When we think of notable black Canadians, one of the first people that comes to mind is probably Viola Desmond, who now graces our ten dollar bill.

Ms Desmond was arrested in New Glasgow, NS in 1946 for sitting in the ‘whites only’ section of a segregated movie theatre. She refused to accept the charges against her, and she took her case all the way to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. Though she lost her appeal, Desmond was posthumously granted a pardon and an apology from the Nova Scotia Government. Her sister, Wanda Robson, was in attendance.

While she is an example of notable black Canadians, she’s not the only one.

Portia White was an operatic contralto, and the first black singer in Canada to become an international star in the 1930s and 1940s. Because of vocal problems, she was forced to retire from the stage, and switched careers, becoming a teacher. She also became the singing coach for the first cast of the Anne of Green Gables musical. She briefly came out of retirement to perform at the opening of the Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre for the Arts in 1964, where Queen Elizabeth II was in attendance.

Elijah McCoy was an inventor, who’s parents escaped slavery and came to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Educated in Edinburgh, Scotland, he moved to Michigan, where he worked as a fireman for the Michigan Central Railroad. It was during this time he invented a device known as the oil drip cup, which administered a regulated amount of lubricant to steam powered engines through a spigot. This device enabled locomotives to work without interruption, something they hadn’t been able to do before. By the end of his career, he had registered over 50 patents.

In sports, there’s Willie O’Ree, the first black player in the NHL. He made his debut with the Boston Bruins in the 1957-58 season, and later played in the Western Hockey League before retiring in 1979; Harry Jerome, track and field athlete who went to the Olympics three times, winning a bronze in the 100-metre race in 1964. He also won gold at the Commonwealth Games and Pan American Games, and set or matched several world records; and Donovan Bailey, he is one of Canada’s most highly decorated track athletes and once held the world record for the 100-metre sprint. He won three world championships in either the 100 metres and 4x100-metre relay and two gold medals at the 1996 Olympics.

One woman who has become a symbol of black resistance and freedom is Marie-Joseph Angelique. Born in Portugal around 1705, she was slave to a Montreal woman, and in 1734 she was accused and convicted of starting a fire that destroyed 46 buildings. It was alleged that she started the fire because her request for freedom had been refused and she was trying to escape her bondage. Evidence against her was circumstantial, and Marie-Joseph Angelique only confessed to the crime under torture. She was hanged on June 21, 1734. 

There are so many more people to be named, and learning about them is vital not only in February, but throughout the rest of the year as well.

Jillian Trainor


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