As we look back on Canada’s history for Black History Month, it’s clear that Black Canadians have played a significant role in shaping the country we know today. From fighting against racial segregation to breaking barriers in politics and public service, these individuals have left a lasting impact on our nation. However, their contributions are often overlooked or underrepresented in mainstream narratives. This is why it’s crucial to shine a spotlight on specific Black Canadian figures and their invaluable contributions to Canada’s history.
Viola Desmond was a trailblazer who fought against racial segregation in Nova Scotia. In 1946, she refused to leave a movie theatre’s “whites only” section in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and was subsequently arrested. Her act of civil disobedience was a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement in Canada and she was known as Canada’s “Rosa Parks.” Demond’s case is one of the most important moments in Canada’s civil rights history, as it helped to raise awareness about the discrimination and injustices faced by Black Canadians.
In 2010, Desmond was granted a posthumous pardon and in 2018, she made history as the first woman to be featured on a regularly circulating Canadian banknote, the Canadian $10 bill. This was a significant milestone for Canada, as it recognized the contributions of Black Canadians and women in shaping the country’s history. The banknote also serves as a powerful reminder of the ongoing fight for racial equality and the importance of standing up against discrimination and injustice. Desmond’s legacy inspires future generations to work towards a more equal and just society.
Another notable figure in Canadian history is Lincoln Alexander. He made history as the first Black Canadian Member of Parliament, representing the riding of Hamilton West in 1968. He later became the first Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario, serving from 1985-1991. Alexander was also the first Black Canadian appointed to the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada.
Throughout his career, he was a vocal advocate for racial quality and worked tirelessly to promote diversity and inclusion in Canada. In recognition of his contributions, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario declared January 21 of each year as Lincoln Alexander Day to honour his legacy as an example of service, determination and humility. On 21 January 2015, Lincoln Alexander Day was observed across Canada for the first time.
William Andrew White
William Andrew White was a pioneering figure in the African Nova Scotian community. Born in Virginia, United States, to formerly enslaved parents, he moved to Canada in 1900 to study theology at Acadia University and become a well-known Baptist minister, travelling to Black communities across Nova Scotia and establishing the Second Baptist Church in New Glasgow.
During World War I, he served as chaplain for the No. 2 Construction Battalion, one of the few Black officers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and the British Empire. After the war, he returned to Halifax and became an African United Baptist Association leader. In 1936, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree from Acadia University.
His legacy continues through his accomplished children, including his daughter Portia White, a world-famous opera singer and his son William Andrew White III, a composer, social justice activist and the first Black Canadian to run for federal political office. White is considered one of the most significant figures in the history of Black Atlantic Canada.
Rosemary Brown was a trailblazer in Canadian politics, making history as the first Black woman to be elected to a Canadian provincial legislature. In 1972, she was elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, where she served for 14 years. She was a strong advocate for women’s rights and social justice during her tenure. She played a key role in promoting policies and initiatives to improve marginalized communities’ lives.
Among her political accomplishments, Brown was the first black woman to run for the leadership of a major political party in Canada. While she did not win the leadership race, her campaign was historic and impacted Canadian politics. She inspired other women of colour to consider running for officer and her efforts helped to increase diversity and representation within Canadian politics. Her legacy continues to inspire future generations of political leaders and her contributions to Canadian society will not be forgotten.
These figures and many others have left a lasting impact on Canada’s history and society. Their contributions have been invaluable, and their legacies should be celebrated and remembered. They broke barriers and challenged the status quo, paving the way for future generations to live in a more inclusive and fair society. It’s important to remember that the struggle for racial equality and justice is not over and their stories serve as a reminder of the work that still needs to be done.
Black Canadians have made significant contributions to Canada’s history, and it’s crucial to acknowledge and celebrate their accomplishments. From Viola Desmond’s fight against racial segregation to Lincoln Alexander’s trailblazing political career, these individuals have left a lasting impact on our nation. They have broken barriers and challenged the status quo, paving the way for future generations to live in a more inclusive and equitable society. As we continue to work towards a more just and equal society, let us remember and honour the contributions of these trailblazing Black Canadian figures.