Rich Imaginings & Freedom Dreams in the Archive: Our Lives and the Black Women’s Collective

by Rachel Lobo

“We do not have guns. We do not have well-paid bureaucrats…
We do not have police or government power.

What we have are a few placards, the occasional use of a photocopier, and a whole lot of people who believe that if we speak out, if we call for justice, if we struggle for an end to racism and police violence, it will alleviate the oppressive conditions under which Black people, women, working people, gays, and lesbians live in this society.”

~Black Women’s Collective, “Statement of the Women’s Coalition against Racism and Police Violence,” December 16, 1989 (p. 3-4 of .pdf)

The Black Women’s Collective’s statement on state violence resonates in our current historical moment as present-day abolitionists continue to struggle, often with limited time and resources, against colonial and carceral structures while imagining radical futures. In an essay published in The Toronto Star, poet and novelist Dionne Brand explains: “This we fear—this we know—that all of our thoughts will be rushed into editorial pages, used up in committee meetings; all the rich imaginings of activists and thinkers who urge us to live otherwise may be disappeared, modified into reform and inclusion, equity, diversity, and palliation.” Brand’s words prompt us to question how movement-based responses to state violence become co-opted and how we might create archival contexts that align with the transformative goals of these struggles.

An image from the cover page of the Black Women’s Collective Constitution
 (March 1988)

Our Lives was published between 1986 and 1989 by the Toronto-based Black Women’s Collective  (BWC), a tightly organized group that engaged in local and national feminist and anti-racist activism and called for broader representation within progressive organizations at the time. Their main organizing collective included prominent scholars, activists, and artists such as Carol Allain, Dionne Brand, Linda Carty, Afua Cooper, and Faith Nolan. Our Lives’ editorial focus was the lived experiences of Black women in Canada in the late 1980s, and the publication was the main vehicle for disseminating the ideas of the BWC and allied community organizations. 

A list of contents from the second issue of Our Lives (Sept/Oct. 1986)

A typical issue of Our Lives featured profiles of local activists and community organizations; longer issue-specific editorials with infographics; event listings; features on art, music, and poetry; and book and music reviews, with photographs and sketches woven throughout each issue. By offering content that spoke directly to the collective experiences of women of colour in Canada, Our Lives questioned the idea that women’s issues were predicated on the experiences of white women. Specifically, it challenged the reproduction of whiteness in Canadian feminist discourse by moving beyond the dichotomy of Euro-American and Third-World feminisms, positioning struggles against racism at the forefront of feminist actions. 

Our Lives was published during a crucial moment in anti-racist feminist struggle in Canada, and particularly, the foreign domestic workers’ movement. Live-in caregiver programs date back to the early 1900s when the Canadian government recruited European women to serve as “governesses” and nannies. The recruitment of women from Jamaica, Trinidad, and Barbados began with the West Indian Domestic Scheme in 1955, which allowed Canadians to sponsor single childless women as domestic workers. These domestic permits were one of the only legal pathways to immigration for Caribbean women, and because these workers’ immigration status was tied directly to their employers, workplace abuse and exploitation was common. Foreign domestic workers (and care work, in general) were further marginalized by the 1973 Temporary Employment Authorization Scheme, which changed the rules for permanent residency, categorized care work as “low-skill”, and treated domestic workers as disposable. In short, struggles against exploitative live-in caregiver programs have existed since their inception.

In the 1980s, however, the Foreign Domestics Movement built coalitions among immigrant and women’s organizations to demand that foreign domestic workers be given a clear pathway to permanent resident status in Canada. Though discriminatory immigration policies persist in our current system, these large-scale actions resulted in historic changes to federal programs. 

An image from the cover page of the Black Women’s Collective Constitution
 (March 1988)

Our Lives documented these struggles, advocating for racialized workers and communities in the face of economic precarity and exploitation. The BWC struggled against discriminatory immigration policies and policing practices by mobilizing those sectors in which women of colour were concentrated and forming coalitionschallenging racism within the women’s movement; and creating a shelter movement to provide women of colour with a space safe from both gender-based violence and racism. Labour issues were often the focus of editorials in Our Lives. Specifically, the collective outlined the racism faced by Black communities and linked forms of economic violence to global free-trade agreements and imperialism.

In one useful example, the November/December 1986 issue of Our Lives includes an editorial written by the collective titled “Amnesty for Black Women Workers.” Here, the hardships and abuse faced by undocumented Black women workers are outlined, as are plans to form support networks and build movements around citizenship rights. There are interviews with two undocumented single mothers that chronicle the daunting experience of applying for immigration status while working long hours and supporting a household. The article works to give voice to working-class Black women who might otherwise be underrepresented or erased from the historical record. By documenting the organizing efforts of such groups, Our Lives remains an integral source for Canadian labour history and women’s organizing, when official histories are largely dominated by the voices of white activists and scholars.

Rachel Lobo is a PhD Candidate with the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University. Her research explores how archival practices can sustain people’s histories of political struggle. Find out more about her work via LinkedIn or Research Gate.

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