Noteworthy historical figures
Read the biographies of some notable Black individuals who have helped shape Canadian heritage and identity, and who have made and continue to make enormous contributions to all sectors of society in Canada.
The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander
The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander was born in 1922 in Toronto. He served with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, between 1942 and 1945. He was educated at Hamilton’s McMaster University where he graduated in Arts, and Toronto’s Osgoode Hall School of Law where he passed the bar examination in 1965. Mr. Alexander was appointed a Queen’s Counsel and became a partner in a Hamilton law firm from 1963 to 1979. He was the first Black person to become a Member of Parliament in 1968 and served in the House of Commons until 1980. He was also federal Minister of Labour in 1979–1980.
In 1985, Lincoln Alexander was appointed Ontario’s 24th Lieutenant Governor, the first member of a visible minority to serve as the Queen’s representative in Canada. During his term in office, which ended in 1991, youth and education were hallmarks of his mandate. He then accepted a position as Chancellor of the University of Guelph. In 1996, he was chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and was also made Honorary Commissioner for the International Year of Older Persons Ontario celebrations.
The Honourable Lincoln Alexander was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada and to the Order of Ontario in 1992, and in June 2006, he was named the “Greatest Hamiltonian of All Time.”
Mr. Alexander died on October 19, 2012 at age 90.
On December 2013, the Province of Ontario proclaimed January 21 (Lincoln Alexander’s birthday) as "Lincoln Alexander Day" and the following year, the Day was nationally recognized.
Marie-Joseph Angélique (c.1705- June 21, 1734)
Angélique was born in Madeira, Portugal around 1705, where she was enslaved and sold multiple times before being purchased by French merchant François Poulin de Francheville in 1725. She was brought back to Montréal provide domestic labour. When Francheville died in 1733, ownership of Angélique was passed to his widow, Therese de Couagne.
During her period of enslavement, Angélique had three children – some historians have said she was likely forced to do so, with another enslaved person, Jacques César. None of her children lived beyond infancy. Angélique also had a lover, an indentured white labourer named Claude Thibault. After asking for freedom and being denied, Angélique ran away with Thibault after setting fire to her bed. They were caught two weeks later in nearby Chambly.
Once Angélique returned to Montréal, she threatened to burn down the house of her mistress. On April 10, 1734, 46 buildings Montréal’s merchant quarter were burnt down, including the convent and the hospital of the Hôtel-Dieu de Montréal. The next day, Angélique was accused of starting the fire and arrested by police. She was charged with arson, punishable death, and in a period where the accused were presumed guilty, had very little chance to prove herself innocent. Throughout her trial, she denied setting the fire.
She was brought before judge Pierre Raimbault, and long six-week trial started. Out of 23 people, 22 testified against Angélique, stating that although they did not see her start the fire, they were sure she did it. One witness testified for her innocence, the mistress herself, Therese de Couagne. It not until the 24th witness that the trial ended, a five-year old Amable Lemoine Monière, swore under oath that she saw Angélique going to the attic of the Francheville house with a shovel full of coals just before the fire. With such a testimony, the judge was able to find Angélique guilty.
She was to have her hands cut off and be burned alive, but the sentence was appealed to be less gruesome. The death penalty still remained, and Angélique was to be tortured, hanged and then her body burned. On the day of her execution, she was tortured by means of brodequins, and forced to confess to her crimes, and 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.
On one hand, Angélique, as an enslaved person living in New France with no rights, may have been an innocent, unfortunate victim of circumstances, rumours, and discrimination. On the other hand, Angélique may have set the fire as a message of rebellion, a cry for freedom of enslaved Black. We will likely never know if Angélique was guilty or not, but her story and what she represents is well worth remembering.
In 2012, a public square in Montreal, Quebec, facing City Hall, was named Place Marie-Josèphe-Angélique
The Honourable Jean Augustine
Jean Augustine is a trailblazing politician, social activist, and educator. She was the first African-Canadian woman to be elected to the House of Commons, the first African-Canadian woman to be appointed to the federal Cabinet, and the first Fairness Commissioner of the Government of Ontario.
Born in 1937 in Happy Hill, Grenada, Augustine overcame personal and economic adversity from an early age to excel academically, and began her career as a teacher. After arriving in Canada in 1960, she advanced her education and career prospects, participated in grassroots organizations to strengthen minority and women’s rights, and served her community and the City of Toronto with great passion and charisma. Augustine carried her roots and convictions in community service, education, and advocacy as she entered politics in 1993 as a Member of Parliament. In 1995, her proposed motion before Parliament to recognize February as Black History Month passed unanimously, thereby establishing a lasting tradition of celebrating the important contributions of Black Canadians to Canada’s history, culture, development, and heritage. Augustine continued on to serve in such key positions as Minister of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, member of the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada, and member of the Citizenship and Immigration Committee.
Augustine has received numerous awards and recognitions for her work, including being inducted as Member of the Order of Canada in 2007, appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire, as well as receiving honorary degrees from the University of Toronto, University of Guelph, McGill University, and York University.
Donovan Bailey is one of the greatest sprinters of all time. As someone who held the world record for the 100 metre, and the title of World Champion and Olympic Champion, it is not surprising that Track and Field News named him “Athlete of the Decade” in the 100 metre, and that the rest of us knew him as “The World’s Fastest Man.”
Canadians were proud when this Jamaican-born athlete dominated the field at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, winning gold in the 100 metre and the 4 x 100-metre relay. After retiring from competitive racing in 2001, he began a successful career in the business world.
Carrie Best was born on March 4, 1903, in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, to James and Georgina Ashe Prevoe.
In 1925, she married Albert T. Best and had a son, J. Calbert Best. Later, she became a foster mother to Berma, Emily, Sharon and Aubrey Marshall.
During the 1940s, Mrs. Best and her son Cal were arrested for sitting downstairs in the whites-only seats at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. Consequently, the pair was charged with disturbing the peace, convicted and fined.
In 1946, Mrs. Best founded The Clarion, the first Black-owned and published Nova Scotia newspaper. In 1952, her radio show, called The Quiet Corner, went on the air. It aired for 12 years and was broadcast on four radio stations throughout Canada’s Maritime Provinces. In 1968, she was hired as a columnist for the Pictou Advocate, a newspaper based in Pictou, Nova Scotia. The column ran until 1975 under the heading of “Human Rights.”
The following are some of Carrie Best’s most important achievements:
- Member of the Order of Canada in 1974
- Awarded the Queen Elizabeth Medal in 1977
- Officer of the Order of Canada in 1979
- Awarded an honorary doctor of civil laws (DC.L.) from the University of King’s College, Halifax, in 1992
- Founded the Kay Livingstone Visible Minority Women’s Society of Nova Scotia in 1975
- Inducted into the Nova Scotia Black Wall of Fame in 1980
- Received the Harry Jerome Award in 1986
- Received the Harambee Membership Plaque in 1987
- Received the Black Professional Women’s Group Award Certificate in 1989
- Received the Minister’s Award of Excellence in Race Relations—Minister of State for Multiculturalism, in 1990
- Received the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission Award in 1991
- Received the Town of New Glasgow Award for work in race relations in 1992
- Received the Congress of Black Women Certificate in 1993
Carrie Best died in July 2001 in New Glasgow.
Born a free person in Rhode Island, Mary Bibb became an abolitionist, teacher, dressmaker, activist and co-editor of the Voice of the Fugitive. In 1854, Mary Bibb also founded the Windsor Ladies Club, also referred to as the Mutual Improvement Society. Mary, along with her husband Henry, was also instrumental in managing the Refugee Home Society and distributing aid to incoming Underground Railroad travelers. They provided newcomers with food, clothing, housing, but also job training and protection from slave hunters. This was in addition to establishing a school for young people who were excluded from the local public school due to discrimination. It was in 2002 that Mary, along with her husband Henry, was recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada.
Jully Black, born Jully Ann Inderia Gordon, is a singer, songwriter, actress, and TV personality. Known as Canada’s Queen of R&B, she is a Juno Award-winner and in 2013 CBC Music named her one of the “25 Greatest Canadian Singers Ever.”
Black was born on November 8, 1977 in Toronto, Ontario to Jamaican immigrant parents as one of nine children. Her twin brother died at birth, her father left when she was seven, and when Black was ten, she unexpectedly lost an older sister. Black started singing in church at age six, and with the inspiration of her late sister, Sharon, and the lack of women in Canadian media, Black decided to pursue a career in music by age twelve. After winning a local talent show and singing at numerous events, Black began travelling to New York to record by age 14. She later attended C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute, then Oakwood Collegiate for their music program. She went on to earn a degree in law enforcement at Seneca College, “I've always loved law because I experienced injustice . . . When you know your rights and responsibilities, you're untouchable", Black told Toronto Life.
After collaborating with well-known artists such as Choclair, Kardinal Offishall, Black wrote songs for Destiny’s Child, Nas, Sean Paul, Missy Elliott and others. Black released a number of independent songs, including “Rally’n”, which was nominated for a Juno Award and a MuchMusic Video Award in 1999. Her collaboration with 2 Rude and Grimmi Grimmi, “Dissin’ Us”, won Best Soul/R&B Video at the MuchMusic Video Awards in 2000.
Black’s debut album, I travelled, set for release in 2003, was delayed due to her label, MCA, being absorbed by Interscope. She then signed with Universal Music Canada and released her first album, This is Me (2005). Her single “Sweat of Your Brow” peaked at no. 16 on the Canadian charts, and won Dance/Recording of the Year at the Canadian Urban Music Awards (2005).
Black’s next album, Revival (2007), was dedicated to her late sister Sharon, and features her best-selling single to date, “Seven Day Fool”, which peaked at no. 9 on Billboard’s Canadian Hot 100 chart. Revival won R&B/Soul Recording of the year at the 2008 Juno Awards.
Black has also been involved in a wide-range of charitable work. In 2006, she performed at a benefit concert in South Africa alongside the Black Eyed Peas to raise funds and awareness for the Shanduka Foundation and their Adopt-a-School Program. Black has also delivered speeches in schools across Canada and participated in the MusiCounts education program. She took part in a benefit concert for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which supports HIV/AIDS research. In 2014, she hosted Kick It Up for Kidney Cancer Boot Camp in Toronto, which benefited Kidney Cancer Canada. Black is also a vocal advocate for Lesbian, Gay, Transgender, Bisexual, Queer (LGTBQ) communities, performing at various Pride events, including at World Pride (2015).
Lucie and Thornton Blackburn
Lucie and Thorton Blackburn, like many of the Underground Railroad refugees, headed for the towns and cities where they could find work and where they would help mould the character of their new homes.
The Blackburns were fugitives from Kentucky who escaped slavery and settled in Detroit. However, their former owner tracked them down there and tried to return them to slavery. In a highly publicized escape that left Detroit engulfed in riots, the Blackburns were able to make it to Canada. The Canadian Courts defended them against the threat of extradition. This was seen nationally and internationally as a symbol of Upper Canada’s role as a safe haven for Black refugees.
The Blackburns settled in Toronto and, in 1834, built their home on what are now the grounds of the old Sackville Street School. Thornton operated the first cab in the young city of Toronto. The Blackburns worked tirelessly in their new community for the abolition of slavery and to help other Underground Railroad refugees settle in Canada.
In 1985, archaeologists in downtown Toronto discovered what would become the most highly publicized dig in Canadian history: the remains of a house belonging to the Blackburns.
Karolyn Smardz Frost spent years researching this era of the Underground Railroad. Her book, I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad, which recounts the saga of Lucie and Thornton Blackburn, from slavery in Kentucky to freedom in Ontario, won the Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction in 2007.
Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard, PhD, C.M., O.N.S,
Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard is a highly regarded Nova Scotian educator, social worker, researcher, and community activist. Since 1990 she has been a professor at the Dalhousie School of Social Work, and was its former director (2001-2011). In 2016, she was appointed Special Advisor on Diversity and Inclusiveness at Dalhousie University. In November 2016, Prime Minister Trudeau appointed her to the Senate as an independent Senator representing Nova Scotia and as a result, Senator Thomas Bernard became the first African Nova Scotian woman to serve in the Senate Chamber.
Senator Thomas Bernard is the first African-Canadian to hold a tenure-track position at Dalhousie University and to be promoted to full professor. She is a founding member of the Association of Black Social Workers, which helps address the needs of marginalized citizens, especially those of African descent. Additionally, Senator Bernard’s work as the past Chair of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women led to the development of advice to ministers regarding frameworks for gender violence protection and health equity.
Senator Bernard has served as an expert witness on human rights cases and has presented at many local, national, and international forums. For her work, she has received many honours, including the Order of Canada in 2004 and the Order of Nova Scotia in 2014.
Dionne Brand is an accomplished poet, writer, filmmaker, educator and social activist. Born in Trinidad, Brand immigrated to Canada in 1970 and earned her BA in English and Philosophy at the University of Toronto and MA in the Philosophy of Education from the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Her acclaimed works have earned her numerous awards and recognitions, including the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, the Trillium Book Award, and appointment as poet laureate of Toronto.
Brand has published poetry, fiction, essays, and other writings exploring themes of gender, race, sexuality and feminism, white male domination, injustices, and the “moral hypocrisies of Canada.” She has also taught and continues to teach literature, creative writing, and women’s studies at various universities across North America.
Brand’s political and social work includes chairing the Women’s Issues Committee of the Ontario Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, helping to organize the Black and Native Women’s Caucus of the International Women’s Day Coalition, working for Toronto’s Black Education Project, and serving on the board of the Shirley Samaroo House, a Toronto shelter for battered immigrant women. She has also worked as a counselor at the Immigrant Women’s Center and an Information Officer for the Caribbean Peoples’ Development Agencies.
Rosemary Brown came to Canada from her native Jamaica in 1950 to attend McGill University in Montreal. First elected to the British Columbia legislature in 1972, she served until her retirement in 1986. She also ran for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party in 1974.
A feminist and public advocate, Rosemary Brown dedicated her life to helping others. Over the years, she served her fellow citizens as the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission (from 1993 to 1996), and was a founding member of the Vancouver Status of Women Council and the Canadian Women’s Foundation. In the course of her career, she was also a member of the Judicial Council of British Columbia and sat on the Canadian Security Intelligence Review Committee. Rosemary Brown died in 2003, at the age of 72.
Deborah Miller-Brown is a Canadian track star born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1951. She began her track career at age eleven in Brantford, Ontario by setting numerous track records at the secondary school level. In 1968, at the young age of seventeen, she became the first Black Nova Scotian to participate at the Olympics. She was also one of the youngest track participants at the Olympics. Her participation at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico was made possible when the local residents of Brantford fundraised to cover the costs of her trip.
Although she did not win a medal, she set a time that led her to be ranked eighth best in the world. Upon returning from the Olympics, she received a Medal of Excellence in Sports from Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau. Miller-Brown is currently coaching the track and field team at Saint Mary's University in Halifax.
Measha Brueggergosman is a Canadian Soprano born June 28, 1977 in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Brueggergosman began signing in the choir of her local Bapitist church, later taking lessons from Mabel Doak and spent summer scholarships at the Boston Conservatory. She got her Bachelors of Music at the University of Toronto in 1999, and a Master of Music at the Robert Schumann Hochschule in Düsseldorf, Germany.
She debuted at age 20 by playing a signature lead role in the opera Beatrice Chancy by James Rolfe. The opera portrayed the tale of an enslaved girl in 19th century rural Nova Scotia who murdered her abusive father and master.
Soon after, she won several prestigious competitions, including the Grand Prize at the 2002 Jeunesses Musicales Montreal International Competition and her career rose considerably. She appeared all across Canada and internationally, singing for Queen Elizabeth II (2002), in the US at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall (2001), and in London at Royal Albert Hall (2003). She was one of the soloists featured in the 2005 Naxos recording of the multiple Grammy winning William Bolcom: Songs of Innocence and Experience. Additionally, she won a Juno Award in 2008 for the album Surprise. Today, Brueggergosman is recognized as one of the top sopranos in North America.
Linda Carty is a sociologist, professor and former Chair of the Department of African Studies at Syracuse University (New York). She is a long-standing labour activist in New York, and HIV/AIDS activist in Caribbean and Latin American health networks in New York City.
Her research areas include anti-racism, Black feminism, Marxism addressing Black women’s labour in the Americas, and Black women’s health care in the US and the Caribbean. Her publications include Unsettling Relations (1991), And Still We Rise (1993), and We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up (1994).
George Elliott Clarke
George Elliott Clarke is an Africadian poet and playwright, and the current Canadian Parliamentary Poet Laureate. Born in Windsor, Nova Scotia in 1960, Clarke is a seventh-generation Canadian of African-Canadian and Mi’kmaq Amerindian heritage. His many bestowed honours include the Governor-General’s Award for Poetry, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Fellowship Prize, appointment to the Order of Nova Scotia, appointment to the Order of Canada at the rank of Officer, and eight honorary doctorates.
Clarke’s work explores and chronicles the experience and history of the Black Canadian communities of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, creating a cultural geography that Clarke refers to as “Africadia.” Among the themes he has addressed are racism, segregation, discrimination, hatred, forced relocation, loss of identity and a sense of belonging, and desire for safety, freedom, equality, and other basic human rights experienced and shared by the Black descendants of those who first settled in Canada centuries ago.
Clarke currently teaches Canadian and African diasporic literature at the University of Toronto, where he is the E.J. Pratt Professor of Canadian Literature.
Chloe Cooley was an enslaved woman in Upper Canada. She resisted her owner, Sergeant Adam Vrooman, a United Empire Loyalist, who forcibly tied Cooley to a boat and brought her across the Niagara River to be sold in New York State. Witness, Peter Martin (Black Loyalist) and William Grisley (White) reported the incident to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe, who used the Chloe Cooley incident to introduce anti-slavery legislation in Upper Canada. It was Cooley’s actions that put in motion the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada in 1793, which prohibited the importation of new slaves into Upper Canada. This was the first legislation in the British colonies to restrict the slave trade.
Senator Anne Clare Cools
Senator Anne Clare Cools was born in 1943 in Barbados, West Indies. She was educated at Queen’s College Girls School, Barbados, Montreal’s Thomas D’Arcy McGee High School, and McGill University, from which she holds a Bachelor of Arts.
Senator Cools is a Senator from Ontario. Recommended by Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, she was summoned to the Senate in January 1984, becoming the first Black person in the Senate of Canada. She is the first black female senator in North America. In June 2004, after 20 years as a Liberal Senator, she briefly joined the Conservatives. She now has no party affiliation.
Senator Cools was a social worker in innovative social services in Toronto. A pioneer in addressing domestic and family violence, in 1974 she founded one of Canada’s first women’s shelters, Women in Transition Inc., and was its Executive Director.
Senator Cools currently serves on the Senate Special Committee on Aging and the Senate Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament.
Her many recognitions include:
- Women of Distinction in the African-Canadian Community, 2009, Black Business & Professional Association, Toronto, ON;
- 10 Top Women, Toronto Sun newspaper October 25, 2004. This poll overwhelmingly chose Senator Cools as Canada’s top woman;
- The Greatest Canadian, CBC TV, 2004: Chosen as one of the 100 greatest Canadians of all time, Senator Cools was the only serving member of Parliament so chosen;
- Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree, 2004, Canada Christian College, Toronto, Ontario;
- Certificate of Recognition as Canada’s first Black senator, 2001, Ralph J. Bunche International Affairs Center, Howard University, Washington, D.C.; and
- Spiritual Mother of the Year, 1997, NA’AMAT Canada, the International Jewish Women’s Organization that supports battered women’s shelters in Israel.
Afua Cooper is a distinguished and internationally recognized educator, historian, performance artist, and poet. In her poetry, she incorporates African rhythms and vibes of the Black diaspora which carry a strong sense of history and place, as well as an underlining feminist sensibility. Cooper is a founding member of the Toronto Dub Poets’ Collective, founder of the Black Canadian Studies Association (BCSA), and the third James Robinson Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Dalhousie University.
Born in Jamaica to a family of nine children, Cooper immigrated to Canada in 1980 during a period of great political unrest in Jamaica. She proceeded to become one of the most influential and pioneering voices in the Canadian dub poetry and spoken word movement. In 2000, she completed her PhD in African-Canadian history with specialties in slavery and abolition. Her PhD dissertation on the life of Henry Bibb, a runaway enslaved person from Kentucky who became an abolitionist in Canada, led to her being named “Kentucky Colonel”, the highest award in the Commonwealth of Kentucky. In tandem with this award, the Government of Canada also recognized Bibb as a person of national historic significance. She currently resides in Toronto, and teaches sociology at Ryerson University.
Frances DelSol is the Government of Dominica Representative for Canada and the Trade & Investment Commissioner for Dominica. She is a member of the Commonwealth of Dominica Ontario Association (CDOA), a non-profit that seeks to support the goals and objectives of Ontarians that come from the Commonwealth of Dominica, a small island in the Caribbean. DelSol was previously the Associate Director for Bell Canada for 35 years (until 2016), and currently is the Communications Co-Chair for the Black Business and Professional Association.
As an organization existing since 1970 with diverse members, the CDOA seeks to sponsor literary, musical, and other educational and cultural events, festivals, pageants, and conventions for the preservation and perpetuation of the Dominica residents of Ontario. The organization also provides aid for its members, most recently by collecting aid and money through donations and fundraising events for Hurricane Maria relief. Hurricane Maria was the worst natural disaster on record in Dominica’s history. DelSol’s contributed through media and press events, and spoke publically many times to highlight Dominica’s needs, working tirelessly to help.
DelSol was voted one of Canada’s top 100 Black Women to Watch in 2016 (CIBWE). In December 2017 she was awarded the Honoris Causa with a medal in Community Service by the Premier of Ontario, Hon. Kathleen Wynne. DelSol was granted the award for her distinguished services to arts, to letters, to science, to industry, to public services, to media, to community and to the Canadian society by promoting equality, respect to human values, the human rights, co-operation and understanding among the members of the various cultural groups of the Canadian society. This award was her latest in addition to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, Afro-Global TV’s Volunteer of the Year, Black Business and Professional Woman of Honour, and many others.
Viola Davis Desmond
Viola Davis Desmond (1914–1965) was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia. She was an African-Canadian who ran her own beauty parlor and beauty college in Halifax. On November 8, 1946, while waiting for her car to be repaired, she decided to go see a movie in the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow. She refused to sit in the balcony, which was designated exclusively for Blacks. Instead, she sat on the ground floor, which was for Whites only. She was forcibly removed and arrested.
Viola was found guilty of not paying the one-cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket. She was sentenced to 30 days in jail and paid a $26 fine. The trial mainly focused on the issue of tax evasion and not on the discriminatory practices of the theatre. Dissatisfied with the verdict, the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, with Viola’s help, took the case to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. The conviction was upheld.
Eventually, Viola Desmond settled in New York where she died.
More recently, on April 15, 2010, the province of Nova Scotia granted an official apology and a free pardon to Viola. Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis, the first Black person to serve as the Queen’s representative in the province of Nova Scotia, presided over a ceremony in Halifax and exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to grant a free pardon to her. Viola’s 83-year-old sister, Wanda Robson, was there to accept the apology. Premier Darrell Dexter also apologized to Viola’s family and all Black Nova Scotians for the racism she was subjected to in an incident he called unjust. In 2016, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and the Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz announced that Viola will be featured on the $10 bill, making her the first Canadian woman to be featured on a Canadian banknote.
Perdita Felicien is a two-time Olympian (2000 and 2004) and a 2003 world champion in the 100m hurdles. She is also the first Canadian woman to win an individual track medal at the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) World Championships, is a 10-time Canadian champion, and, in 2004, she set a national record in the 100m hurdles with a time of 12.46 seconds. In 2003 and 2007, Felicien won silver in the 100m hurdles at the Pan American Games and was also inducted into the Athletics Canada Hall of Fame in 2016.
Monica Gaylord is a pianist and harpsichordist born of Jamaican parents in 1948. She was a student of pianist Jane Carlson from 1959-63, she made her Town Hall (New York) debut in 1964 and continued her studies from 1964-70 at the renowned Eastman School of Music, earning a Master of Music. Gaylord moved to Canada in 1970, and worked as an orchestral pianist for the National Arts Centre Orchestra. In the 1970s, she has worked with the Hamilton Philharmonic, the Calgary Philharmonic, the Victoria Symphony Orchestra, and others. As s a solo pianist, she has toured extensively throughout Canada and in 1985, she toured Greece. She has also appeared on CBC TV, and CBC and CJRT Radio.
A number of her programs are devoted to music by Black composers such as Nathaniel Dett, Duke Ellington, and Scott Joplin. She also recorded the album Black Piano – A Treasury of Works for Solo Piano by Black Composers (1992), which was reissued as Piano Music by William Grant Still and Other Black Composers (1992). She also performs works by Canadian female composers such as Violet Archer, Jean Blake Coulthard, and Ann Southam.
In 1986, Gaylord joined the teaching staff at the Royal Conservatory of Music in Toronto, where she remains today. She co-authored the institution’s piano workbooks for New Piano Series and the Celebration Series.
Mifflin Wistar Gibbs
Born into a free Black family in Philadelphia, Gibbs moved to San Francisco in 1850 and became one of that city’s most prosperous Black merchants. Concern about the racial climate in the United States prompted him and other African Americans to head north and seek the protection of British law in Victoria. As a politician, businessman, and defender of human rights, Gibbs was the recognized leader of the Black community on Vancouver Island during its early years between 1858 and 1870, and is still a revered historical figure in the Black community of British Columbia. Through his political abilities, Gibbs made Black residents a force in colonial politics and was elected to Victoria City Council. He acted as a spokesperson for the West Coast’s African Canadian community, encouraging their integration into Vancouver Island society and intervening repeatedly when efforts were made to segregate them in the churches and theatres of Victoria. In 1870, Gibbs returned to the United States and enjoyed an equally significant political and business career in the American South before his death in 1915. Gibbs was recently deemed by Parks Canada as a person of National Historic Significance.
Born and raised in Vancouver at 10th and Nanaimo. During the late 1930s, the Vancouver-born Howard was one of the fastest female sprinters in the British Empire. She represented Canada at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. Howard later graduated from UBC in 1959 attaining a B.Ed. and was the first member of a visible minority hired by the Vancouver School Board. She worked as a Vancouver school teacher until 1984. In her later years, she remained active in the community volunteering as a peer counsellor. She was inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame in 2012 and inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.
The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada from 2005 to 2010
Michaëlle Jean was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1957. She was educated at home because her parents, Roger and Luce, did not want her to attend school, where she would have to swear allegiance to dictator François "Papa Doc" Duvalier. In 1968, she immigrated to Canada with her parents, fleeing the dictatorial regime of François Duvalier.
Jean studied comparative literature at the Université de Montréal, and became fluent in five languages (French, Haitian Creole, English, Italian, and Spanish). She was equally active on the issue of domestic violence, and worked with shelters for battered women and coordinated a government-funded study on spousal abuse during her time in university. She also taught Italian in the Université’s Department of Literature and Modern Languages.
In 1988, Jean began her career as a reporter, filmmaker, and broadcaster with Radio-Canada. It was there that she became the first person of Caribbean descent to be seen on French television news in Canada, hosting news and affairs programs such as Actuel, Montréal ce soir, Virages, and Le Point. By 1995, she moved to Réseau de l'information (RDI), where she anchored programs such as, Le Monde ce soir, l'Édition québécoise, Horizons francophones, Les Grands reportages, Le Journal RDI, and RDI à l'écoute. Four years later, she joined CBC Newsworld, to host The Passionate Eye and Rough Cuts. By 2004, Jean was hosting her own show, Michaëlle, while anchoring RDI's Grands reportages, and occasionally Le Téléjournal. Over this period, Jean also made several films with her husband, including the award winning Haïti dans tous nos rêves ("Haiti in All Our Dreams").
On September 27, 2005, Michaëlle Jean become the 27th Governor General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada. As Governor General she encouraged field initiatives from civil society, stimulating constructive synergies, advocating for the disadvantaged, paying special attention to youth. As Commander-in-Chief of the Canadian Armed Forces, she maintained a strong presence among them, including traveling to Afghanistan to salute their valour, and attend to the families of those killed in action, and the wounded. Over the five years of her mandate, she led some forty missions and State visits to Afghanistan, China, ten African countries, nine countries of the Americas, and over ten European countries.
On January 12, 2010, a terrible earthquake devastated Haiti and in October 2010, with her mandate as Governor General coming to an end, Michaëlle Jean agreed to serve as United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Special Envoy for Haiti. For four years, she devoted her energy and powers of persuasion to support the post-earthquake reconstruction efforts. In 2010, following her term as Governor General, she cofounded with her husband the Michaëlle Jean Foundation. This independent non-profit organization serve to inspire and empower at-risk youth in Canada through the arts and culture. From 2012 to 2015, Michaëlle Jean served as Chancellor of the University of Ottawa, the largest bilingual French and English campus in the world.
In April 2011, Michaëlle Jean was appointed as the Grand Témoin de la Francophonie at the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, and was elected Secretary General of La Francophonie on November 30, 2014, at the 15th Summit of La Francophonie.
Sylvia D. Hamilton
Sylvia D. Hamilton is an award-winning filmmaker, writer, and educator. Growing up in Beechville, Nova Scotia, she attended a segregated school as a child. In high school, she was one of the only Black students. She was Beechville’s first high school graduate and went on to receive her bachelor’s degree from Acadia University in 1972, and her master’s degree from Dalhousie University in 2000.
In 1975, Hamilton joined Halifax’s Reel Life Film and Video Collective, which encouraged self-representation for female filmmakers. In 1990, she co-created the New Initiatives in Film program for the women’s unit of the National Film Board. She has held the Nancy’s Chair in Women’s Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University (Halifax), and was the Chair of the Women in Media Foundation. In both her writing and films, she draws on collective experiences to document diverse and inclusive communities to make people aware of history that has been missed.
Hamilton’s films include Black Mother Black Daughter (1989), Speak it! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia (1992), Portia White: Think On Me (2000), and The Little Black School House (2007). Her films have been seen at festivals in Canada and abroad, telecast on CBC TV, Bravo, VisionTV, TVO, and The Knowledge Network, and used as educational tools in schools and universities across Canada.
Among many accolades, she has received a Gemini Award, The Portia White Prize, the CBC Television Pioneer Award, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, and three honorary degrees from Nova Scotian universities.
William Edward Hall
Victoria Cross recipient William Hall was born in 1827 in Horton, Nova Scotia, the youngest of seven children. His parents, Jacob and Lucy Hall, were former enslaved Americans who had come to Nova Scotia as a result of the War of 1812. Hall grew up on the family farm beside the Avon River, and it is believed that he received some training in navigation, a subject that was being taught to young Black males in Halifax at the time.
William Hall launched his seafaring career at the age of seventeen, first joining the crew of an American trading vessel in 1844 as a merchant seaman. In 1852, he enlisted in the Royal Navy in Liverpool as an Able Seaman. Before long, Hall was decorated with British and Turkish medals for his service in the Crimean War.
In 1857, while serving on the Her majesty’s ship (HMS) Shannon, Hall volunteered with a relief force sent to Lucknow, India, where a British garrison was besieged. Two survived the attack, Seaman Hall and Lieutenant Thomas Young, but only Hall was left standing, and he continued to fight until the relief of the garrison was assured. For this outstanding display of bravery, he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
William Hall was presented with his Victoria Cross on October 28, 1859, on board the Her majesty’s ship (HMS) Donegal while the ship sat in Queenstown Harbour, Ireland. With this award, he became the first Black person, the first Nova Scotian and the first Canadian sailor to receive this outstanding honour.
Hall died on his farm in Avonport on August 27, 1904, and is buried in Hantsport, Nova Scotia, where his grave is marked by a monument at the Baptist church. His Victoria Cross is preserved at the Nova Scotia Museum.
Josiah Henson was born into slavery on June 15, 1789 in Charles County, Maryland. He was sold three times before he reached the age of eighteen. By 1830, Henson had saved $350 to purchase his freedom. After giving his master the money he was told that the price had increased to $1,000.
Cheated of his money, Henson decided to escape with his wife and four children. After reaching Canada, Henson formed a community where he taught other formerly enslaved people how to be successful farmers. American abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe read his autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson (1849), which inspired her powerful and controversial novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Lucille Hunter (1878-1973)
Lucille Hunter (1878-1973) was one of the early pioneers of the Yukon Territory. As word of the Klondike Gold Rush reached Lucille, then only 19 years old and pregnant, and her husband Charles, the set out from Michigan to head to the Yukon in search of a new life.
The Hunters travelled to the west coast and stopped at Teslin Lake to deliver her baby daughter, named Teslin. They moved by dogsled to Dawson City, Yukon in February 1898, arriving before most of the stampeders, and staked three claims. The family settled outside of Dawson at Bonanza Creek, and Lucille helped Charles dig for gold while also caring for Teslin. As both a Black woman, Lucille was a rare sight. In the 1901 census, there was an estimated 30000 white people living in Yukon, compared to only 99 Black people.
The family later staked claims in silver in Mayo. After Charles died in 1939, Lucille, at age 65, continued as a miner by walking 220km from Dawson to Mayo and back again. In 1942, she moved to Whitehorse and opened a laundry tent. Despite her declining eyesight and eventually becoming blind, Lucille stayed fiercely independent by living in a small clapboard house.
Eventually, her house burned down; however, she recovered from her burns and lived in a basement apartment for several more years until she broke her hip. Spending the rest of her time in a hospital, she died in 1973 at age 94. As one of the few Black women living in Yukon, Lucille Hall lived a remarkable and difficult life as a prospector and miner.
Dr. June Marion James
June Marion James was born in Trinidad & Tabago and moved to Manitoba in 1960 to become the first Black woman admitted to the University of Manitoba’s Faculty of Medicine. She received her M.D. in 1967, and went on to earn Specialist Certificates in Pediatrics and Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology for which she was named a Fellow of both the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons (Canada) and the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. She began her career as a specialist in the Department of Allergy and Immunology at the Winnipeg Clinic in 1976, where she continues to practice today.
Dr. James was one of the founders of Manitoba’s Family Allergy College. She has also served as a councilor for the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Manitoba and later became its president. Overall, she has served on over 20 boards and committees. She has been involved with organizations such as the Caribbean Canadian Association, the Winnipeg Foundation, United Way, the Congress of Black Women, and the Manitoba Museum and more. She also played an instrumental role in founding the Harambee Housing Co-op, which provides social housing at an affordable cost to a culturally and racially diverse population in Winnipeg.
For her work, Dr. James has been a recipient of numerous awards such as YMCAs Woman of the Year (1981), the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002), the Order of Manitoba (2004), and the Volunteer Centre Award for Outstanding Community Leadership (2005).
Yolande James is a former Quebec provincial politician. She was the first Black female Member of the National Assembly of Quebec (MNA), and the youngest, as well as the first Black cabinet minister in Quebec history. A native of Montréal, Quebec, she acquired her education and training in law from Université de Montréal and Queen’s University, and was called to the Bar of Quebec in 2004. During this time, she collaborated in a program for helping youths with learning disabilities at the West Island of Montreal, served as a policy advisor at the Ministry of Health and Social Services, and was a member of the organizing committee for Black History Month at Université de Montréal.
James was first elected to the National Assembly of Quebec for the riding of Nelligan in 2004, and was re-elected in the 2007, 2008, and 2012 general elections. She served as Minister of Immigration and Cultural Communities from 2005 to 2010, and Minister of the Family from 2010 to 2012.
Having left politics in 2014, she is currently a political analyst at Radio-Canada and appears on the television show Les EX.
Ferguson Arthur Jenkins
Ferguson Arthur Jenkins was born on December 13, 1942, in Chatham, Ontario. He is considered to be one of the most talented pitchers to ever play baseball. He grew up in Canada and excelled in baseball, basketball and hockey, competing in Canada's highest amateur hockey league.
While playing in the minor league in Chatham, Mr. Jenkins was drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in 1963 and went on to the Chicago Cubs in 1966. In 1967, he began a six-year string of 20 or more wins per season.
Ferguson Jenkins also became only the fourth pitcher in history to win more than 100 games. In addition, his six consecutive 20-game winning seasons as a Cub were rare accomplishments in the majors.
Mr. Jenkins retired in 1983 with the best finesse record in 128 years of organized baseball.
After coaching minor-league pitchers for the Texas Rangers and the Cincinnati Reds, he was named the Chicago Cubs' pitching coach for the 1995 and 1996 seasons.
Among his many achievements, Mr. Jenkins accomplished the following:
- He won the Cy Young Award for pitching excellence in 1971;
- He won the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada's outstanding athlete in 1974;
- He became Canadian Male Athlete of the Year four times;
- He was inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 1987;
- He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 1979 and was invested into the Order in 2007, over 27 years after he was appointed; and
- He received baseball's ultimate honour when he became the first Canadian inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, in 1991.
Today Fergie is very involved with his Foundation located in St Catharines Ontario and show cases a Black History Museum hi-lighting his achievements while fund raising across the country for those in need through the love of sports. He lives in Anthem Arizona with his wife Lydia and is an Ambassador for the Chicago Cubs professional baseball team.
Violet King (1929-1982)
Violet King was the first Black person to obtain a law degree in Alberta and the first Black person admitted to the Alberta Bar. Overall, she was Canada’s first Black female lawyer. She was also the first woman appointed to an executive position in the YMCA in the United States.
King attended the University of Alberta in 1948, and out of 142 students, she was one of the only three in the Faculty of Law. She was a member of the Blue Stocking Club — a discussion group for women with an emphasis on history and public affairs. She was also Vice-President of the students’ union and representative of the students’ union to the National Federation of Canadian University Students. In 1951-52, she was elected as class historian and was the 1952 Alberta representative to the International Student Conference in Ontario. In 1953, she was the only woman in her graduating class.
King practiced law in Calgary for several years and gave speeches publically about racism. In November 1953, she described the challenges women had faced in the work force, and expressed hope in the future that greater would be placed on a person’s ability rather than their race or gender. King later worked in Ottawa for Citizenship and Immigration for seven years as executive assistant to the chief of the Liaison Branch, and directing programs with the Canadian Citizenship Council. Her work involved travelling around Canada to meet with leaders of different service and community organizations.
In 1963, King moved to New Jersey to become executive director the YMCA’s Community Branch and took on the role of assisting Black applicants seeking employment. In 1969, she moved to Chicago to become director of planning, and later director of manpower. In 1976, she was appointed executive director of the National Council of YMCA’s Organizational Development Group. In 1998, King was inducted into the National YMCA Hall of Fame.
Although she passed away from cancer at only age 52, King’s life consisted of important milestones that broke down barriers for Black people in Canada, particularly because it was extremely difficult to enter the legal profession for all women, especially those who belonged to a racial minority. She is an inspiration for those who work hard and aspire to do great things in their field.
Sam Langford, born in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia, is considered one of the finest heavyweight boxers of all time. After moving to the United States at the age of 14 and fighting out of Massachusetts, he became known as the Boston Terror.
He was one of many top Black boxers denied a chance to fight for a championship largely because of racial discrimination. This led to his being called the unofficial World Champion. In 1906 he fought American Jack Johnson who shortly thereafter became the first Black person to hold the title of World Heavyweight Champion. In the years between 1902 and 1923, Langford is believed to have had approximately 642 fights. Small in stature, he consistently went up against larger men. An injury in 1917 caused him to lose the sight in his right eye, and led his manager to suggest he give up boxing. A proud man, Langford refused and continued to fight until he finally succumbed to blindness seven years later.
Michael Lee-Chin first came to Canada in the early 1970s to attend McMaster University in Hamilton. After earning a civil engineering degree he returned to his native Jamaica to work, but was soon back in Canada working on his Master’s degree. In 1977, he began selling mutual funds. In 1987, he bought Advantage Investment Counsel, now AIC Limited, one of the country’s biggest mutual-fund companies with assets of more than 12 billion dollars.
Michael Lee-Chin is also known as a philanthropist. In 2003, he made headlines when he donated $30 million to the Royal Ontario Museum
Kathleen “Kay” Livingstone
Kathleen “Kay” Livingstone (1918-1975) was born in London, Ontario, in 1918. Her parents, James and Christina Jenkins founded the Dawn of Tomorrow, a pioneering publication for Canada’s Black community in 1921. From a young age, she was interested in the performing arts, studying music in Toronto and Ottawa.
During the Second World War, Kay Livingston worked at the Dominion Bureau of Statistics in Ottawa. It was in Ottawa that she began a career as a radio host with "The Kathleen Livingstone Show." In 1942, she married George Livingstone, and they moved to Toronto where they raised their children. Livingstone maintained her acting career, hosted radio programs on several stations, including the CBC and was called “one of Canada’s leading Black actresses” during this time.
Livingstone worked to break down prejudice and promote equality of individuals of all origins and contributed to the development of a more tolerant society. She was deeply involved in expanding a collective awareness and pride in the Toronto Black community in the post-Second World War period. As well, she worked with the United Nations Association – Toronto Branch Women’s Auxiliary, the local YWCA Foreign Affairs Committee, the National Black Coalition of Canada, the Canadian Council of Churches, the Legal Aid Society, and Heritage Ontario.
Livingstone was a founder of the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (1951). An early Canadian Negro Women's Association (CANEWA) undertaking, and one which would continue throughout the group's existence, was the provision of scholarships to deserving Black students. Later activities included the organization of the Calypso Carnival (forerunner of the Caribana Festival) as a fundraiser for other service projects.
Kay Livingstone actively engaged in creating a Canada-wide network of African-Canadian women. She was the driving force behind the first National Black Women’s Congress (1973), providing a national forum to address the concerns of Black women and advance their causes. Perhaps most importantly, the Congress inspired the delegates to maintain close ties with each other, leading to further conventions at Montreal in 1974, Halifax in 1976, Windsor in 1978, and Winnipeg in 1980. It was at the Winnipeg meeting that the Congress of Black Women was formed, an organization which today has over 600 members and is one of Kay Livingstone's legacies.
In the last years of her life, Kay worked as a consultant to the Privy Council of Canada, travelling the country in preparation for a conference on visible minorities in Canada (a term with which she is credited with coining). One of the people she met on these travels was Carrie Best; it is a credit to Kay Livingstone's influence that after her death in 1975, Ms. Best formed the Kay Livingstone Visible Minority Women's Society in her honour, an organization which to this day provides educational funding for deserving young women.
Mattie Mayes (1850-1953)
Mattie Mayes was the matriarch of Saskatchewan’s first and only Black pioneer settlement. Following the end of the American Civil War in 1865, thousands of formerly enslaved Africans migrated to Oklahoma, but following the introduction of segregation in 1907, dozens of African-Americans decided to make their way to Saskatchewan based on the Canadian Government’s offer of free homestead land for settlers in the West.
Twelve families took up settlement in Eldon, 13 kilometers west of Maidstone, while others continued to Alberta. Mattie Mayes was a part of the twelve families who settled in Eldon, who became known as the “Shiloh People”, named for the tiny church that they worshipped. The church itself later became a graveyard and a school.
The Mayes family is perhaps the most famous of the Shiloh people. Mattie, who had been enslaved before she was freed and moved to Canada, began practicing as a midwife and became a well-respected member of the community. With her husband Joseph Mayes, they raised a family of 13 children.
The Shiloh settlement is home to the only Black cemetery in Saskatchewan, which was permanently closed in 1987. The Shiloh church and cemetery are now provincially protected heritage sites.
Millie (Goins) McCoy
Born into slavery, Millie escaped enslavement with her manumitted husband, George, and made her way to Colchester Township, Ontario. It was there, within Essex County, that she gave birth to and raised one of the great Black inventors, Elijah McCoy, who is most known for his invention of a lubricating cup for oiling the steam engines of trains and ships. Millie was also brave enough to return to the United States with her family, before the American Civil, where she and George were Underground Railroad operatives in the state of Michigan.
Born in Colchester, Ontario, to parents who had escaped from slavery in Kentucky and arrived in Canada via the Underground Railroad, 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. While the origin of the expression is probably somewhat older, it is said that buyers of the lubricating oil cup asked specifically for the “Real McCoy” because it was extremely reliable and they wanted no substitutes.
That was just one of the products he developed and patented. For example, in response to his wife’s desire for an easier way to iron clothes, he invented and patented the portable ironing board.
Elijah McCoy held more than 50 patents, not just in Canada and the U.S. but also in France, Austria, Germany, Great Britain and Russia.
In the 1840s, one of Toronto’s most successful business people was James Mink, owner of the Mansion Inn and Livery. Mink, born to parents who had formerly been enslaved, owned stagecoaches that carried people and mail between Toronto and Kingston.
The Honourable Donald H. Oliver, Q.C.
The Honourable Donald H. Oliver, Q.C. was born in Wolfville, Nova Scotia in 1938. A graduate of Acadia University and Dalhousie University Law School, he was summoned to the Senate of Canada on September 7, 1990.
Mr. Oliver has been active in the Conservative Party for more than 50 years. He has had a distinguished legal career as a civil litigator and a legal educator, having taught at the Technical University of Nova Scotia, St. Mary’s University and Dalhousie University Law School. He is a member of the Canadian Bar Association and the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society.
Donald Oliver is President of Glen Moir Holdings Ltd.; Pleasant River Farms Limited; Dolin Fisheries; and is a Consultant, Advisor and Director of a number of companies. He is a speaker on a wide range of topics, and author of a gourmet cookbook. His community work includes service as President and Chairman of the Halifax Children’s Aid Society, and Director of the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia.
Currently, Senator Oliver is Chair of the Senate Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament and a member of the Standing Committee on Banking, Trade and Commerce.
Among his many awards are:
- Honorary Doctorates from the University of Guelph, Dalhousie University, and from Acadia University; and,
- Recipient of the Harry Jerome Award for Community Service; the African Canadian Achievement Award in Politics; and the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission Human Rights Award.
Senator Oliver is married to M. Linda Oliver, a telecommunications consultant. They have one daughter, Carolynn.
Pearleen (Borden) Oliver
Pearleen (Borden) Oliver (1917-2008) was a religious and human rights leader, writer, historian and community activist in Nova Scotia for over sixty years. As an activist, she fought to remove discriminatory barriers that restricted education and employment opportunities for Blacks and other minorities in the 1940s and 1950s. She co-founded the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People alongside her husband, Rev. Dr. William P. Oliver.
She was also a strong advocate for Black women in Nova Scotia, and in 1947 she campaigned to end the exclusion of Black women from nursing training in Canada, leading the Board of the Children's Hospital in Halifax to take two Black women as nursing students. In 1953, she founded the African United Baptist Association (AUBA) Women’s Institute and was the first woman elected moderator for the AUBA in 1976.
Dr. Pearleen Oliver wrote a number of books, including A Brief History of the Coloured Baptists of Nova Scotia, 1782- 1953 (1953) and Song of the Spirit (1994).
For her work, Dr. Pearleen Oliver received several honours, including Honorary Doctorates from Saint Mary’s University (1990) and Mount Saint Vincent Univeristy (1993), the Woman of the Year Award, YWCA (1981 and 1991), and the Queen’s Golden Jubilee Medal (2002).
On January 18, 1958, Willie O’Ree stepped on the ice at the Montreal Forum to play his first game in the National Hockey League (NHL) for the Boston Bruins — and made history.
Like any Canadian kid, as a young boy Willie played hockey with his friends. And out there on the ice, he probably pretended to be his favourite player, deking around the defence taking shots, scoring goals. Actually playing in the NHL was something most of these kids only dreamed about. For O’Ree that dream came true. In fact, he became the first Black player in the NHL. Known for his speed and checking abilities, his career was cut short by an injury.
Today, Willie O’Ree is the director of the NHL’s diversity program. He travels across Canada and the United States promoting and teaching the game of hockey to children from all cultural backgrounds.
In January 2008, fifty years after his NHL debut, Willie O’Ree’s home town of Fredericton, New Brunswick, named its new hockey arena Willie O’Ree Place, in honour of his achievements.
Richard Pierpoint was a lad of 16 in Senegal, Africa when he was seized and sold into slavery in 1760. He was purchased by an English officer named Pierpoint who had settled in New York’s Hudson Valley. Richard became this officer’s servant and adopted his surname. The officer and Richard were mustered during the 1763 Aboriginal uprising in British North America, but likely saw no action.
After the outbreak of the American Revolution, Richard was given his freedom and eventually became a soldier, joining John Butler’s corps of Rangers operating out of Fort Niagara. When the war of the revolution ended in 1783, Butler’s Rangers were disbanded and the men were provided with land grants in what would become the Niagara region of Ontario. Richard received 200 acres of land in present-day St. Catharines and became somewhat of a community leader among Niagara’s Black population.
When the War of 1812 broke out Richard Pierpoint petitioned Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, proposing the formation of an all-Black company of militia to fight alongside the British during the war. Brock agreed with the proposal and ordered the formation of what was known as the “Coloured Corps,” a small company of about 40 men from the Niagara and York districts mustered under white officers. The 68 year-old Richard Pierpoint served as a private in the corps and served on active duty throughout the conflict, including the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812 when the corps was mentioned in dispatches as having played a key role in that British victory.
The Coloured Corps fought at the Battle of Fort George in May 1813, and were active in the Niagara campaign of 1813. In 1814 they worked on construction of fortifications, many of the men of the company having skills in carpentry and masonry.
When the war ended, the British offered land grants to the veterans of the Coloured Corps, establishing settlements in Oro and Garafraxa Townships. He petitioned the government to provide passage for him back to Senegal in Africa but this was never granted. He was given another land grant of 100 acres in Garafraxa in 1822 and was able to build a house and clear a few acres there but he was too old to farm it properly. Pierpoint died there in 1838.
Mairuth Sarsfield (1925-2013) led a remarkable life as a storyteller, diplomat, television personality, and community activist. After completing her post-secondary education, she was a research writer for CBC TV’s The New Generation for four years until 1966. She joined the Department of External Affairs in 1971 as an information officer and worked on Expo 67 in Montreal as the writer of the text accompanying The People Tree. She then developed a theme for Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan.
She was later posted as a senior information officer with the United Nations Environment Program in Nairobi, Washington, and New York before returning to Canada in 1984 to become Director of Development Communicators Inc. and co-host of Senior’s Report and Literati on PBS TV. In the mid-1980s, Sarsfield became a governor at CBC, the only Black woman at the time to sit on the board.
In terms of writing, Sarsfield is best known for her bestselling fiction No Crystal Stair (1997), a book set during World War II that tells the story of the harsh life that Blacks in Little Burgandy faced. The book was propelled to popularity through being included in CBC’s Canada Reads series in 2005.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary
Born free in Delaware, Mary Ann Shadd became the first Black woman to publish a newspaper in North America when she established the Provincial Freeman. She was also a teacher, who established a racially integrated school for Black children in Windsor, in addition to writing educational pamphlets promoting settlement in Canada, including A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West which was written in 1852. Mary was also an activist for numerous causes including the abolition of slavery, temperance and education. She also became increasingly vocal about women’s rights, becoming a women's suffragist. Not only did she promote these issues in the Provincial Freeman, she also spoke about them on lecture tours.
Following her time in Canada, Mary decided to return to the United States, where she became a recruitment agent for the Union Army during the Civil War. She also pursued a law degree at Howard University and became one of the first Black women to complete a law degree in 1883, becoming a civil rights lawyer. Among her other “first,” she also became the first Black woman to vote in a national election. In 1994, she was designated a Personal of National Historic Significance in Canada.
Betty Ruth Beatrice Simpson
Champion of Black History and co-founder, with her husband Melvin “Mac” Simpson, of the North American Black Historical Museum, now the Amherstburg Freedom Museum. Betty also worked at Hotel Dieu Hospital (WRH-Ouellette Campus) from 1961 to 1986.
Sylvia (Estes) Stark
Sylivia Estes was born into enslavement in Clay County, Missouri, USA. Her father, Howard Estes, was able to purchase his family’s freedom and they attempted to farm in Missouri but were harassed by the KKK. The family journeyed across the United States b wagon train and reached California in 1851. There Sylvia married Louis Stark. They lived in California until 1861 when the Estes family, Sylvia. Louis and their two small children migrated to British Columbia.
The Starks lived on Saltspring Island for fourteen years. Sylvia worked on the farm, took care of her family and acted as a volunteer nurse and midwife. In 1875 the Starks moved to the Nanaimo district where Sylvia remained until her husband’s death in 1895. She returned to live with her son, Willis, on Saltspring where she was quite active, hardworking and alert almost until the time of her death at the age of 106 in 1944.
Emma Stark is the oldest daughter of Louis and Sylvia Stark, Emma Stark is the eldest daughter of Louis and Sylvia Stark, was appointed the first teacher in the new North Cedar School in 1874, thereby becoming the first Black teacher on Vancouver Island.
Bruny Surin is one of the best sprinters in the world. He has won many national and international titles throughout the years including a gold medal in the 4 x 100-metre relay at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
His activities and interests are broader than track and field. After seventeen years of competition, Bruny Surin has drawn on his experiences as a top-level athlete and started a career in public relations. He has created a foundation dedicated to enhancing the quality of life of children, physically and emotionally. He is also a highly valued guest speaker and a first-class ambassador for Canada.
Harriet Tubman, a formerly enslaved individual 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, Harriet 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.
Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré was born in Verdun (Montréal) in 1942. After receiving her law degree from the Université de Montréal and a doctorate from the Université de Paris, she began practising law in 1970. From 1979 to 1983, she was a member of the Office de protection des consommateurs du Québec. In 1985, Ms. Westmoreland-Traoré became the first chair of Quebec’s Conseil des communautés culturelles et de l’immigration. In that capacity, she worked diligently to build bridges between Quebec’s diverse communities.
Between 1996 and 1999, she was the dean of the Law Faculty at the University of Windsor, the first Black Canadian to hold such a post. Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré is now a judge in Quebec, and is also the first Black Canadian to be appointed to the bench in that province.
Portia White embarked on her stellar singing career at her father’s Baptist Church in Halifax. Before she began singing professionally, she supported her musical career by teaching in rural Back schools in Halifax County, and eventually made her professional debut in Toronto. Soon afterwards, she performed in New York City to rave reviews.
Portia White went on to international success, performing more than 100 concerts, including a command performance before Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
John Ware was born into slavery on a South Carolina cotton plantation in 1845. After gaining his freedom in the emancipation, he moved to Texas and learned the tough life of a cowboy. In 1882, he settled in Alberta where he was immediately hired by Fred Stimpson of the Bar U and Quorn ranches.
Mr. Ware started his own ranch in 1891 in the Millarville area and became a successful rancher and farmer. By the end of the 19th century, he was one of the most well-known and respected ranchers in Western Canada. It is said that his skills at bronco and busting were legendary. He created “steer wrestling” 20 years before the Calgary Stampede—an event that has now become an integral part of the western festival.
Mr. Ware met the former Torontonian Mildred Lewis and they married, settling on a ranch just north of the village of Duchess along the Red Deer River. They had five children. In 1902, his home was washed away in a flood. They rebuilt the cabin on higher ground overlooking a stream, referred to today as the Ware Creek.
John Ware continued to operate a ranch in southern Alberta until his death in 1905 from a horse-riding accident.
Interestingly, Mr. Ware’s two sons joined the No. 2 Construction Battalion, the only segregated Battalion in Canada’s history. The Battalion celebrates its 95th anniversary in 2011.
Mildred (Lewis) Ware (1871-1905)
Although most stories written about the Wares are about John Ware, Mildred is not to be disregarded despite living a short life. She was born in 1871 in Toronto, and moved to Alberta in her late teens, marrying John in 1892, who was working for the well-known Bar U and Quorn Ranches.
The family moved to the Rosebud area in 1902, where their first home was destroyed by a flood. They rebuilt the ranch and ran a prosperous ranching operation with their herd increasing to over 1000 cattle. Mildred was responsible for the bookkeeping and taught her family of five children to read and write.
In 1905, Mildred died of pneumonia and typhus, and John died soon after. Despite the short life of the Wares, they have a lasting legacy with their Rosebud log house being preserved in Dinosaur Park as a tribute to one of Alberta’s most noteworthy ranching families.
Dorothy Williams is a historian, author, educator, researcher, and community consultant specializing in Black Canadian history. Her goal is to make Black history available for everybody and her work in a variety of fields is her contribution to this effort.
Her first book was Blacks in Montreal: 1628-1986 (1989), written for the Quebec Human Rights Commission during their study of racism in Montreal’s housing market. Her second book, The Road to Now: A History of Blacks in Montreal is the only chronological study of Black people on the Island of Montreal. She has also contributed to two volumes of The History of the Book in Canada.
As an educator, she often does speeches in schools, colleges, and universities and conducts teacher and librarian workshops. She has done many public presentations in varied venues from community centers to museums.
She has written popular articles in magazines and newspapers before, and in 2006, created the website Blacbiblio.com as a source of popular reference materials about Canadian Black history. Her website is a comprehensive, online bibliographic record of the history of Black people in Canada.
As a community consultant, she has volunteered for over 20 years and is often called by organizations to offer expertise on matters of importance. She was a board member of the Quebec Anglophone Heritage Network (3 years), the Business and Professional Women of Montreal (5 years), and the Black Studies Centre (9 years). She is currently the Operations and Fund Development Manager at Desta Black Youth Network.
Clotilda Adessa Yakimchuk, C.M.
Clotilda Yakimchuk was born and raised in Whitney Pier, Nova Scotia. In 1954, she became the first Black graduate of the Nova Scotia Hospital School of Nursing. She also received a post graduate midwifery diploma from Colony Hospital, Grenada, West Indies, a post graduate psychiatric nursing certificate from the Nova Scotia Hospital and a diploma in adult education from St.FX University.
Ms. Yakimchuk spent 50 years in the nursing profession. She began her career as Head Nurse of the Admission/Discharge Unit of the Nova Scotia Hospital. From there she moved to Grenada, West Indies, where she was the Director of Nursing at the Psychiatric Hospital. Ms. Yakimchuk moved back to Canada in 1967, where she took a position as Staff Nurse at the Sydney City Hospital. She later became Nursing Supervisor and later Director of Staff Development at the Cape Breton Hospital. She then served as Director of Education Services at the Cape Breton Regional Hospital until her retirement from nursing in 1994.
She served as President of the Registered Nurses’ Association of Nova Scotia (now known as The College of Registered Nurses of Nova Scotia). Notably, she is this organization’s only elected Black president in 100 years of the organization history to date. She is a proponent of education and lifelong learning and was an exceptional role model to the many nurses who followed in her path. In addition to her work as President, she served on numerous national, provincial and local committees and working groups.
As founding president of the Black Community Development Organization, Clotilda Yakimchuk led the movement to provide affordable housing in low-income communities and improved living facilities for seniors.
Rose Fortune (1774-1864) and Peter C. Butler III (1859-1943)
First Black police officers in Canada
Born into slavery, Rose Fortune relocated to Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, after her family escaped the British colony of Virginia during the American Revolution. She developed a successful business transporting luggage from the ferry docks to Annapolis hotels and homes via wheelbarrow and providing wake-up calls for travellers. Over time, Fortune became known as the first female police officer in Canada – an unofficial title she earned by maintaining order and safeguarding property at the town’s wharves.
The grandson of a formerly enslaved person, Peter C. Butler III (not pictured) became the first Black police officer in Canada in 1883. His career spanned 50 years, during which he was known as a peaceful man. He sometimes kept local offenders and drunks in his home to keep them off the streets, instead of tossing them into jail. Butler rarely carried a gun; he preferred to keep the peace with only a baton and his large hands instead.
Alton C. Parker (1907-1989)
First Black police officer in Windsor and first Black police detective in Canada
Alton C. Parker joined the Windsor Police Service in 1942, at a time when it was rare for Black Canadians to be in positions of authority. Parker gained the admiration of his colleagues and in 1951 was promoted to the rank of Detective – making him not only the first Black police officer in Windsor but also the first Black police detective in Canada.
After serving the Windsor Police Service for 28 years, Parker continued to be engaged in his community and held a big party for the community’s children each year. During and after his police career, Parker received many awards and honours including having both a public park and a street named after him in Windsor.
Lawrence “Larry” McLarty
First Black police officer in Toronto
Larry McLarty came to Canada with experience as a Jamaican Constabulary Force officer, but after arriving in Toronto, he worked various jobs as a railway porter, a catalogue book packer, a night cleaner, and in a hospital kitchen.
When McLarty applied to the Toronto Police Service, he was disappointed to be told he was one-eighth of an inch too short. Then two months later, while being measured for a new suit, he discovered he met the height requirement after all. Mr. McLarty reapplied to the force and was hired in 1960 – the first Black officer in Toronto. He rose to the rank of Detective Sergeant and retired after 32 years of service.
Édouard “Eddie” Anglade (1944 – 2007)
First Black police officer in Montreal
A Haitian immigrant, Édouard Anglade joined the Service de police de la Ville de Montréal in 1974 as the first Black officer on the force. For several years he was the only Black officer in Montréal.
During his 30-year career, he fought crime on the streets of Montréal and earned the respect of his police colleagues. Anglade’s perseverance and professionalism led him to eventually become the highest-ranking Black officer, of 130 at the time, in Montréal.
His autobiography, Nom de code: Mao, recounts his experiences on the police force.
First Black Chief of Police in Canada
Devon Clunis moved to Winnipeg from Jamaica at age 12. Wanting to make a difference, he joined the Winnipeg Police Service in 1987, where he has performed all manner of duties over the course of 25 years, including: patrols, traffic duty, investigations and community relations.
In November 2012, Clunis was sworn in as Chief of Police of the Winnipeg Police Service, becoming the first Black Canadian to hold the position.
Read a speech delivered by Devon Clunis, Chief of the Winnipeg Police Service, at the Black History Month 2013 launch reception.
First Black commanding officer in the RCMP
Craig Gibson grew up in a small community in Nova Scotia. He joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) in 1980, and has spent more than 30 years working across the country in five different provinces, performing all kinds of policing and leadership duties.
Recognised for excellence and a commitment to helping small communities, Gibson officially assumed command of the RCMP in Prince Edward Island in July 2012, becoming the first Black commanding officer in the RCMP.
First Black female commissioned officer in the RCMP
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.
Community Relations Officer, Service de police de la Ville de Montréal
Lyonel Anglade works extensively with youth from different cultural communities in Montréal, particularly those of Haitian origin. His outreach efforts help build trust and improve dialogue between the city’s youth and police to break down stereotypes and form community partnerships.
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