Black History Month 2021

Editor’s note: From the largest student occupation in Canadian history to larger-than-life historical figures, here are handful of laws, events and people that contributed to the Black experience here in Canada. Follow the links below for more in-depth information on these events and people.

Written by: Garnett Glashen

Viola Desmond
Not only was Viola Desmond a successful businesswoman in Nova Scotia, she was an advocate for equal and fair treatment of Black people at a time when they were viewed as lesser peoples in Canada. Many will note that Viola Desmond recently became the first woman of colour to be enshrined on any Canadian currency, however few know the battles that were led by Viola Desmond, to provide an equal opportunity for Black Canadians to acquire skills, enter trades and participate in social activities that were traditionally reserved for people who weren’t Black.

Produced by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, this short documentary tells the story of Viola Desmond’s famous act of resistance in a Nova Scotia Theatre.

Mathieu Da Costa
Although many of the historical dates are unconfirmed, it is said that Mathieu Da Costa was the first Black person to arrive in Canada. It was the late 1500’s and he was an interpreter. He is said to have traveled aboard the ship led by Samuel de Champlain, and served as an interpreter between the French and Indigenous people on arrival in Canada. In 2017, Canada Post released a commemorative stamp recognizing Da Costa.

The Canada Act 1911
Canadian Prime Minister Sir Wilfred Laurier restricted the immigration of Black people into Canada by declaring a Cabinet approved Order-in-Council P.C.1911-1324 on 12 August 1911, which read: “For a period of one year from and after the date hereof the landing in Canada shall be and the same is prohibited of any immigrants belonging to the Negro race, which race is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” The order was recommended by Edmonton’s Frank Oliver, at the time interior minister and Member of Parliament.

Ontario’s 1944 Racial Discrimination Act
This Act prohibited any signs or publications expressing racial or religious discrimination and in the same year, the province passed a regulation under the Community Halls Act to prohibit discrimination in halls that received public funds. This was the first such Act to address businesses refusing service to black customers. Alberta sought to enact the same law “The Alberta Bill of Rights”, however it was initially overturned by the courts.

The Sir George Williams affair
The Sir George Williams affair was a 1969 event at Sir George Williams University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, now a part of Concordia University. It was the largest student occupation in Canadian history, stemming from the university administration’s decision regarding a complaint of racism that had been filed several months earlier by six Black students from the Caribbean, regarding allegations about biology professor Perry Anderson’s practice of racial discrimination in his courses by giving failing marks to all of his Black students, regardless of the quality of their
work.

During the peaceful demonstration protesters were seen being beaten by police officers as bystanders could be heard shouting racial slurs. Professor Anderson, who had been suspended since the start of the crisis, was reinstated. That summer, a university committee acquitted him of all of the charges of racism that had been levelled against him. The events of and participants in the occupation are captured in the award-winning 2015 National Film Board documentary, Ninth Floor.

Josiah Henson
Born into slavery in 1789, as an adult Josiah Henson became a leader for Black Americans escaping enslavement. Henson escaped to Canada in 1830, and founded the Dawn Settlement near Dresden, Ont. to provide a home for other slaves seeking freedom. He co-organized a trade-labour school and served on its council, and made fundraising trips to the U.S. and England as the spiritual leader for the Dawn Settlement. Some believe that Henson was the model for the lead character in the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Source: Ontarioplaques.com. Photo by Alan Brown.

Arrival of Black Loyalists to Canada
During the American Revolutionary War (1775–83), thousands of free or enslaved Black people fought for the British, hoping to gain their freedom and/or the promise of land. By 1783, when the Treaty of Paris was signed, British forces and their allies fled to such locations as Europe, the West Indies (the Caribbean) and the Province of Québec (divided in 1791 into Upper Canada and Lower Canada). Between 1783 and 1785, more than 3,000 free Blacks or former enslaved people settled in Nova Scotia, where they faced hostility, racial segregation, low-paying jobs and inequality.

Shelburne race riot
July 26-27, 1784 has been noted as the first race riot in Canada (and perhaps North America), and took place in Nova Scotia. The Black Loyalists were among the first settlers in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. On its fringes, they established their own community of Birchtown. Hundreds of white disbanded soldiers started a riot when they found themselves competing for jobs with Black neighbours who were paid less than their white co-workers, for the same work. The events at Birchtown are explored in the documentary The Skin We’re In, featuring acclaimed journalist Desmond Cole.

This watercolour sketch by Captain William Booth, Corps of Engineers, is the earliest known image of an African Nova Scotian. He was probably a resident of Birchtown. According to Booth’s description of Birchtown, fishing was the chief occupation for “these poor, but really spirited people.” Those who could not get into the fishery worked as labourers, clearing land by the acre, cutting cordwood for fires, and hunting in season. Source: Nova Scotia Archives.

Sources

Nova Scotia Archives
https://archives.novascotia.ca/africanns/archives/?ID=39

National Post
https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/50-years-later-how-racism-allegations-against-a-montreal-professor-turned-into-the-greatest-student-riot-in-canadian-history

CBC
https://www.cbc.ca/firsthand/episodes/the-skin-were-in

National Film Board of Canada
https://www.nfb.ca/film/ninth_floor/

Canadian Museum for Human Rights
https://humanrights.ca/story/one-womans-resistance

Canadian Encyclopedia

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