It was never my intention to start my interview with director Sudz Sutherland by admitting my suppressed feelings of shame around Black history, but a couple minutes into our conversation, and suddenly I felt my confession would be heard in a safe place. It’s my own history and yet I don’t know much about it — it’s embarrassing, really. Every February, Black History Month rolls around and the feeling hits me again as I’m reminded of how much I don’t know, but should. Sudz and wife Jen Holness executive produced BLK: An Origin Story, a docuseries unearthing the little known beginnings of Black Canadians, so if I was going to learn something, this is where I wanted to start.
When I admitted my feelings around Black history, I was surprised by his response. “I think the same shame that you feel, I feel. And we felt it all our lives,” he shares. “If it was something around Black history, it was very much the Underground Railroad or Martin Luther King — there’s a lot more to Black history than that.”
After watching the docuseries, that’s something I found out quickly. The four-part series delves into the stories of the unsung Black heroes who had a heavy hand in building this nation, never receiving their flowers. It explores their origins all across the country from Nova Scotia to Ontario, B.C., and Quebec, culminating in the Black presence we see in our country today. Their contributions are remarkable, but their history, strangely hidden. I couldn’t really blame myself — my lack of knowledge wasn’t ignorance, it was systemic.
There was saving grace in knowing that if anything’s true about life, it’s that it’s never too late to learn. In an eye-opening conversation, I spoke to Sudz about the holes in our education system, the parallels with the Indigenous experience, and why this history can’t be ignored.
You might also like: Interview: Meet the New Hilary Banks — Bel Air’s Coco Jones on Reinventing a Classic
Why is it, in your opinion, that we’re not taught Black history in school?
SS: So the thing is, our teachers don’t know this stuff, so they can’t teach it. The curriculum that exists very much doesn’t know or acknowledge any of this stuff. So how could they possibly teach us something that they don’t know? I’m not letting anybody off the hook, [but] I’m saying that we need to understand the fuller part of the story because you don’t get a chance to learn this. They’re not requesting it or demanding that the teachers teach you.
The problem, though, is the way that history is taught. It’s war, king, queen, president…you get the story. History is made by those people. It’s never like history is made by the people around a kitchen table speaking and having discussions. And it’s true that that’s where most history is made — around the kitchen table.
I get this feeling that teaching about this history isn’t really encouraged. I could be wrong. Did you face any roadblocks in bringing this project to life, or were people excited about hearing more about this hidden history?
SS: Corus was like ‘Hey, we want to do this with you.’ So, they were really well behind us. But the thing is — there wasn’t such an appetite for this for a long time. The crux of these types of stories that we’re telling are that they’re ones that really aren’t told in school. We were also looking at the Indigenous and Black relationship because we escaped slavery from America and came up here and went to the Indigenous villages. There were settlements [there] — now it’s all reserves. So there were thousands of people. All of these [stories] are not even told and we don’t talk about any Indigenous history in high school — that’s more of a university thing. It’s only now that they’re starting to talk about it because they can’t really sanitize it. My generation was a victim of sanitized history. Everybody said it was so boring and the reason why it was so boring is because all the interesting bits were taken out!
What do you feel is Canada’s approach to facing these ugly truths about how Indigenous and Black people have been treated in Canada’s history?
Nobody talks about it. I learned about residential schools years ago when we did the documentary. There was an archeologist there who said, “Any time they go digging around the residential schools, they’re just going to be finding grave after grave.” And I was like, whoa.
At that point, I was like, Should we tell this story? And they said, ‘This is not really our story to tell.’ So we didn’t touch it, but I knew about that about 20 years ago. This has been an open secret since the residential school days and it’s not something that, again, you were taught in school. They didn’t mention residential schools in my history program and I’m sure, in all of the study of history that you’ve gone through in elementary and high school.
A big part of the docuseries is slavery in Canada, which honestly, I’ve never even really heard of those words put together. How is it that so many people believe that slavery didn’t exist in Canada?
SS: People are like, why should I study history? What does it have to do with me? The whole thing is: how do I make this relevant to the kid who’s 16 and depressed because they’re in Covid and they can’t find a girlfriend? How do I convince that kid that this is relevant to their lives? I’m trying to say, ‘Hey, we’ve been lied to.’
So let’s try to figure out the truth and then maybe we’ll find out the truth about the other things in your life. Why are black kids overpoliced? Draw a parallel back to history and say, this is why we’re overpoliced and why your teacher will send you to the principal’s office, and they may even just call the cops on you. I can tell you why — because she’s afraid of you and she’s afraid of a young, scary Black boy. This is centuries going back. Her idea of you is because of this. We can have these conversations, but first we need to understand the context in which we’re all living. We have to talk about this stuff, but first, before we talk about it, we have to make films and books about it and put it into the public consciousness.
We have to talk about this stuff, but first, before we talk about it, we have to make films and books about it and put it into the public consciousness.
What do you want people to take away after watching this project?
The idea is that Black history is Canadian history and Indigenous history is Canadian history. We have to reckon with that and we have to bring more people into the conversation. The other thing we’d like to get out there is that Canadian history is much more diverse and much more complex than our teachers have ever led us to believe. Again, they didn’t know because they weren’t taught, because history never looked at these people.
I mean, I talk to my daughters and they’re all depressed because of Covid and everything. And I’m like, this is your war. It’s just a different form, but this is your war. This is your World War Two. This is a moment for you. History is now and the past is the present, so let’s talk about this so that we are actually better able to handle what we have to do today.