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10 Black Canadians Who Played a Big Role in Canadian History

Illustrations of Black Canadians who played a big part in Canada's history
Azra Hirji

When it comes to constructing and telling the story of Canadian history, the contributions of instrumental Black Canadians are sometimes excluded. These are 10 Black Canadians who made important contributions to Canadian history.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823–1893)

Illustration of Mary Ann Shadd Cary
Azra Hirji

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was an activist, educator, publisher, and journalist. She was the first Black woman to publish a newspaper – called The Provincial Freeman – in North America. As an educator, Shadd Cary established a racially integrated school for Black children in Windsor, Ontario, and as an activist, she advocated for the rights of Black people and women.

Related: 10 common phrases you didn’t know were racist.

Lucie and Thornton Blackburn (Thornton 1812–1890)

Illustration of Lucie Blackburn
Azra Hirji

Lucie and Thornton Blackburn were a couple who escaped from enslavement in Louisville, Kentucky. They initially escaped to Michigan when slave hunters found, re-captured, and arrested the couple. While they were being detained, Lucie and Thornton escaped a second time and arrived in Canada. When the Canadian courts refused to extradite the Thorntons back into enslavement in the United States, it cemented Canada’s reputation as a safe haven for formerly-enslaved Black people.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823–1915)

Illustration of Mifflin Wustar Gibbs
Azra Hirji

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was a businessman, politician, and community leader who moved from San Francisco to Victoria, British Columbia because of racial injustices in the United States. In BC, Gibbs was elected to Victoria City Council, and used his public speaking and community organization abilities to encourage racial integration and fight against segregation in churches and theatres in Victoria. For his contributions as a politician and community leader in the Victoria community, Parks Canada recognizes Gibbs as a person of National Historic Significance.

Related: Iconic womxn in Canada by zodiac sign.

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Viola Davis Desmond (1914–1965)

Illustration of Viola Davis Desmond
Azra Hirji

Businesswoman Viola Davis Desmond owned and operated a beauty parlor and beauty school in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1946, she went to a movie theatre and chose to sit on the ground floor, a section of the theatre reserved for white patrons only. She was arrested, tried, and convicted for tax evasion for not paying the one-cent tax difference on the ground floor ticket. The conviction was upheld. In 2010, Nova Scotia granted Desmond an official pardon and apology for the racism that she and other Black Nova Scotians were subjected to. In 2016, Desmond became the first Canadian woman to appear on a Canadian banknote.

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Lincoln Alexander (1922–2012)

Illustration of Lincoln Alexander
Azra Hirji

Air force veteran, lawyer, and politician Lincoln Alexander was the first Black Member of Parliament and the first Black federal Cabinet Minester. In 1985, he was appointed as Canada’s Lieutenant Governor, becoming the first visible minority to hold this position. As Lieutenant Governor, Alexander’s mandate focused on youth and education. For his contributions to Canadian politics, the Right Honourable Lincoln Alexander was appointed to the Order of Canada at the rank of Companion.

Violet King (1929–1982)

Illustration of Violet King
Azra Hirji

As a child, Violet King dreamed of becoming a lawyer despite the absence of lawyers in Canada who looked like her. Nonetheless, King went to law school and became the first Black person to earn a law degree in the province of Alberta. After passing the bar, she became the first Black woman lawyer in Canada. King’s story not only speaks to her intelligence and perseverance, but also highlights the importance of representation.

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Rosemary Brown (1930–2003)

Illustration of Rosemary Brown
Azra Hirji

Feminist, activist, and politician Rosemary Brown was elected to British Colombia’s legislature in 1972, becoming the first Black woman elected to a Canadian legislature. Early in her political career, Brown became the first woman to run for leadership of a federal party when she ran for leadership of the federal New Democratic Party. Although her bid to lead the NDP was not successful, Brown’s political career was marked by advocacy for Canadian minorities and a focus on promoting equality.

See also: This is where beauty standards actually come from.

Jean Augustine (b. 1937)

Illustration of Jean Augustine
Azra Hirji

Politician, educator, and educator Jean Augustine became the first Black woman to be appointed to Canada’s federal Cabinet when she became the Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women. In her role, Augustine successfully advocated for federal recognition of the month of February as Black History Month. In 2007, Augustine was inducted as a Member of the Order of Canada in recognition of her contributions to Canadian politics.

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Senator Anne Clare Cools (b. 1943)

Illustration of Anne Clare Cools
Azra Hirji

In 1984, Clare Anne Cools became the first Black Senator in the Senate of Canada and the first Black woman senator in North America. Cools was a strong advocate for women and children, and survivors of domestic violence. When Cools retired from the Senate in 2018, she was its longest-serving member.

Michaëlle Jean (b. 1957)

Illustration of Michaelle Jean
Azra Hirji

Haitian Canadian journalist and filmmaker Michaëlle Jean became Canada’s first Black Governor General. As the Queen’s representative in Canada, she advocated for marginalized communities. Shortly after she completed her mandate as Governor General, in 2010, Haiti experienced a devastating earthquake. Jean served as the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Special Envoy for Haiti to support the country’s recovery efforts.

See also: Teaunna Gray spotlight: Why representation matters in storytelling and how this director is making it happen.

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