Black History in Vancouver

Chantal Gibson with one of her artworks – the Braided Book – a mixed media, altered history of Canada, published in 1936. | Photo courtesy of Place des Arts

February is Black History month, giving an opportunity to discover the rich history of Black Canadians in British Columbia.

According to the BC Black History Awareness Society (BCBHAS), the first recorded Black person in Canada was an African who went by the name Mathieu de Coste. Coste worked as an interpreter of the Mi’kmaq language.

Coming this Feb. 13, the Vancouver Public Library will host the Black History Month: Where Are You REALLY From? On Being Black in Vancouver event at the Central Branch. The event mainly comprises discussions and talks about the experience of being Black in Vancouver, and other stories as well.

A panel discussion will be held with Chelene Knight, Juliane Okot Bitek, Wayde Compton and Chantal Gibson.

Myths, metaphors and stereotypes

Chantal Gibson is an aspiring educator living in Vancouver. She is currently teaching at the School of Interactive Arts & Technology at Simon Fraser University.

Her talk at the event will include her recent work Souvenir, a multi-media art installation that uses two thousand souvenir spoons to illustrate the Black experience in Canada.

Gibson will discuss her experiences as an undergraduate student at UBC encountering racist imagery – myths, tropes and metaphors – in her Canadian history books and literary texts.

“[My] encounters with Black character tropes and stereotypes in the classroom became the inspiration for [my] current artworks,” she says.

These include her Historical In(ter)ventions fiber-based book sculptures and recent new media video installations.

Gibson uses her artistic practice to promote discussion and critical inquiry. In the current political and social climate, nationally and globally, it is important for citizens to recognize stereotypes and generalizations about other people and to challenge the persistent, historic misrepresentations of people of colour that appear in our textbooks, news feeds and comment pages.

“I like to question how messages are made,” she says.

Encouraging positive changes

Chelene Knight, managing editor
at Room Magazine. | Photo by Greg Ehlers

Chelene Knight, who put the event together and will be one of the panelists, is currently managing editor at Room Magazine, a feminist literary publication.

One of the questions that puzzles Knight, when asked, is “Where are you from?”.

“Being born and raised in Vancouver, I came to expect this question and really got used to it. I don’t think it’s the question that started to bother me but rather the “are you sure?” that always followed,” she says. “That need to prove that, yes, I am sure of where I was born and who my family is.”

Knight shares the reasons why she wants to hold this event.

“I decided to put this event together because I wanted to openly share stories,” she says. “I want to create the space for conversations, for sharing stories and for celebrating and recognizing black Canadian artists.”

The panelist wants to encourage everyone to share their stories and create a meaningful discussion.

“I want to engage the audience and, at the end of the event, I plan to encourage the audience to share their stories as well. Everyone wants to be heard,” Knight says. “That is really the purpose of this event.”

On the topic of Black community in Vancouver, Knight believes that there are positive changes in the coming time.

“I think it’s high time that we begin to celebrate the fact that there are Black Canadians in Vancouver breaking molds, writing beautiful literature and creating mind-blowing art. Fiction, non fiction, children’s books – you name it,” she says. “I put this event together because I find it rare that we as Black artists get a chance to share our successes and our experiences, and talk about the questions we are asked and how those questions affect us as artists navigating this multicultural city that is Vancouver,” she says.

For more information, please visit