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.

 

1 thought on “Pushing Back: The Ongoing History of Black Activism in Canada

  1. Very well done and important essay. These issues need to be transparent so they can be remedied… excellent… keep it up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.