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5 Incredible Black history facts you need to know about Canada

Canadian flag, Canada

Did you know that Black History Month is celebrated in February in Canada? As such, it seems only fitting to shine a spotlight on some incredible Black Excellence from Canadian history! From the pioneers of the Underground Railroad to the rise and fall Africville, let’s take a look at five Black history facts from Canada that you need to know!

Before we dive in, let’s have a little look at the Black Canadian community today. According to the 2021 census, Black Canadians make up over 4.3% of the total population, numbering over 1.5 million people. The community with the highest Black population resides in North Preston, in Nova Scotia, where a large number of Black loyalists settled in the 18th century.

Many Black Canadians are notable for being ‘the first’ Black person to achieve certain positions in Canada. These include Willie O’Ree, Canada’s first Black hockey player in the National Hockey League, Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian women elected to the House of Commons and Michaëlle Jean, the first Black Governor General of Canada.

Other famous Black Canadians include the boxer Lennox Lewis, singer the Weeknd, and of course the rapper Drake!

1. Mathieu Da Costa

The first recorded person of African descent to arrive in Canada was a man named Mathieu da Costa. A free man who arrived in 1608, he served as the interpreter during the expedition of the French colonist Samuel Champlain, who established the French colonies of Quebec and New France.

Little is known about Mathieu Da Costa, though he was a multilingual man of mixed-African heritage who spoke a number of European and Canadian Indigenous languages. Having worked as a translator for the Portuguese, his services were later secured by the English, the Dutch and the French, to facilitate contact between Europeans and the Indigenous peoples of Canada. A special edition stamp was issued in his honour during Black History Month in 2017, and there are two streets and a school named after him.

2. Harriet Tubman and the Underground railroad

The Underground Railroad was a secret network of people, routes and safehouses that spanned across North America, from the early to mid 1800s. Via this network, tens of thousands of enslaved people escaped (at great risk to themselves and the people who assisted them) from ‘slave states’ to ‘free states’ in America, often continuing north into Canada where slavery had been abolished by the British in 1834. Conversely, slavery was not abolished in the US until 1865. The overall system was informally called ‘The Underground Railroad’, with escapees referred to as ‘passengers’ and those who assisted them referred to as ‘conductors’.

One of the most famous conductors was Harriet Tubman. Born in Maryland in 1822, Harriet Tubman escaped from slavery at the age of 27, and went on to become an activist, abolitionist, suffragist and spy. She is best known for leading many enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad, the network by which she herself had escaped.

Harriet Tubman died on March 10th 1913. March 10th was declared Harriet Tubman day in the US and in St Catherine’s in Ontario, where Harriet lived for some time. In 2005, the Canadian government declared Harriet Tubman a Person of National Significance.

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3. From Nova Scotia to Sierra Leone

During the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783), the British government promised freedom and land rights to enslaved people who escaped from their masters and who fought on behalf of the British. This prompted thousands of Black people to join the British forces, and they became known as the ‘Black Loyalists’. Although the British lost the war, they honoured their promise to evacuate the formerly enslaved, resulting in approximately 3,000 Black people migrating north to Nova Scotia.

Although now free people, the Black settlers in Nova Scotia faced new challenges. They received less land, lower wages and fewer privileges than the White Loyalists, and struggled to adapt to the colder climate. Tensions arose and eventually erupted into race riots in 1784, known as the Shelburn Riots.

In 1792, a portion of the Black population in Nova Scotia took the opportunity to relocate to a newly established British colony in West Africa, in modern-day Sierra Leone. The settlement was called ‘Free Town’, which is the capital of Sierra Leone, and the oldest part of the city is called ‘Settler Town’, as it was the home of the Nova Scotian settlers.

Nova Scotia, Canada

Image source:Contiki

4. Africville

Although it no longer exists, Africville was a site of major significance in Black Canadian history. Formed in the late 1700s, following the American Revolutionary War, Africville was a predominantly Black settlement located in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was formed due to Black Canadians being marginalised by white settlers in Halifax and being forced to create their own distinct community. For over 150 years, Africville was populated by hundreds of Black families who created their own schools, stores, a post office and a Baptist Church.

Sadly, the residents of Africville were neglected by the local authorities and did not have access to many fundamental amenities including roads, electricity, a sewage system, clean water and garbage disposal, despite the tax-paying residents of Africville petitioning the local authorities multiple times.

The town was eventually condemned by the local authorities in Halifax and was systematically deconstructed over many years, ending in 1970. In the 1980s, former residents took matters into their own hands and formed the Africville Genealogy Society to seek justice for the destruction of their community. In 2010 the Mayor of Halifax publicly apologised for the deconstruction of Africville and allocated a plot of land and $3 million to build a replica of the former church which today serves as the Africville Museum.

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5. The Legacy of Viola Desmond

Let’s end with the story of an incredible woman who inadvertently became a household name in the Canadian civil rights movement! Her name is Viola Desmond and she was the first Black Woman to have her portrait printed on Canadian money.

Born in 1914, Viola began her career as a beautician and business owner. She specialised in creating beauty products for Black women, and opened a beauty school where Black women who been denied admission to white-only beauty schools could train.

Although a successful businesswoman, Viola Desmond lived a relatively quiet life until 1946, when she made national headlines. The event occurred one day when Viola decided to go the cinema. Although there were no segregation laws in the cinemas in Nova Scotia, Viola sat in an area that had been designated for white patrons. When asked to move, she refused and instead offered to pay the 1 cent difference for her ticket. As a result, Viola was forcefully removed from the cinema, arrested, jailed overnight and fined for tax evasion.

The case received much media attention and eventually led to the end of segregation laws in Nova Scotia. Viola was posthumously pardoned in 2010 and became the first Black woman to be printed on Canadian money. She has been inducted into Canada’s Walk of Fame, appears on a commemorative stamp and coin, and was even depicted in a Google Doodle. In 2018, she was named a Person of National Historical Significance by the Canadian government.

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