Home Festival Coverage Black Life: Untold Stories – Facets of Canadian Black History at TIFF23

Black Life: Untold Stories – Facets of Canadian Black History at TIFF23

by amc

CJ Cromwell | KIROS Images. Courtesy of CBC

I was invited by CBC to their Black Life: Untold Stories event at TIFF23. There is so much to unpack, but I’m going to keep it light so I don’t give too much away.

The first thing I will say is to schedule your calendars accordingly for October 18, 2023, when it premieres this fall on CBC and CBC Gem. As per the press release:

Black Life: Untold Stories is an eight-part documentary series that reframes the rich and complex histories of Black experiences in Canada, dispelling commonly accepted myths and celebrating the many contributions of Black Canadians.

The synopsis captures the docuseries’ essence brilliantly. Brought to us by CBC, Studio 112, Ugly Duck Productions, and Northwood Entertainment, the docuseries has many prolific heavy hitters on the back end with executive producers such as the Emmy Award-winning Leslie Norville, P.K. Subban, Miranda de Pencier, and Nelson George; Sandy Hudson serves as co-executive producer. Consulting producers are the Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Shadrach Kabango, Dr. Rinaldo Walcott, and Ravyn Wngz.

About Black Life

During the event, we were privy to two episodes (which I believe were different than “Justice Denied” and “Northern Beats” that debuted at TIFF)—the first one was “Revolution Remix” about the civil rights movement in Canada via the Sir George Williams affair and a ‘coming out party’ for the Black Power movement. The other was “Haven Not Heaven,” about Canada’s part in slavery, dismissing the old adage that Canada was the Black utopia for Black people.

Here are the episode descriptions for both:

Haven, But No Heaven is an unflinching examination of the history of slavery that dispels the myth of
Canada as a utopia for Black people. Through interviews with historians and descendants of enslaved
people, as well as evocative recreations and rare archival materials, the legacy of slavery in Canada is
explored. Stories include the brutal trial and execution of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a young enslaved
woman rumoured to have started a massive fire in Montreal in 1734. But amidst the tragedies, there are
also instances of hope and resilience including the remarkable account of the Blackburns, a couple who
escaped enslavement and persecution in the United States and unwittingly put Upper Canada’s new
laws regarding slavery to the first-ever legal test. The principle established in their landmark case
remains foundational to Canadian extradition law to this day.

Centred on the years 1968 and 1969 during Montreal’s International Congress of Black Writers and the
Sir George Williams Affair, Revolution Remix explores the civil rights movement in Canada via two era-
defining Black empowerment events. The episode looks at the evolution of the movement from fighting
indignities in public spaces and the gains in human rights legislation to a coming out party for the Black
Power movement that sought to instill self-determination in every facet of the Black Canadian
experience. Pan-African activists from around the world including Stokely Carmichael, C.L.R. James,
Miriam Makeba, and Walter Rodney, convened at McGill University to discuss the future of Black
liberation under the watchful eye of Canadian authorities. A year later, students clashed with authorities
when they occupied a floor of a campus building to protest anti-Black racism in what is now regarded as
the largest student protest in Canadian history. Both watershed events represented dramatic shifts in
Canadian Black consciousness.


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Why seeing this is imperative

Upon leaving the cinema, my girl asked me if I learned any of the above happenings in history in school. I laughed and let out a “Ha!” at the thought, but thinking back, it’s not that funny, is it? Many of you are aware that I’m a born and bred Montrealer. These two episodes are monumental and important events in Canadian Black history. But not only Canada’s Black history but Montreal’s as well. The Sir George Williams Affair happened at what is known today as Concordia University—the university that I attended. And in the other episode, there is a discussion of enslaved woman Marie-Josèphe Angélique, who allegedly burned down her seller’s home, which happens to be the Old Port today. Two very distinct Black history occurrences took place in Montreal (alongside many others), however, I was never taught about it or any other historically Black moments at any point in my education—from elementary to university. It was my parents, who moved to Canada from the Helen of The West Indies herself, who brought these issues to light for me. This alone should show you just how much this docuseries is needed.

I’m really looking forward to seeing the remaining six episodes in the Black Life: Untold Series. I’m sure they will leave an imprint just as solid as the first two have. When you do see them, let me know what you think. These episodes are part of an ongoing discussion that we must move forward for a time to come.

A big thank you to CBC for the invite!

Until next time…


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