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REMEMBER THIS: Black history is a story of firsts in Canada

This column continues my two-part examination of our Black history.

My goal for these columns has always been to whet your appetite, to encourage readers to investigate further to achieve a deeper understanding of the subject, so I've added some additional sources for you to follow up on. Let's continue to explore the substantial contributions of the Black population to this country’s history.

Black history has influenced our current world in so many ways, be it pop culture, music, science and technology, politics, literature, medicine, or our social movements. Black Canadians have been influential in our national history, setting a tone of innovation. The history of Black Canadians is important for all students because it is part of Canadian history.

This time of year, there are several excellent articles available on the various contributions of Black people, so I will touch on but a few of the contributions that have piqued my interest in the areas of politics, science and technology, governance and culture during my research.

The world of politics seems a good place to start.

Rosemary Brown is best known for having dedicated her life to promoting equality and human rights, in particular her involvement in the British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and the Voice of Women. She entered politics in 1972, winning her seat in the riding of Vancouver-Burrard and became the first Black woman to sit in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. In 1975, she became the first Black woman to run for the leadership of a federal party.

After retirement, she became a professor of women’s studies at Simon Fraser University and began writing. She would win many honours, including the Order of British Columbia, Order of Canada, and Ontario Black Achievement Award, and she appeared on a commemorative stamp from Canada Post in 2009. (BC Black History Awareness Society)

Another well-known advocate for social justice, Jean Augustine, became the first Black woman elected to Canadian Parliament in 1993, holding several roles,  including parliamentary secretary to the prime minister, secretary of state for multiculturalism and the status of women, and deputy speaker of the House of Commons. Augustine was also the author of the unanimous motion that recognized February as Black History Month in Canada.

Madam Justice Micheline Rawlins was called to the bar in 1982 and went on to become the first Black woman appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice in 1992.

Rev. Josiah Henson arrived in Dresden, Ont., in 1830 from the United States, fleeing slavery. In 1836, he and his wife founded the Black settlement of Dawn, which was a place for refugees from enslavement, gaining the education and skills necessary to thrive. He also helped to found Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in 1841. Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, relied on Henson’s memoir to provide “conceptions and incidents” for her novel. (Ontario Heritage Trust and Parks Canada Directory of Federal Heritage Designations) You can read more about Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Ontario Heritage Trust website.

If you watched the CBC drama, The Porter, you will be aware of Stanley G. Grizzle, who founded the Railway Porters' Trade Union Council and served as president of the Toronto Canadian Pacific Railroad (CPR) Division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters from 1946 to 1962.

He went on to become a citizenship judge and political candidate, becoming one of the first Black Canadians to run for election to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. In 1978, he was appointed as a citizenship judge, another first for a Black Canadian.

Zanana Akande became Canada’s first Black female cabinet minister in Bob Rae’s Ontario NDP government in 1990. You can read about Akande in part one of this series. (Information referenced from CBC and the Toronto Star.)

Leonard Braithwaite was a lawyer and politician who, in 1963, became the first Black Canadian elected to a provincial legislature.

Braithwaite led a movement to revoke a section of the Ontario Separate Schools Act that allowed racial segregation in public schools. He also championed the admission of female legislative pages in 1966.

The Leonard Braithwaite Program was named in his honour. It delivers a rich and diverse educational experience on diverse perspectives, experiences, and history of the people of the African diaspora. (The Canadian Encyclopedia and Ontario’s first Black MPP, Leonard Braithwaite.)

There have been major contributions in the areas of science and technology made by Black Canadians. These Black inventors and their inventions have impacted Canada and the world and have contributed to innovation and technology.

Let us look at a few of these renowned inventors and their inventions.

We begin with Mary Ann Shadd, who left the U.S. for the relative safety of Ontario. Focusing on her studies, she ultimately became a journalist, newspaper publisher, teacher and lawyer, renowned as the first Black woman in North America and first woman in Canada to publish a newspaper.

We have all heard the expression "the real McCoy." Well, here is the origin of that expression. Born in Colchester, Ont. in 1844, Elijah McCoy, a promising student, was sent to Scotland, where he was afforded a proper education, returning home as a certified mechanical engineer. Sadly, he could not find a job because of the prevalent anti-Black racism.

He went on to create and invent many things — more than 57 inventions in total. One of his inventions was a device to help lubricate machinery. It seems it became so popular that people began to copy it, but these imitations did not work as well as McCoy’s original model, prompting people to demand nothing but the real McCoy.

Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Michaëlle Jean and her family arrived in Canada as refugees when she was 11. Life was difficult at first, but Jean worked hard in school, learning to speak five languages. Her path led to her becoming a popular Quebec journalist, culminating on Aug. 4, 2005 with her appointment as governor general of Canada. She was the first Black Canadian to hold the position and one of few women to have attained the position.

It is a common story: growing up without a lot of money and with only one parent, persevering through it somehow and then using those experiences to chase dreams.

Donald McLeod became a teacher and a lawyer. He instilled in his students his determination to strive for “excellence without excuses.”

In 2013, he was rewarded, becoming one of the youngest members of the Ontario Court of Justice.

More information on these four iconic Black Canadians can be found at 4 Black Canadians who achieved against all odds | Articles | CBC Kids.

In part one of this series, I referred to William Peyton Hubbard. Born in Toronto, he was the son of American slaves who escaped from Virginia and came to Canada via the Underground Railroad. Hubbard was trained as a baker at the Toronto Normal School.

He invented and patented a commercial baker’s oven, the Hubbard Portable, which he sold through his company, Hubbard Ovens.

Hubbard was also the first Black person to serve on Toronto council. In fact, he was the first Black councillor in any major Canadian city when he was elected alderman in Toronto, and was re-elected to council 15 times. He also co-founded the first publicly owned hydroelectric company in Ontario in 1907 along with Adam Beck; that company is now known as Hydro One. See William Peyton Hubbard | The Canadian Encyclopedia.

One can discover more of the accomplishments that are attributed to Black inventors at 100+ incredible things you can thank Black inventors for | Canada (

Black Canadians have also excelled in the areas of medicine and academia. Anderson Ruffin Abbott became the first Canadian-born man of Black heritage to become a licensed physician in 1871. He was committed to education and integration, and fought against racially segregated schools.

Canadian-born Sophie Jones became the first Black faculty member at Spelman College in 1885. Dr. Douglas Salmon became Canada’s first Black surgeon, joining the Scarborough Centenary Hospital in 1967. Dr. June Marion James was the first Black woman admitted to the University of Manitoba’s faculty of medicine, in the 1960s.

I could go on and on relating stories of famous Black Canadians from our history, given the breadth of the information I discovered during my research. I will return in future columns to this topic and highlight more of these iconic Canadians.

In conclusion, I would urge you to go beyond all the articles and events that appear during February and be curious about Black history year-round. Remember, Black history is Canadian history.

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod, the History Hound, has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town’s history in partnership with NewmarketToday, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews.

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About the Author: Richard MacLeod

Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years
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