Beyond the Railroad: Black History in Canada with Ruthanne Edward & Greg “Ritallin” Frankson

At the NAC’s 4th STAGE (53 Elgin Street) on Thursday, February 21, 7:30 p.m., doors open at 7:00
Tickets: $20 available at NAC box office or (614-991-2787)

Using storytelling and spoken word poetry, Greg ‘Ritallin’ Frankson and Ruthanne Edward will bring to life the rich and varied history of Black Canadians. The stories will include Olivier le Jeune, the first known slave in what would become Canada; Marie-Joseph Angelique, a slave executed for burning down a large part of Old Montreal; Chloe Cooley, the woman who moved John Simcoe to legislate against slavery in Upper Canada; Robert Sutherland, the first Black lawyer and saviour of Queen’s University; Viola Desmond, who staged her own sit-in protest against segregation, but did so 11 years before Rosa Parks; and Rosemary Brown and Lincoln Alexander, both trailblazers in Canadian politics.


Toronto-based writer Greg “Ritallin” Frankson is one of Canada’s top spoken word artists. In 2012, Ritallin was a member of the Toronto Up From The Roots national slam champion team and runner-up at the Canadian Individual Poetry Slam. Greg has been performing in schools, community settings, showcases, festivals and slams from coast to coast for nearly a decade. He is a co-founder of Capital Slam, the Ottawa Youth Poetry Slam and YorkSlam, a former National Director of Spoken Word Canada, and a driving force behind YouthCanSlam, the new national youth poetry slam festival. Greg is also an accomplished event organizer, facilitator, arts educator, musician, emcee and speaker.

Ruthanne Edward has been a working storyteller since 2000, performing for children, families and adults throughout Ontario and Quebec. She has appeared at the Ottawa Fringe Festival, NCC Winterlude Festival, St. John’s Storytelling Festival, Toronto Storytelling Festival, Ottawa Storytelling Festival, at the National Arts Centre, Voices of Venus spoken word series, on CBC radio, at museums, schools, libraries, and many a campfire. She has a particular interest in telling Canadian history stories and regularly tells anyone who says history is boring that they just haven’t heard the right stories.


When the majority of Canadians think of Black Canadian history, the first and usually last, thing that comes to mind is the Underground Railroad. For over 160 years, Canadian have congratulated themselves on being a haven for slaves fleeing bondage in the US and for being free of the history of racial prejudice of our southern neighbours. While many thousands of slaves did find refuge in Canada, there is much more to the history and stories of Black Canadians than that one period.

Starting with Mathieu da Costa arriving as a guide for Champlain in 1608, the contributions of Black Canadians have helped build this country. From slavery in New France and later British North America, to the Black Loyalists, the refuge slaves, and more recently immigrants from the West Indies and Africa, their stories are tragic, inspiring, sometimes unbelievable, but all a part of the history of this country. Unfortunately, much of this history has been forgotten, disregarded and even actively suppressed.

“I never learned about the fact of slavery in Canada when I was in school,” says Ruthanne Edward. “I was shocked when I later realized how much of our history is left out of the accepted narrative. Many of the stories of Black Canadians just don’t fit in with our multicultural, accepting and prejudice-free national image and so they have been discarded in favour of the Underground Railroad story. A story we can collectively feel good about.”

Speaking about Black History Month, Greg Frankson says “Black History Month served a valuable purpose when it was first set up, when Blacks were completely ignored in the public consciousness, unless they were criminalized in some way. However, the ultimate objective of Black History Month should be to force us to recognize that the history, culture and character of Canada is imbued with the achievements and accomplishments of African-Canadians. This realization would end forever the false divide between “Black Canadian history” and “Canadian history” (as if they were not one and the same), at which point there would be no need for a Black History Month at all.”

More info at Greg Frankson’s website