Written by Sydney Nethersole, First-Year Representative at WMN
Edited by Sandy Nadugala, Content Manager at WMN
Since 1996, Black History Month has been a celebrated time for Canadians to honour the achievements of the many Black Canadians who have shaped our country. However, we tend to recognize the legacy that our Black American counterparts have left behind, such as the fantastic Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. Although the actions of these figures and those of other African Americans must not be understated, we mustn't forget the amazing Black Canadians that have shaped the country we call home.
Countless Black women and men have fought for the rights of Black people in Canada and other other minorities while bringing awareness to the social issues impacting Canadians in the process. One of the earliest memorable Canadians is Marie-Josèphe-Angélique, an enslaved woman from Portugal that lived and died in New France, Canada. In 1734, she threatened to burn down her mistress's house, and three weeks later, on April 10th, 46 buildings in Montréal’s merchant quarter were burnt down. A day later, Angélique was accused of setting these fires and was arrested. Although she was found guilty and hung to death, it is unknown whether or not she committed these crimes. She may have set this fire as a message of rebellion to the oppressive slave owners living in New France, or she may have been completely guilty. Regardless, this story of her enslavement in Canada and what she stood for is especially important to discuss during Black History Month. A public square in Montréal was named after her, and her legacy serves as a significant reminder of the dark spot of slavery in Canada’s history.
Viola Desmond is another Black Canadian who fought against unjust racial discrimination. In 1946, in Nova Scotia, Desmond refused to move to the “black section” of the theatre. She was arrested due to her refusal to follow the segregation laws. Over half a century later, in 2010, the Nova Scotian government posthumously pardoned her. Her dedicated fight against segregation laws lives on and she was the first woman to be featured on a Canadian bill.
In addition to Marie-Josèphe-Angélique and Viola Desmond, countless Black Canadians have shaped Canada, including lawyers, businesswomen, entrepreneurs, athletes, and politicians. Jean Augustine is a Black-Canadian woman who has done inspirational work in Canada. She is a politician, educator, and social activist. Born in Grenada, she overcame a multitude of personal and economic struggles and became a teacher, later moving to Canada in 1960. In 1993, she entered politics as a MP. She was a trailblazer and highly influential through her work in Parliament. In 1996, she led the motion to recognize Black History Month in February which passed unanimously, beginning a long tradition to celebrate the work, heritage, and contributions of Black Canadians. Jean Augustine has received multiple awards and was inducted into the Member of the Order of Canada in 2007. Violet King, another important Black Canadian, was the first Black female to graduate with a law degree in Alberta, and was the only woman in her graduating class in 1953. Her life makes a fantastic mark in history, and she broke down countless barriers preventing Black students from entering the legal field.
These influential and moving historical figures in Canada are only a small percentage of the vast number of Black Canadians, and reflect a small period in Black Canadian history. The history of Black Canadians begins in the early 17th century, starting from 1628 when the first enslaved Black person, six year old Olivier De Jeune, arrived in New France. His arrival as an enslaved child marks the very beginning of Black-Canadian history, and is the foundation of a rich and complex history. Many of the historical Black figures in Canada have been overlooked and forgotten, and their histories, despite being Canadian history, is seldom discussed.
If you are interested in learning more about the history of Black Canadians, feel free to check out Black History Ottawa, a Canadian charity that offers many resources in both French and English. It aims to “advance education by increasing the public’s knowledge and appreciation of, and carrying out research in the history, culture, traditions and achievements of Canadians of African descent.”
“Noteworthy historical figures.” Government of Canada. Gouvernement du Canada. 3 Feb. 2022, https://www.canada.ca/en/canadian-heritage/campaigns/black-history-month/black-canadians.html#s4.
“Black History.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/timeline/black-history