A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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BREAKING THE ICE: The Mary Ann Shadd Story
Director Diary

Sylvia Sweeney

Setting out to find a documentary topic for "A Scattering of Seeds," I knew that if I was going to touch on the history of Blacks in Canada I would either have to go to Nova Scotia or southern Ontario. Mary Ann Shadd was one of fifteen possible stories. She had emigrated to Canada from the United States in 1851 and started a racially integrated school in Windsor, Ontario. She was very well known, as well known as any Black person in Canadian history. She was very prolific: she was an abolitionist and suffragette, the first woman newspaper editor in Canada, and the first female black lawyer in the United States.

But choosing the Mary Ann Shadd story turned out to be more than just a telling of Black advocacy and achievement. It became an interesting experience in terms of realizing the diversity of people's perspectives on history. I discovered among the Black community in southern Ontario a wealth of Canadian history that isn't part of the regular curriculum.

The interview process, in particular, was engaging in that it became a discussion about Canadian culture, not colour. Colour is just that, colour. It was the idea of culture that was worth discussing. Where it comes from and the diversity within the groupings, the false groupings, of people.

Usually we group Canadians into Blacks, Chinese, Ukrainians. But the fact is that the experiences within "groups," are greatly dissimilar. It's a stark realization of how we like to put everybody under one umbrella and how erroneous that is. What everyone does have in common, however, is the search for identity.

The Blacks in southern Ontario find their roots and their identity in the American experience and the history of the underground railway. They have a very American perspective. Where I come from, in West Montreal, we find our lineage entrenched in the West Indies. In a sense, we consider ourselves more Canadian. There's a definite divergence of mindsets between Americans of African descent and Quebeckers of African descent, and controversy over the portrayal of Black "culture."

In particular, I found that the Black community in southern Ontario had a very distinct attitude toward education and improvement. They have a very firm and historical educational support system, dating back to Mary Ann Shadd and her efforts for Blacks to receive integrated schooling. These new Canadians were hungry for education and had to fight for it. It wasn't at their disposal, as it was for the Blacks of West Indian descent who immigrated to Montreal. These Montrealers had a very structured educational background of British ilk.

The people I interviewed came from a lineage of educators, making a contribution to the fibre of the community. Take for example the fact that one of the people I talked to, Juanita Westmoreland, a Black woman, is the Dean of Law at the University of Windsor. That is a testament to the influence and the mindset of that area. And it gave me a sense of rich and valuable history.

For me, making this film was the discovery that there is no such thing as a single Black culture. It is a reaffirmation of diversity within diversity. There are many cultures of African descent in Canada. Mary Ann Shadd's story represents a faction of that diversity.


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