February is Black History Month – a time when Canadians honour and remember the legacy of Black people in Canada and their communities. While this is by no means an exhaustive list of significant contributions and events that shaped this land and its people, they are pivotal milestones in our collective past.
1) In 1793, the British parliament passed an Act to prevent the further introduction of enslaved peoples into Upper Canada. However, it wasn’t until August 1, 1834, that the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. This finally and officially prohibited the enslavement of African peoples by the British Empire, including in Upper Canada. The abolishment freed over 800,000 individuals who were enslaved in the Caribbean, South Africa and Canada.
Once a year since 1834, people gather to celebrate freedom and are recognized in the West Indies, as well as parts of the US and Canada. Indigenous supporters also gather at different locations across the country to commemorate the abolition of slavery.
2) Henry Bibb was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1815. He was the founder and editor of the Voice of the Fugitive – Canada’s first Black newspaper for freedom seekers and Black refugees from the US. As part of the founding committee of the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada, Bibb also helped found the Refugee Home Society, which used donations from anti-slavery groups to purchase land that could be sold to refugees.
3) In 1823, Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born in Willmington, Delaware and grew up to have a long-lasting impact on Canada’s history. She would become an educator, lawyer, abolitionist and publisher.
Cary first set up a school in the fall of 1851 in Windsor, Ontario, for children who were formerly enslaved. Unfortunately, while the school was short-lived due to funding issues, she persisted in her abolitionist efforts, launching a newspaper called The Provincial Freeman, where she spoke about the abolition of slavery, the emigration of African Americans to Canada and women’s rights. The newspaper was published on March 24, 1853, and Shadd made history by being the first Black woman in North America to publish and edit a newspaper.
4) On February 26, 1851, the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada was formed. The Anti-Slavery Society adopted a constitution, bylaws and resolutions. The society condemned enslavement as inhumane and indicted the US for not outlawing slavery. The society launched aid programs, relief organizations and a night school to train a small group of refugees in farming.
5) Mary Bibb was an abolitionist, teacher, dressmaker, activist and co-editor of the Voice of the Fugitive. In 1854, Bibb founded the Windsor Ladies Club (Mutual Improvement Society). Bibb and the aforementioned Henry Bibb (her husband), managed the Refugee Home Society where they provided Underground Railroad travelers food, clothing, housing and job training. In 2002, Bibb and her husband were recognized as Persons of National Historic Significance in Canada.
6) The Coloured Women’s Club in Montreal was a group of Black Canadian women who founded their own club in 1902. During World War I and II, as well as the Great Depression, the Coloured Women’s Club helped organize, feed, shelter and care for community members in need. Their benevolent and charitable work was recognized in 1997 by the Ministere des Relations Avec Les Citoyens et de L’Immigration du Quebec. The Anne Greenup Solidarity Prize was named in honour of the club’s first president and was given to individuals or organizations that contribute to networking, generational solidarity, civic engagement and belonging.
7) Kay Livingstone was an actor, broadcaster and activist born October 13, 1919, in London, Ontario. She organized the first National Congress of Black Women (CBWC) in 1973, a nationwide organization dedicated to the welfare of Black women and their families. In 1992, the CBWC established a foundation that promotes and facilitates activities and model programs which foster the advancement, recognition, history and education of Black women and their families. In 2011, she was named Person of National Historic Significance by the Government of Canada.
8) Born on July 6, 1914, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Viola Desmond is one of Canada’s best-known civil rights activists, fighting to end racial discrimination and segregation in Nova Scotia. Desmond was known as an inspiring mentor to young Black women with her school for beauticians called the “Desmond School of Beauty Culture” and was an advocate for racial equality.
9) In Nova Scotia in 1946, Viola Desmond refused to move seats in a movie theatre after an usher told her to move. The main floor was for “Whites-only” but Desmond refused to move to the balcony. She was dragged and thrown in jail for the night for taking a stand. Desmond passed away on February 7, 1965.
10) Canadian jazz icon, pianist and composer, Oscar Peterson, was born on August 15, 1925, in Montreal, Quebec. Throughout his career, Peterson received a Juno Award, and eight Grammy wins and was known for his speed, dexterity and unique technique, gaining the nickname “the man with four hands.” Peterson was featured on over 200 other albums alongside some of the other greats like Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong and Billie Holliday. He began releasing albums at 25 years old in 1950 up until his death on December 23, 2007, at the age of 82. His name is proudly displayed on Canada’s Walk of Fame as well as the International Jazz Hall of Fame.
11) During the 1940s and 1950s, Dr. William Pearly Oliver and his wife, Pearleen Borden Oliver, were known as a unifying force within the local Black community. Dr. Oliver established the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) and was recognized for these contributions by receiving the Order of Canada in 1984. Similarly, Pearleen was bestowed with an Honourary Doctorate from Saint Mary’s University in 1990.
12) Violet King was the first Black female lawyer in Canada. She earned a law degree in Alberta and passed the bar. King practiced law in Calgary for years and gave speeches about racism. In 1953, she was the first Black graduate and also the only woman in her graduating class at the University of Alberta.
13) Leonard Braithwaite was the first Black Canadian elected to the provincial legislature. He was elected as the Liberal member for Etobicoke, Ontario, on September 25, 1963. Braithwaite graduated from Harvard Business School and worked part-time in his law office well into his 80s before passing at the age of 88 in 2012. Braithwaite has received the Order of Canada as well as the Order of Ontario and has a long list of accomplishments in business, community involvement, civil rights as well as politics.
14) The Honourable Jean Augustine was elected as the first Black female Member of Parliament in 1993, appointed the first Black woman in Cabinet in 2002, and named first Fairness Commissioner by the Government of Ontario in 2007. She was born in St. George’s, Grenada, and moved to Canada in 1960, where she became a revolutionary politician and social activist.
Augustine became a certified teacher in Ontario in 1963 and then began teaching Kindergarten with the Metropolitan Separate School Board. She was an activist in Toronto’s Caribbean communities throughout her teaching career, and in 1973, she founded the Toronto chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada (CBWC), where she later became national president.
15) The Greater Toronto Area in Ontario is home to approximately two-thirds of Canada’s West Indian population. To celebrate their common West Indian heritage, on July 28, 1967, Torontonians founded the Caribana cultural festival to display their rich cultural traditions in the spirit of other festivals celebrated throughout the Caribbean. Caribana continues to promote cultural pride, mutual respect and social unity to this day.
16) Haitian-born Michaëlle Jean is the first African-Canadian to hold the position of Governor General of Canada, having been appointed by then-Prime Minister Paul Martin. Jean and her family immigrated to Canada in 1968 from Haiti and after she completed her studies in comparative literature at the Université de Montréal, she joined the university’s Department of Literature and Modern Languages, focusing on Italian. Jean also worked with shelters for abused women in Quebec for eight years and helped establish an emergency shelter network across Quebec and other parts of Canada. Jean eventually transitioned to journalism and quickly became a well-respected journalist before serving as the 27th Governor General of Canada. She held the position of Governor General from September 27, 2005, until September 30, 2010.
17) Senator Anne Clare Cools became the first Black person in the Senate of Canada. She is a strong advocate for women, children and survivors of domestic violence. In 1974, she founded one of Canada’s first women’s shelters, Women in Transition Inc. Between 2011 and the time of her retirement in August 2018, Cools was the longest-serving member of the Senate.
18) Lincoln Alexander was an Air Force veteran, politician and lawyer who was the first Black member of Parliament and the first Black federal Cabinet Member. In 1985, he was appointed as Canada’s Lieutenant Governor where his mandate was focused on youth and education. He was also appointed to the Order of Canada.
19) In 1985, the Patty Wars began when Toronto authorities felt that the term “beef patty” was misleading and that Jamaican patty vendors and sellers could no longer use it. Business owners argued against this and entered into a nationwide protest against the government. The government demanded changes to the names, signage and packaging with a fine of $5,000 – $11,000 if vendors did not comply. After hours of debate, the vendors prevailed and February 23 marked Jamaican Patty Day ever since.
20) Oakville, Ontario’s own Donovan Bailey became the “World’s Fastest Human” when he won the 100-metre sprint at the World Track Championships in Göteborg, Sweden. He went on to break world records at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, winning gold with a time of 9.84 seconds.
21) Rosemary Brown was elected as the first Black woman to sit in a provincial legislative assembly in Canada, Representing the constituency of Vancouver-Burrard, British Columbia. Despite facing blatant racism upon arrival and even while pursuing her studies, Brown achieved her academic goals, fortifying her resolve to fight for change.
22) Angela James is the first and only Black woman to be captain of Canada’s National Women’s Hockey Team and champion. James grew up in Flemingdon Park, Toronto, Ontario. She began her hockey career with the Flemingdon Boys House League.
Her accomplishments include being the recipient of the Female Hockey Breakthrough Award in 2005, an inductee of the Black Ice Hockey Sports Hall of Fame in 2007, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010, Order of Hockey in Canada in 2021 and most recently the 70th Queens Jubilee in 2022. She is also part of the Hockey Diversity Alliance (HDA) and participates in initiatives surrounding inclusion, diversity and player issues in associations and corporations.
23) Jully Black is a Juno award-winning singer and was named one of the “25 Greatest Canadian Singers Ever” by CBC in 2013. Black has collaborated with well-known artists like Kardinal Offishall and Choclair and has written for Destiny’s Child, Nas, Sean Paul and Missy Elliot. Black is also an avid advocate for the LGBTQ2S+ community.
24) January 21 is Lincoln Alexander Day. In 2013, a bill was passed in Ontario recognizing the date as a way to help celebrate his legacy, achievements and significance to Black Canadian history.
25) In 2016, it was announced Viola Desmond would be the first Canadian woman to be featured by herself on the $10 first vertical banknote (other notes feature groups of notable historical figures or the Queen). The note features an excerpt from the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, stating that “Every individual is equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination.” The note entered circulation on November 19, 2018.
26) In 2018, Canada Post released a postage stamp with Kay Livingstone and Lincoln Alexander for being two Black Canadians who shattered barriers in Canada. The stamps were released on February 1 to celebrate Black History Month.
27) In 2018, the Canadian government formally endorsed the United Nations’ International Decade for People of African Descent. This represented an important commitment to taking action on the issues that affect people of African descent in Canada, including improving research and data collection, addressing mental health challenges, systemic discrimination and the over-representation of Black people in the criminal justice system, including as victims of crime.
28) Annamie Paul became the first Black woman to be elected leader of a federal political party. In 2020, Paul was elected head of the Green Party.
29) On May 16, 2023, The Halifax Declaration for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination was released. Published by the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, the Halifax Declaration for the Eradication of Racial Discrimination is the first collective record of being a Black Canadian today and the solutions needed across policy, legislation and research to achieve change. The declaration marks the United Nations’ Internal Decade for People of African Descent and is rooted in the themes of justice, recognition and development.
See also: What To Watch on History This January