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Conversations with Black youth: Reflections on Canada’s labour market

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February is Black history month: an invitation to recognize, celebrate and honour the profound contributions that Black workers have made to the building of Canada’s economy, politics and labour movements.

This month we’re sharing a three-part series on the LMIC blog in which we outline some of the history of Black labour in Canada, speak to Black youth about their perceptions of the labour market opportunities available to them, and review the current labour market realities for Black people in Canada based on available data. 

The history of Black labour in Canada has led young Black people today to understand their labour market prospects differently than many other population groups.  

We spoke with Black youth across Canada to understand their perceptions and experiences with the Canadian labour market. Using a snowball sampling method to reach youth across the country, we conducted semi-structured conversational interviews that were designed to understand perspectives and examine of areas most relevant to each participant.  

Many of the youth we spoke to referred to Canada’s historic racial barriers and segregated workforces.

For example, Jamal, a 24-year-old visual artist from Toronto, Ontario whose grandparents immigrated to Canada from Trinidad in the early 1950’s, reflects on his own opportunities compared to what he understands of his grandparents and parents:

My grandparents got here and basically just had to struggle to stay alive. Had to work just to stay alive and keep their children alive. There were no choices, there was no opportunity to find a new job because you didn’t like it or because you were being treated badly. They worked wherever they were able to find work, wherever anyone would have them. My generation has options, has choices and has opportunities to find work that we are passionate about work that we actually want to do. 

Likewise, Anthony, a 22-year-old aspiring communications consultant and University of Ottawa student whose parents immigrated from Jamaica in the early 1980’s, says:

My parents had to focus on survival and had to work in a number of jobs that they weren’t happy in or treated well or treated fairly at to survive…I never had to worry about where my next meal was coming from or if I was going to have enough to eat, so I was really able to focus on school and it was my studies that have given me the opportunities that I have today. 

Jessica, a 19-year-old student from North Preston, Nova Scotia, one of Canada's oldest Black communities, sees her prospects very differently than previous generations of her family would have. She says: 

Both sides of my family have been part of this community for over 400 years. They had to struggle. They had to learn to adapt and survive. They lived through racism and the neglect of their communities. They lived through the cold. I feel privileged to be part of the same community that they helped build. Even isolated from the rest of Halifax, I have opportunities that my ancestors couldn’t have really dreamed of…I can get an education and pursue a career as a Black woman who wants to contribute to her community of other Black people.

Narissa, a 24-year-old nurse from Montreal, Québec, spoke of the sacrifices her grandmother made leaving the Caribbean as a young woman in the early 1960s under Canada’s West Indian Domestic Scheme and how those sacrifices shaped the opportunities she enjoys today:

My grandma was only 18 when she left Jamaica to come to Canada. She left her entire family both her parents and all her brothers and sisters to have the opportunity to come to Canada, which was her way of making a better life for herself. She was placed in an upper-class home in Montreal and was responsible for taking care of the children, the cooking, the cleaning, the laundry and everything. She was really taken advantage of. She wasn’t paid the agreed upon amount and was treated very badly by the lady of the house. My grandma used to tell me all the time how lonely and isolated she felt but she had to stick it out. Eventually, she was able to change homes and was treated better. She met my grandfather and had her own children who had so many more opportunities because of the sacrifices that she made in her life.

Although Canada does not have a history of official laws that enforced segregation of Black and white Canadians, Black people have had to overcome and fight against unwritten policies, institutional racist practices, and blatant discrimination in housing, education, immigration, public accommodations, and employment (Waters, 2012).  

The young people we spoke to, regardless of their knowledge of Black history in Canada, understood the work of Black people in history as a significant contributor to opportunities of young Black Canadians today. 

For example, Alex, a young filmmaker from Edmonton, Alberta, shared:

I think as a first-generation Canadian my opportunities far exceed those that came before me. I believe that a lot of Black people throughout Canadian history had to break down several barriers, and are still breaking down barriers, to create career opportunities for Black folks.

Johnathan, a 23-year-old second-generation Nigerian-Canadian living in Vancouver, British Columbia, referenced that many African-Canadian activists followed the progress of the African-American civil rights movement and applied ideas to their own efforts in the fight against racism in Canada:

The previous generations worked very hard because they had to. They had to work harder than anybody that was non-Black they had to work harder than them just to meet some sort of equal standard. With the civil rights movement in the U.S. and the work that Canadian activists have done, I think it empowered Black people, in general, to look to do better than just work. It gave them the opportunity to say: Hey we can do better. Like, I can get that education. I can get that executive job. I can own this business. I can run this business. So, I think the civil rights movement empowered Black people to know that they could do more than just work hard at a company at an entry-level position. So that created the mindset for the future generations, and this generation, that they could pretty much do anything they wanted to do.

Aalyeah, 21-year-old nursing student currently living in Toronto, Ontario, traces her family back to the early occupants of Africville, Nova Scotia. Like many other Black settlements in early Canada, Africville was first occupied by formerly enslaved people fleeing the United States. Aalyeah shares:

Black Canadians had to break barriers. They had to face inequality, blatant racism, lack of resources, and the literal destruction of our communities to get our human rights and to enter careers where we have been historically denied opportunities. Not saying these things don’t still exist, but we do have opportunities that were outright denied to our ancestors. 

As Anthony summarizes:

Those Black people that fought and worked so hard they broke into the labour force; they opened the door so me and my generation just need to wiggle our way in. 

Despite the remarkable contributions of Black people, Canada’s labour markets are still plagued by considerable racial inequality and discrimination. Black people in Canada experience higher rates of unemployment and lower earnings

In our next article in this series, we investigate the available data to learn about the current realities of Black people in Canada’s labour market. 


Waters, R. (2013). African Canadian Anti-Discrimination Activism and the Transnational Civil Rights Movement, 1945-1965. Journal of the Canadian Historical Association / Revue de la Société historique du Canada, 24(2), 386-424.


Dr. Suzanne Spiteri is a sociologist with several years of experience in both qualitative and mixed-methods data analysis. She leads labour-related projects that explore labour market tightness and the labour market outcomes of under-represented groups.

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