandrinette, a graduate student from Kings and Sandrinette actually worked with me on the Carrie Best series of videos. I think that... Carrie Best was a journalist, advocate. She lived in New Glasgow, grew up a brilliant orator, radio personality, had her own radio program.

And she, as I said quickly, she deliberately challenged the segregation at the Roseland by taking her son Calbert with her and going into the theater and essentially daring them. She paid the money, left it on the counter and dared them to arrest her, which they did. She then filed suit against the owner and she lost the case.

But the fact that as a Black woman going to court in 1942 and challenging the segregation.

I think people don't know about that case partly because Carrie Best herself didn't talk about it much. She put Viola Desmond's case in her newspaper and when that case happened, but she didn't write about her own case.

And I think that goes to her sense of wanting the broader story to be told. It's in her autobiography but what happens sometimes is we hear part of a story but we don't hear all of the story, and I think the case with Viola Desmond is not taking anything away.

That story and the individuals who've been talking about that. It's, you know, maybe it's an easier story for people to grab on to? But where Carrie, she actually went in, in a very deliberate thing, as opposed to Viola Desmond's case which was happenstance, right? It's happenstance versus deliberate action to challenge segregation.

It was like when many people in the Black community were going into barber shops and challenging the barbers who refused to cut, you know, a three-year-old boy's hair or four-year-old boy's hair.

There were those kind of deliberate challenges and then there were other challenges that were not as, you know, maybe happenstance, they just happened.

So, I think it's important that we know about Carrie Best and Viola Desmond; not to take away from Viola Desmond but to also know that there was that deliberate challenge that she made as well. Thank you.

Sylvia Smith: My name is Sylvia Smith. I'm a retired teacher in Ottawa and I want to thank you very much for your life's work and for bringing it to us and for determining to do this, continue doing it.

My question is: are you finding allyship with Indigenous peoples on your home territory? Just in terms of thinking and working with the anti-Indigenous racism, the anti-Black racism. Is that something that you have experienced or are experiencing with your current work?

Sylvia: Thank you for the question. I think, for me, in much of the work I've done, I have worked in a number of different communities. I think with, in terms of the Indigenous community, I've worked over years helping to do workshops around film – teaching people about how to use film as a tool to express themselves, to reveal their stories and to reveal histories.

A colleague, we did work a number of years ago, she's from the Mi'kmaq community, so over the years have been different opportunities that I've had to do that kind of work. Not enough, but definitely in solidarity in many situations. Thank you.

Anne Trepanier: Thank you. There are still many missing narratives we might want to unveil and explore, right?

Sylvia: There are and I think we simply have to have our minds open, and I think we need to understand and recognize that – it's something that my mom, who was a teacher taught me, and she talked a lot about children being these open vessels.

Children having, you know, not judging and not placing value on skin colour. Children are very open, but children learn racism and prejudice if they're immersed in it.

And so we're the ones responsible and what has been so incredible for me watching Charlie's video is for this young white student to say she thought she was like me.

When would that have happened, okay?And so that gives me a lot of hope.

But the responsibility goes to us as adults and teachers and parents because we're the ones responsible, so everyone take Charlie home with you and think about that because she and other students like her want to learn, you know? They want to understand.

And they are seeing the gaps. Why did we not...why didn't we do that? I was in Newfoundland – it was a slide, I didn't show it – about 200 students in Newfoundland, a number of years ago, in a big auditorium and they were popping up with questions and their questions were, how come that wasn't in our book? We didn't know that. So we're the ones responsible. So I just really think that we have to take that responsibility as adults.

Thank you. Thank you for your attention.

Anne Trepanier: Thank you. I'm sure you're a real catalyst for authenticity here, right? Thank you.