(Disponible en français : Mois de l’histoire des noirs : dates et personnages clés)
February is Black History Month, a time when Canadians are invited to reflect on the history of Black people in Canada, and to honour the many contributions of Black Canadians.
It is thought that the first Black person to come to the territory that is now Canada was Mathieu Da Costa, a Black free man who is believed to have worked with French and Dutch explorers as a translator on expeditions to New France in the early 1600s. Until 1793, however, many Black persons in the territory were enslaved. It was in that year that the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada (Ontario), John Graves Simcoe, introduced an anti–slave trade bill, making it illegal to bring enslaved persons into the territory.
In 1833, slavery was abolished in what was then called British North America, 32 years before it was formally abolished in the United States. This development led to the consolidation of a secret network of routes and safe houses that helped thousands of slaves who were fleeing the United States. This network became known as the “Underground Railroad.” While Black people were free once they arrived, those who came during that period faced racism, and life could be difficult.
Black History Month in Canada acknowledges the legacy of these and other Black people since these beginnings.
Recognition of Black History Month in Canada: Key Events Along the Way
Origins of Black History Month
In 1926, African American historian Carter G. Woodson proposed and launched a week honouring the accomplishments of African Americans in the United States. For 50 years, Negro History Week was observed in February, until Black History Month was established in 1976. In Canada, Black History Week began to be observed in the early 1970s and expanded to become Black History Month in 1976.
In 1995, the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month when it unanimously adopted this motion:
That this House take note of the important contribution of black Canadians to the settlement, growth and development of Canada, the diversity of the black community in Canada and its importance to the history of this country, and recognize February as black history month.
In 2008, the Senate joined the House of Commons in recognizing Black History Month.
Black Canadians in Parliament
The following are profiles of several trail-blazing Black parliamentarians.
Honourable Lincoln Alexander
In his early life, Lincoln Alexander trained as a wireless operator and served with the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan during the Second World War. After the war, Alexander earned a law degree from Osgoode Hall Law School and opened his own firm.
In 1965, Alexander was appointed as Queen’s Counsel, and he began his career in politics. He was elected to the House of Commons in 1968, becoming the first Black Member of Parliament. He was re-elected four times and served nearly 12 years. In 1979, he was appointed as Minister of Labour, becoming the first Black person to serve in Cabinet.
Alexander resigned his seat in 1980 to become chair of Ontario’s Workers’ Compensation Board. He was then appointed as Ontario’s 24th lieutenant governor, the first person of colour to be named as a representative of the Crown in Canada. He was a Companion of the Order of Canada and a Member of the Order of Ontario.
Alexander died in 2012. In 2014, Parliament passed an Act recognizing 21 January as Lincoln Alexander Day.
Honourable Anne Cools
Anne Cools was first appointed to the Senate in 1984 and was both the first Black person in the Senate and the first Black female senator in North America.
Prior to her appointment, Cools was a social worker and pioneer in the protection of women from domestic abuse. She was a co-organizer of Canada’s first domestic violence conference.
During her Senate career, she served as a member of the Special Joint Committee on Child Custody and Access, among many other committee assignments.
Between 2011 and the time of her retirement in August 2018, Cools was the longest-serving member of the Senate.
Honourable Jean Augustine
Jean Augustine immigrated to Canada in 1960 through the Canada–Caribbean Domestic Program. She pursued her career in education and worked as an elementary school teacher in Toronto. She also served on boards, including with York University and the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto. She was also the national president of the Congress of Black Women of Canada.
In 1993, Augustine was elected to the House of Commons, becoming the first Black woman to sit in the chamber. She served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, as Minister, then as Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, as chair of multiple committees, and finally as Deputy Speaker.
Augustine was also responsible for tabling the motion in the House of Commons to recognize Black History Month. She also championed the motion allowing for the placement of statues on Parliament Hill honouring the Famous Five, women who advocated for women to be legally considered persons in Canada in order to make it possible for them to be appointed to the Senate.
Augustine is a Member of the Order of Canada and Commander of the Order of the British Empire. She remains committed to empowering women and marginalized persons through education.
Honourable Donald Oliver
As a young man, Donald Oliver practised law in Nova Scotia and was both a civil litigator and an educator. He became involved in the community and served on the executive committees of several private companies. This led him to a career in politics, focusing on promoting equality for Canadians of diverse backgrounds.
In 1990, Oliver became the first Black man appointed to the Senate. During his tenure, he served as a member of multiple committees and chaired the Standing Senate Committee on Transport and Communications and the Standing Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry.
In 2008, Oliver tabled a motion in the Senate to recognize Black History Month, reflecting the motion passed several years earlier in the House of Commons.
In 2010, Oliver was nominated as Speaker pro tempore (Deputy Speaker) of the Senate. He retired in 2013 but continues to be active in his Nova Scotia community.
Author: Laura Blackmore, Library of Parliament