The month of February is Black History Month in Canada. This is a month that recognizes the important contributions and history of the Black community in our country. I approached our Curator earlier this month and said I wanted to draw attention to several Black Canadians who I think everyone should know. One blog post cannot cover the long list of names I have read about recently, but I wanted to acknowledge a few that stood out to me who have made significant historical and social contributions to Canada.
The first person I want to highlight is Jean Augustine. I came across Augustine’s name when I first started looking into the history of Black History Month in Canada.
Jean Augustine is a former Member of Parliament for Etobicoke-Lakeshore. It is because of her efforts that we now celebrate Black History Month in Canada. In 1993, she became the first Black female Member of Parliament where she advocated for cultural diversity, women’s issues, and immigration rights. In 1995, it was Augustine who brought forward a motion to officially recognize Black History Month in Canada to talk about the important contributions made by Black Canadians throughout our history. In December 1995, her motion passed with a unanimous vote.
A second Canadian that I want to highlight is Viola Desmond, a prominent citizen of Nova Scotia. She was a beautician and entrepreneur in Halifax who brought national attention to human rights with her famous court case:
One night in November 1946 Desmond decided to go to the Roseland Theatre to see a film while her car was being repaired. She sat in the “Whites Only Area” of the theatre. After refusing to go to the “Coloured Only” section, Desmond was arrested and jailed overnight. She was eventually charged with tax fraud, and ordered to pay a $26 fine. Despite hiring a lawyer to help overturn the decision, the charges remained until 2010 when the Nova Scotia government made a formal apology to Desmond’s family.
Viola Desmond will be the first woman to appear on Canadian currency. Her image will be on the $10 bill beginning in 2018. I think it is important to speak about Viola Desmond because she is a prime example of someone who saw an injustice and acted against it.
A third story that caught my attention is the story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion:
When the War broke out, it was extremely difficult for Black men to join the Canadian military. However, in July 1916, the very first Canadian Black Battalion was formed in Nova Scotia with a total of 600 men accepted for service. The No. 2 Construction Battalion was not given a combat role in the War – in March 1918 they were deployed to Liverpool, England, and then France, to work with the Canadian Forestry Corps. Eventually, some of the men joined regular units to fight on the front lines of the War. Many of these men were awarded medals for their war efforts.
It is important to acknowledge the war efforts of Black soldiers. When war broke out, there was much discrimination against people of colour by Canada’s government and military. These men were able to break through racial barriers, which shows that when you fight for something you believe in, changes can come.
This is only a small list of important Black Canadians in our history. I encourage our readers to do your own research and share what you learn with your family and peers. Some great places to start include:
Black History Canada from Historica Canada