Denied Entry

By Forrest Pass

Canadians have a reputation for being quiet and unassuming. As we mark Freedom to Read Week, it is worth noting that even censors have demonstrated these national traits, working quietly in the shadows to determine what Canadians can and cannot read.

Consider how different countries censored D.H. Lawrence’s erotic classic, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In the United States, the question of banning this work warranted a congressional debate. In the United Kingdom, the release of an unexpurgated edition provoked a well-publicized obscenity trial.

In Canada, by contrast, the decision to ban Lady Chatterley’s Lover was announced in the back pages of the National Revenue Review, an internal magazine for customs officers:

A newspaper article with the words Prohibition importation in bold

Announcement of the ban on the importation of Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence, National Revenue Review, 3, no. 5 (February 1930), p. 13. (OCLC 42299612)

From Confederation onward, the Minister of National Revenue, who was responsible for customs enforcement, and his staff had virtually absolute power to prohibit the importation of publications that they deemed obscene or seditious. By the 1950s, customs censors had banned well over a thousand titles.

Although authors and publishers sometimes protested, they could not appeal these decisions until 1958. Even then, the importer had to prove that a challenged publication was not obscene or seditious. Only in 2000 did the Supreme Court of Canada rule that it was unconstitutional to consider questionable books and magazines guilty until proven innocent.

Customs censors worked discreetly. For decades, the Department of National Revenue refused to publish a cumulative list of banned publications. However, Library and Archives Canada’s collections preserve evidence of the books and magazines that the department’s censors targeted.

When the minister decided that a publication was obscene or seditious, he issued a brief memorandum instructing customs officers to intercept the book or magazine at ports of entry. Copies of these memoranda survive, pasted into a series of scrapbooks alongside notices of duty exemptions and procedures for staff holidays. Beginning in the 1920s, notices also appeared in the National Revenue Review; the magazine was publicly available, and newspaper editors regularly reprinted these announcements.  

The customs censors’ earliest targets, before the First World War, were mostly American newspapers and magazines. With titles like Chicago Despatch and American House and Home, these publications seemed innocent enough, but one memorandum warned that they might contain advertisements unfit for Canadian eyes.

In the twentieth century, a wide range of books and magazines attracted the customs censors’ attention. Unsurprisingly, sexually suggestive content—mild by today’s standards—was a persistent concern, as were some “true crime” stories, which allegedly glorified gangsterism. The customs censors also banned extreme anti-Catholic propaganda, some of which might qualify as hate literature today. During the 1920s and 1930s, communist and socialist newspapers in foreign languages also appeared regularly in announcements of prohibited publications. 

More surprising is the department’s effort to keep out publications promoting atheism. In 1931, the Toronto Globe praised the exclusion of works by the American freethinker Emanuel Haldeman-Julius. “To let this sort of literature into the country would be to welcome ridicule on religion,” warned the Globe. “If the Department errs, it is in not going far enough with its ban on subversive reading matter.”

A photograph of a typed document with a signature on the bottom right hand corner

A typical memorandum announcing a ban on the importation of certain publications. The Bible Unmasked was an atheist tract. Art Lovers Magazine published suggestive photographs alongside commentary on artistic and cultural subjects. Film Fun featured “pin-up” illustrations. (RG16-A-3, Volume number: 888)

Canadian customs censors seldom targeted well-known literary works. Lady Chatterley’s Lover was a rare exception; so was James Joyce’s Ulysses, banned in 1923. Such decisions were the most likely to provoke criticism. Some magazines and newspapers, including Maclean’s and the Ottawa Citizen, occasionally criticized the customs censors. So, too, did Quill & Quire, the magazine of the Canadian publishing trade.

A typed document with the a signature at the bottom

Memorandum announcing the banning of Two Worlds Monthly in 1926. The New York City literary magazine serialized Ulysses by James Joyce, which Canada’s customs censors had already banned. (RG16-A-3, Volume number: 888)

Canadian publishers knew, however, that there were ways to evade censorship. Customs censors could prohibit only the importation of publications, not the production and distribution of those publications in Canada. Seizure records hint at publishers’ efforts to use this loophole. In 1932, customs officers seized two copies of A Jew in Love, a racy novel by Hollywood screenwriter Ben Hecht that the department had banned some months earlier. The importer, Toronto publishers G.J. Macleod and Company, specialized in reprinting foreign titles and may have planned a legal Canadian edition of Hecht’s novel. To ban a book produced in Canada, the aspiring censor had to convince a judge that the work was criminally obscene or seditious—a high standard that only the most offensive publications met.

A ledger with columns and blue ink writing.

Record of the seizure of “2 books, – ‘A Jew in Love,’ – prohibited importation” imported by G.J. McLeod and Company, and of the Department of National Revenue’s decision concerning them: “That the books be and remain forfeited and be destroyed.” (RG16-A-3, Volume number: 864)

The standard for banning imported publications was much lower, and customs censors almost never gave justifications for their decisions. Canadian censors’ objections to Lady Chatterley’s Lover probably echoed those of their British and American counterparts. The title of Frederic Arnold Kummer’s Gentlemen in Hades: The Story of a Damned Debutante hints at grounds for its 1932 exclusion from Canada; libraries in Canada and elsewhere preserve several copies of this all-but-forgotten flapper fantasy. But no library in the world holds Krums of Komford (banned in 1895) or American Beauties magazine (banned in 1926).

We can only guess at the reasons for banning these lost works because the customs censors did not keep their reading copies. In 1938, the department’s chief censor, J. Sydney Roe, revealed to the Ottawa Citizen that, twice a year, he and a departmental messenger took a wheelbarrow-load of illicit publications to the basement of his office building and threw them in the coal furnace.

Private and without ceremony, these were very Canadian book burnings.

Forrest Pass is a curator with the Exhibitions team at Library and Archives Canada.

The extraordinary life of John Freemont Smith—a Black History Month Co-Lab challenge

By Caitlin Webster

Please note that some of the terms used and documents displayed in this article may contain language that is outdated, insensitive or offensive.

The late 19th century saw thousands of people flock to British Columbia, but few were as remarkable as John Freemont Smith. With an enthusiasm for his new home and a determination to succeed, he flourished as a businessperson, a municipal and federal official, and a civic volunteer. His accomplishments were all the more outstanding given that he was a Black man in a white settler community. He endured racism throughout his life while also earning respect and admiration from his contemporaries. Library and Archives Canada (LAC) holds many records relating to Smith’s work as the Indian Agent for the Kamloops Agency from 1912 to 1923, and a selection of these documents has been prepared as a Co-Lab challenge.

Head-and-shoulders portrait of John Freemont Smith.

John Freemont Smith, ca. 1870s. Credit: Kamloops Museum and Archives KMA 6163

John Freemont (also spelled Fremont) Smith was born in Saint Croix on October 16, 1850, a few years after slavery was abolished in the Danish West Indies. He received his education and training as a shoemaker in Copenhagen and Liverpool before travelling through Europe and South America. He arrived in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1872, set up a shoemaking business, and in 1877, he married Mary Anastasia Miller.

Black-and-white studio family portrait, showing Mary Smith and John Freemont Smith seated, and five of their children standing around them.

John Freemont Smith and family, including wife Mary and children Agnes, Louise, Mary, Leo and Amy, ca. 1907–1910. Credit: Kamloops Museum and Archives KMA 10008

After brief stays in New Westminster and Kamloops, the family settled in the Louis Creek area in 1886. There Smith set up a store, prospected for minerals and dabbled in freelance journalism. He also served as Louis Creek’s first postmaster, a position he held until 1898.

That year, a fire destroyed the Smith home in Louis Creek, and the family relocated to Kamloops.

Colour-coded map of a portion of the city of Kamloops, showing streets and building locations.

Fire insurance plan of Kamloops, British Columbia, May 1914 (e010688881-v8)

Smith continued to thrive in Kamloops, serving as alderman from 1902 to 1907, and as city assessor in 1908. He was also active in the community in other ways, helping to organize groups such as the local Agricultural Association, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Conservative Association, and the Kamloops Board of Trade, where he served as secretary for several years. In 1911, Smith constructed the Freemont Block building on Victoria Street in Kamloops, which still stands today.

Black-and-white photograph of seven men in suits posing on a wooden sidewalk in front of a building entrance. Bystanders, including two men in suits and two unidentified young girls in white dresses and hats, appear in the background.

Kamloops City Council of 1905: Alderman J.F. Smith, Alderman D.C. McLaren, Alderman R.M. MacKay, Mayor C.S. Stevens, Alderman J.M. Harper, Alderman J. Milton and Alderman A.E. McLean; in background: J.H. Clements and William Charles; taken at the corner of Victoria Street and 3rd Avenue. Credit: Kamloops Museum and Archives KMA 2858

In 1912, at the age of 62, Smith was appointed Indian Agent for Kamloops, a position he held for over a decade. Smith took this role at a challenging time. His predecessor was generally considered ineffective and absent, and the interests of the local First Nation, the Secwepemc, suffered even further as a result. In addition, the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs for the Province of British Columbia was established in 1912. Commonly known as the McKenna-McBride Royal Commission, it had a significant impact on First Nations land bases by adding to, reducing or eliminating reserves throughout the province. Some of Smith’s earliest tasks as Agent were to travel throughout the sprawling agency to collect data for the commission, and then to advocate for the Secwepemc against attempts to cut off the most valuable portions of their reserve lands.

Map showing reserves in the Nicola and Kamloops agencies, with colour coding indicating existing reserves, new reserves and land cut off from reserves.

Kamloops Agency, 1916 (e010772172)

In addition, Smith’s situation was complicated. As a Black settler in a predominantly white society, he experienced racism from many in his community. Yet his task as Agent was to carry out the Canadian government’s policy of assimilation for Indigenous peoples. As shown by the 1910 general instructions given to new Agents in British Columbia, the goal was to steer the Secwepemc toward farming and ranching rather than their traditional ways of living, implement a Western system of separate land plots for each family instead of collective land, and encourage an ideal of individual independence over values of mutual aid.

One page of a typewritten letter, with some handwritten annotations.

Page six of a “copy of general instructions to newly appointed Indian Agents in British Columbia,” 1910 (e007817641)

Given Smith’s status and work, it is likely he was not naïve about the nature of these policies, as implementing them would be a requirement of any Agent. This resulted in a complex situation: a racialized individual imposing assimilation policies on another racialized community, on behalf of a colonial governance system. It is evident throughout Smith’s time as an Agent, however, that he approached the work with intelligent pragmatism, an outstanding work ethic and a spirit of advocacy for the Secwepemc.

The vast size of the Kamloops Agency and a constant lack of funds were two overarching challenges of Smith’s tenure as Agent. Additionally, the difficulties of encroaching settlement and its resulting strain on reserve land and irrigation were issues that plagued Smith throughout the 11 years that he held the position. From Smith’s earliest Royal Commission testimony to his reports that were logged a decade later, LAC’s holdings show the frustrating dilemma he faced. His task was to implement a policy to encourage farming and ranching, but there were few financial resources to help move this goal forward. Meanwhile farmers, ranchers and corporations from the settler community diverted water sources, trespassed on Secwepemc territory and lobbied for the removal of desirable lands from reserves.

An example of this pressure was the continual vigilance and advocacy required to protect and retain Kamloops Reserve No. 1, which was situated directly across the Thompson River from the city of Kamloops. Prominent individuals in the city lobbied for the removal of the Secwepemc from the reserve as well as the subsequent sale of the land. Attempts during Smith’s tenure as Agent included a submission by the Kamloops Board of Trade to the Royal Commission in 1913 arguing that the Secwepemc would be better off if they sold the land and moved away from Kamloops, and that the city could more readily expand with the removal of the reserve.

Handwritten letter on Kamloops Board of Trade letterhead, affixed to a Royal Commission form with an exhibit number.

Application to the Royal Commission on Indian Affairs for British Columbia by the Kamloops Board of Trade, to sell all or most of Kamloops Reserve No. 1 (RG10 volume 11021 file 538C from Canadiana Héritage)

An additional attempt took place in 1919 when Henry Denison, secretary of the Kamloops branch of the Canadian Patriotic Fund, put forward a proposal to use the land as a settlement colony for soldiers returning from the First World War. Unsurprisingly, Smith opposed the renewed bid to obtain the reserve land. This elicited a racist response from Denison in a letter to Member of Parliament H.H. Stevens claiming, without evidence, that the Secwepemc resented having a Black man serve as Agent.

One page of a typewritten letter, with some handwritten annotations.

Page two of a letter from Henry Denison to H.H. Stevens, expressing racist and anti-Catholic views (RG10 Volume 7538 File 26 154-1 from Canadiana Héritage)

These experiences, as well as his wealth of knowledge of local politics and officials, made Smith well placed to identify unfair tactics used against the Secwepemc. Acquainted with the cronyism operating in many small towns, Smith could spot the discriminatory practices of some local governments. For example, while attempting to have a peddler’s fee refunded to Chief Titlanetza of the Cook’s Ferry Band, Smith explained the approach of one municipal government: “It is common property that the overhead maintenance charges of the City of Merritt are considerably maintained from money extorted from Indians in fines and other methods.”

Smith continued as Agent until 1923, and he remained in Kamloops for the rest of his life. He continued to write for the local newspaper and carried on with his volunteer duties in civic organizations such as the local Rotary Club. Smith died at his office in the Freemont Block on October 5, 1934.

Co-Lab is LAC’s online tool to tag, transcribe, translate and describe digitized holdings on our website. To commemorate Black History Month, LAC has created a Co-Lab challenge to transcribe records relating to John Freemont Smith’s work as the Kamloops Agent. Please note that some of the documents in this challenge may contain language that is outdated, insensitive or offensive.

To learn more about John Freemont Smith and the lives of the Secwepemc at the time, check out the following resources:


Caitlin Webster is a senior archivist in the Reference Services Division at the Vancouver office of Library and Archives Canada.

Kirkina Mucko at a wedding in Rigolet, Labrador

On the left of the graphic, Tatânga Mânî [Chief Walking Buffalo] [George McLean] in traditional regalia on horse. In the middle, Iggi and girl engaging in a “kunik”, a traditional greeting in Inuit culture. On the right, Maxime Marion, a Métis guide stands holding a rifle. In the background, there is a map of Upper and Lower Canada, and text from the Red River Settlement collection.

By Heather Campbell

Content warning: This blog contains graphic content (death/medical/amputation) that may be offensive or triggering to some readers.

A black-and-white photograph of a group of men, women and children standing or sitting side by side in a field with flowers. There is water and land behind them, and a dog in the left foreground.

Wedding of Wilfred and Beatrice Shiwak; original title: A wedding party, at Rigolet. Wilfred and Beatrice stand in the centre, while Kirkina Mucko kneels between Wilfred’s mother and Wilfred (e011439717)

When I first began working at Library and Archives Canada (LAC) in 2018, I naturally did a quick search to see what we had from my hometown in Labrador in the collection. I simply typed “Rigolet” and got a few hits, including one record that had yet to be digitized: “A wedding in Rigolet, 1923.” Because it was not digitized, I put it on the back burner and forgot about it until last summer, when I was searching through the International Grenfell Association (IGA) collection from the same time period. I thought I would give it a shot and ordered the box to take a look. When the photos came, I flipped through quickly, looking for that photo; I just had a hunch it was going to be something interesting. After all, the population of my community is only 320, so I was bound to know the family and their relatives.

I finally found it at the back of the batch.

They looked familiar.

Wait, I know that face.

Once, many years ago, I drew a portrait of him for my grandmother’s Christmas present, so I knew that face well. It was indeed him, my great-grandfather “Papa Wilfred,” and standing to his left was my grandmother’s mother, Beatrice! For all those years, the photo was tucked away in the archives, and I could finally show it to my family members back home!

I posted the image to Facebook, tagging Project Naming in the hope that we might be able to identify more people in the photo. Within minutes, we were in luck. The woman standing to his right is his mother, Sarah Susanna, and kneeling between them is well-known Inuk nurse Kirkina Mucko (born Elizabeth Jeffries). Reports vary, but local lore says that Elizabeth’s mother was in labour and her father went to find a midwife. When he got back to their home, his wife and their newborn baby had died, and little Elizabeth, age two, had severe frostbite on her legs and gangrene had set in. There were no doctors in the vicinity. He made the difficult decision to amputate Elizabeth’s legs himself using an axe. To stop the bleeding, he put her legs in a flour barrel! An article from years later states that when the local doctor Wilfred Grenfell (who later became Sir Wilfred Grenfell) learned of her story, he wept. Consequently, Grenfell took Elizabeth to the orphanage in St. Anthony, Newfoundland, and was able to raise money to provide her with artificial limbs. She travelled with him to the United States and Mexico to help raise funds for the IGA. The IGA provided health care to everyone in Labrador at that time, as well as conducting other charitable endeavours.

A black-and-white photograph of a large group of men, women and children standing on a pier with water behind them and a boat and land in the distance.

People from 20 miles around gathered for the annual service of the Anglican clergyman Parson Gordon, who is wearing his robes and standing toward the right of the group (e011439717)

Later, a doctor in Boston, for reasons unknown, changed her name to Kirkina. As stated by other Inuit regarding this era, Inuit children in southern hospitals were sometimes treated like pets. As such, they were taken home and raised by hospital staff, never to be heard from again by their families in the Arctic. I presume that this attitude is what led the doctor to change Elizabeth’s name. Her name changed once more when she was married and became Kirkina Mucko.

During the 1918 Spanish influenza epidemic, Kirkina lost her husband and between three and six of her children (some accounts may have included her stepchildren, which would explain the discrepancy). Spurred by this immense loss, Kirkina decided to become a nurse. She received her training and went on to specialize in midwifery. Her career spanned 36 years! Many mentions of Kirkina Mucko and her amazing story can be found in newspaper articles as well as in writings from the IGA, many of which are in the holdings at LAC. In 2008, the local women’s shelter in Rigolet was named Kirkina House as a tribute to her strength and perseverance.

This blog is part of a series related to the Indigenous Documentary Heritage Initiatives. Learn how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) increases access to First Nations, Inuit and Métis Nation collections and supports communities in the preservation of Indigenous language recordings.


Heather Campbell is an Inuk artist originally from Nunatsiavut, Newfoundland and Labrador. She was a researcher on the We Are Here: Sharing Stories team at Library and Archives Canada.

Don’t fear virtual conferences!

By Sarah Potts

Recently, I’ve been thinking about how Library and Archives Canada (LAC) staff, like many Canadians, have been working full time from home for almost a year. I also thought about how my work has changed during the pandemic. The reality is, my work as an acquisitions librarian never stopped, but my usual way of working and interacting with my field did. So when I had the opportunity to attend a virtual professional event, I jumped at it.

A colour photograph of a laptop on a wooden table, with a lamp and pens in the background.
Welcome to my office (it’s really just my dining room table)

Virtually engaged

I attended the Library Journal (LJ) Day of Dialog, an event that was launched over 20 years ago. Traditionally, it’s a one-day in-person event with multiple iterations throughout the year. The LJ Day of Dialog allows librarians and publishers to connect, talk and highlight the latest trends in books.

Because of COVID-19, the event became free and went online. Most of the sessions were pre-recorded. What had originally sold me on attending the conference was having live sessions, because it would remind me of what it was like to participate in a discussion in person.

The conference did have elements of an in-person event, though. There were opportunities to interact with fellow attendees, but through a chat function. We were able to exchange ideas, and sometimes to have a group discussion with authors. This situation was challenging, since both my mental tabs and my Internet tabs were at their maximum. I spent so much time looking up concepts that I forgot to engage with the very conversation I was a part of and to pay attention to the event! There was so much I could do that I worried I wasn’t doing enough on the day of the conference.

Despite knowing that I could access the sessions afterward, I still worried that if I didn’t attend the event as it happened, I would miss something important at the moment. I found it hard to step away from my computer and take a break. I even found myself checking social media “just in case” I missed something. I knew then that I was experiencing FOMO, the “fear of missing out.”

Too much to attend, too little “time”

The term FOMO was popularized in the early 2000s by American author and researcher Patrick McGinnis. Essentially, it means that when you step away from an event or discussion, you worry that you’ll miss something important or exciting. In my case, I thought of never-ending what-ifs and questions. I asked things like, “If I step away from the event, will I miss making a connection with someone?,” “Could stepping away mean that I’m not fully engaged?,” “What if I don’t ask a question during the session? Will my colleagues think less of me?” I spent more time worrying about what could happen than enjoying what was actually happening.

My FOMO extended beyond the conference sessions. I had trouble disconnecting from my other work, too. When attending an in-person conference, I often don’t check my work emails, instant messages or phone. But while attending the LJ Day of Dialog, I couldn’t help myself. If a client emailed me, I would email back immediately; if one of my colleagues sent me an instant message, I felt compelled to respond right away. I felt that if I left my work for a while, I was doing something wrong. It’s an unsettling feeling, and it’s heightened when I work from home. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but I couldn’t disconnect.

Ottawa, we have a problem

It took someone else, in this case my mom, twisting my arm to get me out of that state of mind. She reminded me that it’s healthy to step away and reconnect with myself. Stepping away allowed me to refresh and engage in a more meaningful dialogue with publishers.

A colour photograph of a park with trees.
I became so obsessed with staying connected that I didn’t disconnect and ended up using my “break” when I went for a walk at a local park to continue listening to the conference (location: Queenston Heights National Historic Site, Niagara, Ontario)

I’m not saying that attending a virtual conference is terrible, but it presents challenges that I had never encountered before. I enjoyed the opportunity to connect with librarians worldwide; I connected with international authors and their publishers. Looking back, I now see the benefit of going and viewing the pre-recorded sessions once more. I can learn at my leisure, and catch concepts I missed the first time when I was caught up “in the moment.” I was able to grow and learn more about my work style.

Many Canadians have published online articles (in French) (isn’t it ironic?) and shared ideas (in French) about overcoming FOMO (in French). Most shared the same solution: step away and embrace the joy that comes with living in the moment. It may be hard at first—I can attest to this!—but it makes the event more enjoyable and, in my case, more comfortable to focus on.

At LAC, we’re lucky to hold a few books by Canadian authors and publishers on this topic. These are some fantastic options!

  • The Joy of Missing Out: Finding Balance in a Wired World by Christina Crook, New Society Publishers (2015). OCLC 897352546
  • Taking a Break from Saving the World: A Conservation Activist’s Journey from Burnout to Balance by Stephen Legault, Rocky Mountain Books (2020). OCLC 1201519705
  • It’s My Tree (translation of C’est mon arbre) by Olivier Tallec, Kids Can Press (2020). OCLC 1135581755

Sarah Potts is an acquisitions librarian in the Legal Deposit section of the Published Heritage Branch at Library and Archives Canada.

Pushing Back: The Ongoing History of Black Activism in Canada

By Amina Musa and Krista Cooke

Black and white photograph showing three young people seated at a meeting room table, holding what appear to be speaking notes or meeting agendas. On the left is a white woman with short cropped hair and a suede jacket. In the centre, a Black woman wearing sunglasses and wide headband. To the right, a Black man wearing a patterned shirt and plain coloured jacket. Behind them, on the wall above their heads, is a large formal photographic portrait of an older white man in a jacket and tie.

Speakers at a Greater Windsor Foundation meeting, 1963 (MG28-I119)

Fighting for respect and legal equality has been a centuries-old battle for Black Canadians. These young people, photographed in 1963 by Irv King at the height of the American civil rights movement, were working with the Greater Windsor Foundation in Ontario to make positive changes in their community. From individual moments of courage to collective actions like this one, improving the lives of a racially marginalized people has been an ongoing fight.

In 1628, a six-year-old boy taken by slave traders in Madagascar became New France’s first documented slave. The fight against slavery and its long lasting legacy of racism continues today. The Library and Archives Canada (LAC) collection includes works of art, photographs, documents, maps and audiovisual materials that capture the changes and continuities of Black Canadian lives. While many gaps remain, the Black history collection has some notable strengths, including resources related to the United Empire Loyalists, the Elgin Settlement, railway porters, and late 20th century authors, politicians and civil rights activists, like the ones featured here.

For hundreds of years, many individuals have pushed back against systemic racism in Canada. Some concentrated their efforts on celebrating, documenting and preserving their community’s rich and diverse cultures. Some have fought the status quo through legal challenges and policy changes. Some have worked to build networks of support to help others thrive financially and emotionally. Many have done all three, building better futures for coming generations of Black Canadians.

A crowd of people walk down the centre of the road in a small town parade. On either side, wooden storefronts line the street. The crowd, led by a distinguished mustached Black man wearing a top hat and tails and riding a horse, consists of a marching band, groups of small boys, and a handful of adults. Most of the people whose faces are visible in the crowd appear to be Black. In the background, a second horse pulls a parade float with women in white dresses and large hats.

Emancipation Day parade in Amherstburg, Ontario, 1894 (a163923)

Celebrating Black culture in Canada today takes many forms. Rich literary, musical and artistic scenes; a number of cultural centres, museums and historic sites; Black History Month; Black Studies university programs; and several festivals mark the importance of the Black community to Canadian culture. Emancipation Day—pictured above in Amherstburg, Ontario, in 1894—is one such annual event. It has been celebrating the Abolition of Slavery Act since 1834! All of these festivals, books and museums have one thing in common: determined people who believed in the importance of celebrating Black culture and history. LAC holds collections related to many of these individuals and organizations, including authors like Dionne Brand; the historically-minded Daniel G. Hill, one of the co-founders of the Ontario Black History Society; journalist Mary Ann Shadd Cary; advocacy groups including the Jamaican Canadian Association and Black Artists in Action; scholar Clarence Bayne, co-founder of the Black Theatre Workshop; and many others. Their activism, along with that of so many others, has shaped how Canadians of all backgrounds have understood the Black experience.

A painted head and shoulders portrait showing an older Black man dressed in judge’s robes and a crisp white shirt. His black robes are embellished with a burgundy sash. The man, who looks directly at the viewer, has short grey hair and a white moustache.

Portrait of Citizenship Judge Stanley Grizzle by William Stapleton (c151473k)

The fight against anti-Black discrimination involved many legal hurdles. During the early 20th century, many Black people were not given access to resources or allowed the same opportunities as others. Struggling for equality often meant challenging these restrictions in court. Stanley Grizzle began fighting for equality in the 1930s as a founding member of the Railway Porter’s Trade Union Council in Toronto. Grizzle worked to document other community activists and left an extensive collection of research files at LAC.

One of the people Grizzle documented was Charles Roach, a human rights lawyer and activist. Roach used his legal expertise to represent many people who were dealing with oppression and hardships, including refugees immigrating to Canada. Roach was one of the co-founders of the Black Action Defence Committee, a Toronto-based organization created in the 1970s in response to the deaths of several Black men at the hands of police. This Committee was instrumental in the formation of the Ontario Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

Pearleen Oliver, recently the subject of a new biography, led a successful 1940s campaign that overturned the exclusion of Black women from nursing schools. She and her husband, Dr. William Pearly Oliver, founded the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People to fight against discrimination related to employment, education and housing. Roach, Grizzle and the Olivers were just a few change makers in a community of activists, many of whom have left important marks on Canadian society.

A sketched portrait of a seated woman. The artist has used the barest of lines at the base of the portrait to depict the woman’s skirt, but has completed the watercolour portrait of the woman’s face, with detail increasing toward the top of the page. The woman, who is Black, is wearing a black-and-white patterned headscarf, a shawl, a wide-sleeved blouse gathered at the wrists, gloves, and a skirt. She is seated with her hands folded in her lap and appears to be looking off into the distance, over the viewer’s left shoulder.

The “Good Woman of Colour” by artist Lady Caroline B. Estcourt (c093963k)

Racial prejudice in Canada has taken many forms. From outright slavery, through legally sanctioned inequality that left many Black Canadians unable to choose where to work, live, worship or study, to the grinding reality of systemic racism, generations of Black Canadians have suffered marginalization. As a result, it has been especially important for community members to support each other. This unnamed Niagara region woman impressed the artist who sketched her portrait by taking in an impoverished Black man who had taken ill and fallen behind on rent. The Black Swan (Elizabeth Greenfield), an American concert singer and former slave, donated the benefits of an 1855 concert to help fund the movement of runaway slaves to Canada. More recently, organizations like the Home Service Association in Toronto and the Negro Community Centre in Montréal have provided aid to those who needed it, promoted Black cultural events, and hosted speakers on important topics such as apartheid and the civil rights movement.

A black-and-white photograph of three little girls holding toys. The two girls on the left are holding porcelain dolls and the girl on the right is holding a large stuffed teddy bear. All three of the children, who are Black, are smiling shyly at the photographer and onlookers. They are dressed up, with their hair in braids and ribbons, and are standing in front of a poster-covered wall.

Three young girls celebrate Brotherhood Week at the Negro Community Centre in Montréal—(left to right) Eleitha Haynes, Elizabeth Phillips and Camille Haynes, 1959. Photo Credit: Dave Legget (e011051725)

From individual acts of courage and support, to community organization and formal legal challenges, the Black community in Canada has worked for centuries to overcome racism. The Black Lives Matter movement, which in 2020 brought anti-racist activism into the media spotlight, has built upon the bravery and outspokenness of previous generations of Black Canadians, drawing attention once again to the realities of racism in Canada.


Krista Cooke is a curator with the Public Services Branch and Amina Musa is an Archival Assistant with the Archives Branch.