The legacy and impact of organizations led by Black women in Canada

Through nearly 4 centuries in what is now Canada, Black women have shaped their own identities while taking decisive actions to advance the survival, preservation, and growth of countless families and communities across the country. As advocates and catalysts for change, Black women have created many important organizations that have advanced equity and human rights.

Midwives in African Nova Scotian Communities

People of African descent have been in Nova Scotia since the early 1600s. Larger migrations came during the late 1700s to the early 1900s. Through the early days of struggle, Black communities had to be self-reliant. As such, Black midwives were an essential part of the African-Nova Scotian existence, as they helped to bring new generations of babies into the world.

Midwives left their home at any hour of the night under many conditions to aid in the safe arrival of babies. Arriving with satchel in hand, their tools were clean cloths, scissors, and usually something to assist in making a meal. These women came not only to help with labour, they also helped maintain the family home and often stayed until the mothers were back on their feet.

Their experience, courage, and ultimately their faith guided them through regular deliveries and challenging birth situations. Their goals were to ensure babies took their first breath, and to keep hope even when the Doctor present had given up on a baby. Midwives went where they were required, which sometimes took them into the surrounding white communities to assist with deliveries when the Doctor could not make it. Within Black communities in Nova Scotia, midwives delivered generations of babies well into the 1960s.

Ladies Auxiliary of the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia

Between 1824 and 1891, a network of African Baptist churches was organized in Black communities throughout Nova Scotia. In 1854, these churches were regrouped into the African United Baptist Association (AUBA), where Black women were key members, organizers, and teachers. The Ladies Organization (Auxiliary) was born in 1917 during the AUBA’s Annual Session in East Preston, Nova Scotia, 12 years before women were declared persons under Canadian law. The first President was Sister Maude Sparks from Cherry Brook.

The Provincial Freeman, Ontario

The Provincial Freeman, a paper launched in Windsor, Ontario was co-founded by Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first Black female publisher in North America and the first female publisher in Canada. Dedicated to anti-slavery, temperance, and general literature, this weekly newspaper was published from March 24, 1853, to September 20, 1857, and covered the activities and issues relevant to Black Canadians and their communities in Canada.

Coloured Women's Club, Montreal

A group of Black women who, because other groups were not open to women of African descent, founded their own social club in 1902, which they called the Coloured Women’s Club of Montreal. From the beginning, members of the Club focused on the needs of their community in the St. Antoine (Little Burgundy) district of the city. The Black women who formed the Club were following the examples of African American women such as Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, among others, who had created the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs which was founded in Washington, D.C. on July 21, 1896.

During the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression, the Coloured Women's Club helped to organize, feed, shelter, and care for community members in need. Their benevolent and charitable work was recognized in 1997 by the Ministère des relations avec les citoyens de l'immigration du Québec. The Anne Greenup Solidarity Prize is named in honour of the club's first president, and is given to individuals or organizations that contribute to networking, generational solidarity, civic engagement, and belonging.

The Hour-a-Day Study Club, Windsor, Ontario

Founded in Windsor, Ontario, in 1934, the Hour-A-Day Study Club was originally called ‘The Mothers’ Club’ but changed their name to The Hour-A-Day Study Club. Their pledge to study for one hour a day had a tremendous influence on the community as members of the Club became encouraged by school achievements, which offered support for parents. Each year, students who excelled in their studies received the Hour-A-Day Study Club scholarship awards. The Club also organized many social and cultural events such as the Parents’ Dinner and Mothers’ Day worship services and the Spring Musical.

The Club was very active in promoting the rights of young Black women in Canada. When young women were being prevented from entering nursing, the Club petitioned the provincial Minister of Health and the University of Toronto to have Black nurses admitted. Through the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Black women were gradually accepted as nursing students and eventually employed in hospitals across Canada. Study Club members also took up various social causes, including helping to plan Emancipation Day festivities.

Canadian Negro Women’s Association

Based in Toronto, Ontario, the Canadian Negro Women’s Association was originally formed in 1951 under the name Canadian Negro Women’s Club. The Association was dedicated to public education about Black history, providing scholarships to deserving Black students, and eventually organizing the Calypso Carnival (precursor to the Caribana Festival) as a fundraiser for other service projects. The Association was a key player in the creation of the Congress of Black Women of Canada.

Congress of Black Women of Canada

The Congress of Black Women of Canada (CBWC) was first convened in Toronto, Ontario in1973 under the sponsorship of the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (CANEWA), which was organized in 1951. (Its original name was the Canadian Negro Women’s Club and was founded by President, Mrs. Kay Livingstone, Executive Recording Secretary, Mrs. Aileen Williams; Treasurer, Mrs. Audrey Grayson). Through their discussions, it became apparent that there was a need for a national organization that could address issues facing Black women in Canada. In 1974, the Montreal Regional Committee was founded (eventually becoming the first chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada). 2 years later, the delegates at a conference in Halifax set up a national organization, and in 1977, in Windsor, a National Steering Committee was established to build a communication network and draft a constitution and an organizational structure. It was in Winnipeg, in 1980, where the national organization was launched, the constitution ratified, and a national executive council was selected.

The Congress of Black Women remains dedicated to improving the lives of all Black women and their families in their local and national communities.

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