BLK: An Origin Story is a four-part docuseries that looks at the deep historic impact of Black presence in Canada.
Produced by the award-winning production team at Hungry Eyes Media Group, BLK: An Origin Story takes viewers on a Canadian journey from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, with many stops in between, presenting some of the untold stories of Black people in Canada and uncovering their legacy, dating back to 1608.
BLK: An Origin Story premiered on The HISTORY Channel on Feb. 26 and will premiere on Global on March 4 at 9 p.m. ET. You can stream it anytime with STACKTV or the Global TV app.
Jennifer Holness and Sudz Sutherland are the executive producers of the docuseries, and they joined us to talk a little more about it.
So many people are going to be fascinated by the stories you’re telling here. Tell me first: How did this series come about? How long have you been working on this?
Jennifer Holness: We’ve been working on it intensely for about a year and a half, but [it’s also been] for our whole careers. We made a film about 20 years ago about Black history in Canada. It was called Speakers for the Dead. We’d been really wanting to follow up on that. A year and a half ago, we were in conversations with Corus and they asked if we were interested in doing some more of this work on Black Canadian history, and we were like, yes. We hunkered down from there and we’d been working around the clock to get this national scope of Black history — something that looks at what’s been lost, and the power of Black stories.
How did you decide on what stories you were going to focus on?
Sudz Sutherland: It was kind of overwhelming. We thought, what if we did it by region? Nova Scotia is the largest repository for these types of stories, so that’s what we started with. That was the one that Jen took on.
Jennifer Holness: We also were looking at themes. Thematically, the idea was: Where did they come from? That’s the starting place of the series. Who were these Black people, where did they come from, and how did they get to Canada in the first place? By asking these questions, it landed us in the 1700s … and a lot of those stories take place in this earlier time. But at the same time, because I know that growing up, history was really boring a didactic, we wanted to do something that would be ultra-cool and really interesting. Even the title BLK: An Origin Story, it’s sort of like these Black folks were superheroes, and this is their origin story. We wanted to create a series that reflects a modern spin on how history was being told.
You’ve got four different episodes. The first one focuses on Nova Scotia. Where do we go from there?
Sudz Sutherland: After that, we go to Montreal. We look at the jazz age of Montreal. We look at the story of the sleeping car porters, at how Black people got to Montreal and what their lives were like in Montreal — especially this neighbourhood called Little Burgundy, where Oliver Jones and Oscar Peterson are from. How did that small place come to be overrepresented in jazz?
And then you head over to Owen Sound and then on to British Columbia, correct?
Sudz Sutherland: We’re all over western Ontario, looking at the story of a guy named Daddy Hall. He was a Black Indigenous man, born in Windsor, fought in the War of 1812, captured and sold into slavery, and enslaved for 13 years. He sued his master for freedom, because he should’ve been returned at the end of the war. He’s about to win, but then his master’s son tells him, “My dad’s going to sell you tomorrow, so you’re going to win the court case, but if you want to be free, you’d better run tonight.” So he runs, and he crosses the Ohio River, and over 23 days he gets back to Canada. He eventually becomes the town crier of Owen Sound. He’s got an amazing story. Before that, we’re in B.C., where we tell the story of an amazing group of Black settlers who actually staved off American annexation. The continent would look a lot different if they hadn’t been there. This is stuff that we never knew. We were never taught this stuff in school. We learned this from doing this project.
Just from the trailer, you get a taste of so many stories. As Jen mentioned, with history, people aren’t always champing at the bit to study it, but these stories are so important. You’re celebrated storytellers yourselves — what did you learn from working on this?
Jennifer Holness: Oh my God, a lot. First of all, I learned the nuances of stories that I had a peripheral understanding. I thought I was fairly self-educated on Black history, but what I really learned was that the erasure that I talk about was in some cases deliberate and in some cases benign neglect. There’s that phrase, “History is [written] by the victors.” It’s absolutely true. It was shocking to me to really understand how much was lost. … Black people were some of the people who helped to create and develop the Canada that we know and love. All of that was amazing. I want to share that.
This interview has been edited and condensed.