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  • Writer's pictureElaine Kelly

How is Canada's Black History Record?

Updated: Apr 28, 2022

Sometimes, on hearing of more race riots in the US, Canadians can become smug. After all, the British Empire ended slavery in 1834 and it wasn't abolished in America until 1865. Freedom-seekers escaped to Canada in the 1820s. The abolitionist Harriet Tubman lived in St. Catharines for ten years, helping formerly enslaved people adjust to their new life.

Historically, Black Canadians were primarily either British Loyalists or Americans escaping slavery. William Hamilton Merritt, another abolitionist, helped the new citizens purchase land to build the British Methodist Episcopal Church, Salem Chapel and later the Zion Baptist Church. Through the 1800s, a small Black community developed in Haldimand county, near where I grew up.

How were Blacks treated in Canada?

After the American colonists won the Revolutionary War (also called the United States War of Independence), which finished in 1791, the British Loyalists had to leave the United States. Britain rewarded Black soldiers who had fought with the loyalists by offering them freedom from slavery and moving them to British territory in Nova Scotia. This movement is described in Lawrence Hill's Canadian novel The Book of Negroes, which is now a mini-series. While they were not slaves, racism meant few employment options, low wages, and living on infertile land. Many Black Loyalists ended up as indentured servants, exchanging their freedom for food and shelter for the length of the contract.

Prejudice Against Blacks

Black Loyalists were denied the right to vote or be tried by a jury and were subject to arbitrary judgments and discriminatory laws against social gatherings. Well into the 1900s, Black people faced discrimination in Canada in housing, employment and access to public services. Many restaurants, hotels, and theatres refused to admit or serve Black Canadians. In 1910, Canada passed immigration legislation that reduced Black immigration, claiming Blacks were “unsuited to the climate or requirements of Canada.” It was not until 1960 that race was removed from immigration policies.

Africville was a primarily Black community located in a suburb of Halifax. The City of Halifax refused to provide sewage, clean water and garbage disposal, then placed a dump, a prison, and an infectious disease hospital near Africville. In the 1960s Halifax voted to relocate Africville residents, sometimes by paying for their homes and sometimes by expropriation. All Africville homes were destroyed by 1970. It was 2010 when Halifax apologized.

The text on the Africville plaque reads, "For over a century African Canadians settled here, developing an independent community centred around church and family. As part of the urban renewal projects of the 1960s, officials introduced a plan to level the community and relocate its residents. The community mobilized and even though no buildings were saved, Africville became a symbol of the ongoing struggle by African Canadians to defend their culture and their rights. Seaview Park, created on the site as a memorial to Africville, speaks to the enduring significance of community."

Fighting for Civil Rights

In the 1940s, Viola Desmond inspired Nova Scotia’s civil rights movement when she was arrested for refusing to leave the whites-only section of a movie theatre in Nova Scotia. Viola Desmond was born to a white mother and a black father and became a teacher and business owner. After attending schools in Montreal and New York, Viola Desmond opened her own beauty parlour, called Vi’s Studio of Beauty Culture in Halifax. With its success, she created a line of beauty products and opened a beauty school, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, training women and expanding her business. Desmond was on her way to a business meeting in Sydney and was one hundred miles from her home in Halifax when the car broke down in New Glasgow in 1946. Since the repair would take several hours, she decided to see a movie. She requested a ticket for a seat on the main floor and proceeded to sit down. The usher told her the ticket was for a balcony seat, and when Desmond returned to the cashier for the main floor ticket, the cashier said she could not purchase it. The business owner argued the theatre had a right to refuse admission. Back in 1941, a black woman named Carrie Best was arrested for sitting in the whites-only section of the same theatre and lost her civil suit because the law honoured the business owner’s right to exclude anyone from service. Desmond pointed out she had purchased a ticket and refused to leave her seat. Police dragged her out of the theatre, arrested her, jailed her overnight, and convicted her without legal representation.

There was no law that required Black persons to sit in the balcony, it was customary and locals knew the theatre was racially segregated. Since Desmond had not broken any law, she was charged with defrauding the provincial government of a one-cent amusement tax (the difference in price between the main floor and balcony seats) and fined $26. The civil rights movement strengthened and segregation was legally ended in Nova Scotia in 1954. Viola Desmond left Nova Scotia and died in 1965. Her sister, Wanda Robson, campaigned for greater awareness of her sister's story and published Sister to Courage. Finally, in 2010, Nova Scotia Governor granted a free pardon to Viola Desmond and in 2018 the Canadian government named her a National Historic Person. The Bank of Canada released a new ten-dollar bill featuring Viola Desmond in 2018.

Fighting against Segregated Schools

Ontario had school segregation since the 1850s, authorizing the establishment of separate schools based on family requests. After Confederation, only Ontario and Nova Scotia legislated Black segregated schools. Black schools had less funding, smaller space, poorly maintained property, few libraries, and unclean outhouses. However, where a segregated school was open, courts denied Black students access to white schools. Where schools were not segregated, Black students sat on separate benches, and teachers could be fired if they spoke out in favour of integration. Most of the Black communities had been established in Essex and Kent counties, near Windsor, Ontario and Detroit, Michigan. Some of these communities had segregated restaurants and movie theatres as well as sundown laws, stating Blacks had to be off the streets by sundown.

In 1964, Leonard Braithwaite, Canada's first Black provincial legislator, was able to pass a bill removing segregated schools from the law, but local trustees were not making any changes. Activists and parents continued to lobby to close the local segregated school, and in 1964, the Globe and Mail printed a photo of a young Black student holding a giant rat that had been caught on school grounds. The 1965 closure of the last segregated school in Ontario represents black activism in Canada.

Fewer Black Race Riots

I have written separate posts about Canadian racial discrimination and Canada's record on racism. One reason we hear less about black civil rights movements in Canada is that we had few