Blacks in Canada: A complicated history

| January 4, 2016 | 0 Comments

black-history-month-1As we mark Black History Month in Canada in February, it’s worth reflecting on the legacy of our country’s black community and the prejudice its members have faced. On the plus side, Canada — even before it formally became a country — took progressive steps to end discrimination ahead of some other countries.
In 1793, Upper Canada (Ontario) passed an anti-slavery measure (although it stopped short of a ban, instead instituting a gradual prohibition). From 1815 to 1860, Canada welcomed thousands of blacks who fled slavery in the United States to come via the Underground Railroad. In 1946, fans of the Montreal Royals baseball team warmly received Jackie Robinson. The following year, he would break the colour barrier as the first black to play in the major leagues.
On the other hand, when black Loyalists joined their white counterparts in Canada after the American Revolution, they were welcomed much less warmly. Bitterness by whites over competing for jobs with blacks (who were paid less for the same work) led to Canada’s first race riot in Nova Scotia in 1784. Some black Loyalists were so frustrated they moved to Africa in 1792.
The slights continued into the 20th Century. In 1962, Halifax decided to demolish its historic black neighbourhood, Africville, and threatened property-owning blacks with eviction if they refused to sell their properties. At the other end of the country, Hogan’s Alley in Vancouver suffered a similar fate in 1967, when the western half of a community largely populated by blacks was levelled to allow new construction.
Those episodes are striking when measured against the long history and achievements of the country’s black community. The first black person in what would become Canada is believed to have been Mathieu Da Costa, hired as an interpreter for Samuel de Champlain in 1608. Since then, even while battling discrimination, black Canadians have made important contributions to national life. Among them:
Former slave Richard Pierpoint petitioned the government to create an all-black regiment in the War of 1812. He succeeded — and served, despite being in his 60s.
Mary Ann Shadd began publishing the Provincial Freeman in 1853, becoming North America’s first black female newspaper publisher. Several years earlier, she had established an integrated school near what is now Windsor, Ont. She lost funding after a public dispute in which she disagreed with segregation.
William Neilson Hall became the first black to win a Victoria Cross, awarded for his heroism in what was then Calcutta during the 1857 Indian mutiny.
Rosemary Brown became Canada’s first black woman elected to a provincial legislature (in 1972). Lincoln Alexander, elected in 1968, was our first black member of Parliament; and Michaëlle Jean became our first black governor general in 2005.
Another pioneer is Viola Desmond, who, in 1946, challenged racial segregation at a film theatre in New Glasgow, N.S. She refused to leave a whites-only section and was subsequently found guilty of a tax violation used as a tool to enforce segregation.
After the incident, she said: “I didn’t realize a thing like this could happen in Nova Scotia — or in any other part of Canada.” She was convicted of the offence, and only pardoned in 2010, decades after her death. The Nova Scotia government apologized for the conviction and acknowledged discrimination as the driving factor.
In the most recent census in 2011, 945,665 Canadians identified themselves as black, a sharp increase over the previous decade. As we salute Canada’s diverse, growing black community, our organization, Historica Canada, has produced a Heritage Minute telling Desmond’s story. Other Minutes tell the stories of Pierpoint, Jackie Robinson and the Underground Railroad ( Today, some blacks still cite instances of continuing challenges because of their colour. The community’s achievements — and ongoing challenges — provide lessons with which all Canadians should be familiar.

Anthony Wilson-Smith is president of Historica Canada.

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Anthony Wilson-Smith is president of Historica Canada

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