Often when we think of Black History, we refer to popular American black historians such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, etc. These are indeed amazing individuals who undoubtedly made monumental, invaluable contributions to the progress we've seen in the last century in the equitable treatment and progression of people of colour. Unfortunately, Canada's rich story of Black History and historians is consequently often overlooked.
The 1st recorded Black person to arrive in Canada is said to be an African named Mathieu de Coste who arrived in 1608 to serve as interpreter of the Mi'kmaq language to the governor of Acadia.
"Black Canadians" is a designation used for people of full or partial Sub-Saharan African descent, who are citizens or permanent residents of Canada. The majority of Black Canadians are of Caribbean origin, though the population also consists of African-American immigrants and their descendants (including Black Nova Scotians), as well as many native African immigrants.
Often, children and youth of colour that come from under-served/at-risk communities or broken families find it difficult to envision themselves in prestigious positions and careers. Below are mini bios of some for the most iconic Black Canadians past and present - including a number of inventors, doctors, lawyers, activist, athlete, entertainers. artists and many more. This list has been compiled not only as a resource to children and youth but also to remind these bright minded youth that they can be anything they put their minds and effort to. Sky is the limit!!
Harry Jerome was once the world’s fastest man and one of our best-known athletes despite an injury-prone career. Born in Prince Albert, Sask., and residing in Vancouver, he won a bronze medal at the 1964 Olympics, and gold at the 1966 Commonwealth Games. His first world record was a 10-second flat 100-metre sprint
This women’s hockey pioneer is often called the “Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey.” Angela James earned the nickname after scoring a stunning 50 goals and 73 points in just 14 games during a season at Seneca College. She made an international mark too, helping lead Canada to gold four times at the Women’s World Championship. In 2010, James became one of first two women, the first openly gay player, and only the second Black athlete ever to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame
Phillips has worked as a costume designer for both film and television.. The Toronto-based costume designer has worked on the sets of several films like Walking Tall, My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2, and The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, where she was nominated for a Canadian Screen Award for Best Achievement in Costume Design. Currently, Phillips works on the set of Star Trek: Discovery and was nominated for a Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Sci-fi/Fantasy TV.
Lester Brown was thought to be the last surviving black Canadian veteran to have fought in the D-Day invasion.Rifleman Lester Brown had been drafted at 23 and later assigned to the Queen’s Own Rifles before being shipped to Europe in 1944.
Brown and another soldier came under fire by a German ambush after hurrying towards an alleid tanker on the roadside. The other soldier was killed, Brown survived although he was shot in in his chin.
Aubrey Drake Graham
Famously known for being a hip-hop heavyweight, Aubrey Drake Graham began his entertainment industry career as an actor on popular Canadian high-school drama DeGrassi: The Next Generation.
His first studio album, Thank Me Later (2010), debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was certified platinum. His subsequent albums would have similar success and he’d go on to win many awards including a Grammy, Juno Awards, BET Awards and recognition as one of the top-selling hip-hop artists of all time.
Jean Augustine PC CM CBE is a Gredian-Canadian education administration, advocate for social justice, and politician. Born in Greneda in 1937, she immigrated to Canada in 1960 and studied at University of Toronto where she attained her Bachelor of Arts and Master of Education. She worked as an elementary school Principal after university and also sat on the committee for the 1st Caribbean Festival. Alongside caucus colleague Hedy Fry, she was one of the first two Black Canadian Canadian women elected to the house of Commons. She served in that role as a Liberal member of the House of Commons from 1993 to 2006. She also served as parliamentary Secretary go Prime Minister Jean Chretien from 1994 to 1996
WondaGurl (Ebony Oshunrinde)
Brampton-born producer WondaGurl (née Ebony Oshunrinde) is definitely one to watch. She got her big break at the ripe age of 16 when a track sent to Travis Scott, an American rapper, ended up in the hands of rap legend, Jay-Z. “It was weird,” she said in an interview for our March 2016 cover. “It didn’t feel like my beat anymore because you never imagine Jay Z using your stuff—especially at 16.” She went on to produce two songs for Drake’s 2015 album If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late and worked with Rihanna and Big Sean. The now 21-year-old is still producing and working toward the ultimate goal: working with Kanye West.
Anne Cools has had some pretty cool and reallly awesome achievements throughout her life. She's the 1st black person appointed to the Senate of Canada and the first black female senator in North America. She’s also its longest-serving member.
A native of Barbados, she was raised in Montreal, and as a student she was active in Canada’s civil rights demonstrations including a 1969, 10-day sit-in at Sir George Williams University.
In 1974, founded one of the first shelters for abused women in Canada, Women in Transition Inc., and served as its executive director
Mitzie Hunter immigrated to Canada with her family from Jamaica when she was just four years old. Before becoming a politician, the U of T grad was the CEO of the Greater Toronto CivicAction Alliance, where she dedicated herself to social, economic, and environmental issues. Elected to the Liberal government in 2013, Hunter was just recently promoted to the minister of advanced education and skills development, where she will work on issues like providing free post-secondary school tuition to students in need.
Henry Bibb was an author and abolitionist who was born a slave and escaped to freedom in Canada in the 1800s.
He also published his autobiography Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Henry Bibb, An American Slave, Written by Himself, which became one of the best-known slave narratives of the time. Becoming a publisher in 1851, he set up the first black newspaper in Canada, The Voice of the Fugitive. The paper included news and commentary against the slave trade and was a resource for other escaped slaves who’d settled in the country
People often don't associate Slavery with Canada however Marie-Joseph Angelique's story is important reminder that black people were infact enslaved in Canada for many years.
Angelique, born in Portugal around 1705, she was sol multiple times, before being left to her slave masters widow, Therese de Couagne in Montreal and charged with arson after a large fire in the city. The allegations were that she set the fire trying to escape slavery after being refused a request for her freedom, though she denied setting the fire she was tortured by means of brodequins, and forced to confess to her crimes. She begged the pardon of God, the king, and the people. Angélique was then hanged and her body displayed on a gibbet for two hours, burned and her ashes scattered to the wind.
You've probably heard the His name before. Lawyer Lincoln Alexander made history three times in his political career, as the first black member of Parliament, cabinet minister, and provincial lieutenant-governor for Ontario.
Alexander, who served in the Royal Canadian Air Force before attending law school, was re-elected four times and also served as chair of the Ontario Workers' Compensation Board and chancellor of the University of Guelph during his long and varied career.
Portia White was an accomplished Nova Scotian classical concert performer who was born in Truro, N.S. and raised with her siblings in Halifax by her parents, Rev. William and Izzie White. A former schoolteacher who taught in segregated schools, Portia catapulted to international stardom after triumphant debuts in Toronto (1941) and New York (Town Hall, 1944) She performed memorably throughout Canada, the US, the Caribbean and South America. Named by reviewers as the “new star of the concert stage,” White’s achievement was rare in a period when race and gender defined women’s place in society. She has been recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance by the Canadian government and was commemorated on a Canadian postage stamp.
Halifax-born Viola Desmond was an entrepreneur who found success in running her own hair salon. The trained beautician opened a beauty school where she was a mentor to many black Canadian women. But across the country, Desmond is remembered for bravely challenging segregation: while at a movie theatre in 1946 in New Glasgow, N.S., she was forcibly removed after sitting on the ground floor—the whites-only section. Although Desmond offered to pay the one-cent difference in tax, she was still arrested and sentenced to 30 days in jail and charged a $26 fine. In 2018, She became the first Canadian woman to appear on the face of a Canadian banknote.
Donovan Bailey was born in Jamaica and emigrated to Canada as a teenager. He is 1 of the country's most highly decorated track athletes and once held the world record for the 100-meter sprint. He won three world championships in either the 100 metres and 4x100-metre relay and two gold medals at the 1996 Olympics.
Sam Langford was born in Nova Scotia and moved to the United States as a teenager. He was a highly touted heavyweight boxer, though discriminatory policies prevented him from being allowed to contend for championships.
Langford continued to box even after an injury led to the loss of sight in his right eye. He died in 1956 at the age of 72.
Born into slavery in 1789, as an adult Josiah Henson became a leader for black Americans escaping enslavement. Henson escaped to Canada in 1830, and founded the Dawn Settlement near Dresden, Ont. to provide a home for others like him.
He co-organized a trade-labour school and served on its executive, and made fundraising trips to the U.S. and England as the spiritual leader for Dawn. Some believe that Henson was the model for the lead character in the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Measha Brueggergosman (born Measha Gosman; June 28, 1977) is a Canadian soprano who performs both as an opera singer and concert artist. She has performed internationally and won numerous awards. Her recordings of both classical and popular music have also received awards.
Mary Ann Shadd
Mary Ann Shadd was born in 1823 in the slave state of Delaware to “free” parents, whose home was a safehouse on the Underground Railroad. The eldest of 13 kids, Shadd eventually moved to Windsor and opened a racially integrated school. By 1853, she founded and edited the Provincial Freeman, a weekly newspaper that was anti-slavery and publicized the successes of Black people in Canada, making her the first woman to publish a newspaper in the country. Before her death in Washington D.C. in 1893, she became one of the first Black women to earn a law degree. In 1994, she was honoured as a person of national historic significance in Canada.
Dr. Alvin Curling
He was elected to the Ontario legislature in the provincial election of 1985 as a Liberal in the suburban Toronto riding of Scarborough North. Curling defeated Progressive Conservative candidate Carole Noble by about 8,000 votes. His personal total of 30,504 votes was a provincial record at the time.
The Liberals formed a minority government after this election, and Curling was appointed Minister of Housing on June 26, 1985. He was the first Black Canadian to hold a cabinet-level position in Ontario. During his time as minister of Housing, he expanded the parameters of Ontario's rent control program, and announced a $500 million initiative for new urban housing. Curling was easily re-elected in the provincial election of 1987, and was appointed Minister of Skills Development on September 29, 1987. He served in this capacity until August 2, 1989, when he was dropped from cabinet.
Rev. Addie Aylestock
Believe it or not, it wasn't until 1951 that the 1st black woman was ordained in this country. Mabel Adeline (Addie) Aylestock was ordained in the British Methodist Episcopal Church in 1951 and the first woman ordained in that church after they changed their rules earlier that year.
Aylestock worked in congregations in Ontario, Quebec, and Nova Scotia throughout her career. Her family members were also trailblazers: her sister Rella Braithwaite wrote several books about African Canadians, and her niece Diana Braithwaite is a blues musician and television director.
Politician Rosemary Brown had to deal with racism and sexism on her path to becoming both the first black female member of a provincial legislature and the first woman to run for leadership of a federal party. Brown immigrated to Canada from Jamaica as a young adult, and first became well known as a political commentator and activist, co-founding the Vancouver Status of Women Council. She continued her work in national and international human rights after retiring from politics, heading both the Ontario Human Rights Commission and the MATCH International Women's Fund. Brown died in 2003 in Vancouver.
William Hall was the 1st black person to receive the Victoria Cross. He was born in Nova Scotia to former slaves who left the United States because of the War of 1812. He became a sailor in his twenties, eventually joining the Royal Navy. He was awarded the Victoria Cross after securing a British garrison in Lucknow, India, while serving on HMS Shannon. Hall was one of two sailors to survive the attack, but was the only one able to continue to fight. He fought until the garrison was safe. Hall died in 1904 at the age of 77.
Michaëlle Jean was born September 6, 1957 and came to Canada from Hatit as a refugee in 1968. She is a Canadian stateswoman and former journalist who was the third Secretary-General of the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie from 2015 until 2019. She was the first woman to hold the position and held the position until the end of 2018. From 2005 to 2010, Jean was Governor General of Canada, the 27th since Canadian Confederation.
Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott
Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott was the 1st black Canadian to be a licensed physician, and 1 of only 13 black surgeons to serve in the Civil War as a contracted independence doctor. Born in Toronto, he had a very prestigious career, serving as surgeon-in-chief at Provident Hospital in Chicago, the first training hospital for black nurses in the United States, in the mid-1800s, as well as starting a private practice in Canada upon his return to the country in the late 1800s. He became involved with writing for several publications including the Colored American Magazine of Boston and New York, the Anglo-American Magazine of London, and the New York Age, about black history, the Civil War, Darwinism, biology, and poetry
Zanana Akande has dedicated her life to social issues.“This time, we’ll leave no woman behind,” activist and former politician Akande said at the 2018 Toronto Women’s March. She was the 1st black woman to be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in 1990. After leaving politics in 1994, she stayed committed to working with many community-based groups, like the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. As seen at the Women’s March, Akande can still be found using her voice for activism; she’s currently working as the chair of the Black Legal Action Centre, a new non-profit set to launch later this year.
Lori Seale-Irving was born and raised in Ottawa. Her father was a Royal Canadian Air Force Officer (retired Major), so she grew up on a military base. Wanting a career that would allow her to help people in her community, Seale-Irving joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in 1990. Her career has included many postings, including some in sections devoted to general duty policing, war crimes, marine security, Prime Minister’s protection and management support.
Seale-Irving was promoted to the rank of Inspector in 2007, making her the first self-identified Black female RCMP member to become a commissioned officer.
Elijah McCoy (The Real McCoy)
Born in Colchester, Ontario, Elijah McCoy showed an early interest in machines and tools and an aptitude for mechanics. At a time when it was difficult for Black people to obtain training in the United States, his parents sent him to Edinburgh, Scotland to study mechanical engineering.
Upon his return to North America, he took a job as a fireman with the railroad in Michigan. The “fireman” was the person who shovelled the coal to power the locomotive and who lubricated the moving parts during frequent stops. Elijah soon saw that he could put his knowledge and education to work by improving this lubricating process. He developed and patented a particular type of lubricating cup that dripped oil onto the moving parts of a train while it was in motion.
That was just one of the more than 50 products he developed and patented including the ironing board, which be allegedly invented in response to his wife’s desire for an easier way to iron clothes. McCoy held patents, not just in Canada and the U.S. but also in France, Austria, Germany, Great Britain and Russia.
Harriet Ross Tubman
Harriet Tubman, formerly enslaved from Maryland, became known as the “Moses” of her people and the “conductor” who led hundreds of enslaved Blacks to freedom along the Underground Railroad. In 1850, when the far-reaching United States Fugitive Law was passed, she guided runaway enslaved people further north into Canada. When angry slave owners posted rewards for her capture, she continued her work despite great personal risk.
St. Catharines, Ontario (a town close to the border with the United States) was on the route and offered employment opportunities, making it a common destination for the former fugitives, including Harriet Tubman, who lived there from 1851 to 1857. Many of the people she rescued were relatives of those already in St. Catharines including her own parents, brothers and sisters and their families.
Later, Tubman became a leader in the Abolitionist movement. During the Civil war she worked as a nurse and served as a spy for the Union forces in South Carolina.
Ashley McKenzie - Barnes
With over a decade of integrated work advertising, experiential, entertainment, corporate, publishing and non-profit sectors, Scarborough born Ashley McKenzie-Barnes has conceptualized and executed large global campaigns across print, digital, social, video, web and much more for large brands like Virgin Radio, TedXToronto, Scotia Bank and Bell Media. In addition, she's programmed exhibitions and installations for SamSung, Art Galleryy of Ontario, Harbourfront and Manifesto Festival. Her work across the spectrum is absolutely breathtaking. Most recently, Ashley curated the 2019 theme for Nuit Blanche Scarborough - "Kings and Queens of Scarborough", which challenged systems of social marginalization, self-identity negotiation and racial stereotyping with a modern framework.
RESOURCES: Information found on this page has been compiled from the following sources:
Government of Canada - Canadian Heritage -- https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/black-history-month/black-canadians.html
The Canadian Encyclopedia - https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/collection/black-history-in-canada
The Canadian Huffington Post - https://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2018/02/27/black-canadians_a_23372125/
CBC News Canada - https://www.cbc.ca/news2/interactives/black-history-month/
Mysteries of Canada - https://www.mysteriesofcanada.com/canada/famous-black-canadians/
Wikipedia - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Canadians