Black History Month 2023: Spotlight on 5 Historic Black Canadians
By Avreet Jagdev
February marks Black History Month, a time during which Canadians celebrate and acknowledge the history of Black Canadians and communities, many of which have transformed our very country. In honour of this year’s Black History Month, here are five Black Canadians that we are highlighting for their powerful roles in history:
Jean Augustine made history as the first Black Canadian woman to serve as a Member of Parliament. She immigrated to Canada in her young 20s, and pursued a Bachelor’s degree at the University of Toronto. As a Member of Parliament, she served the constituency of Etobicoke-Lakeshore in the Greater Toronto Area. She won four consecutive elections, until she decided to pass the torch on in 2006.
Viola Davis Desmond
Viola Davis Desmond was a civil rights activist and a businesswoman. She was best known for her courageous act of resistance against racial segregation. In November 1946, Desmond visited the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Despite requesting a seat on the ground floor, she was given a balcony ticket.
Upon realizing that she was refused her ticket because of her race, Desmond decided to take a seat on the ground floor anyway — an area reserved for Caucasians only. When she refused to exit her seat, the police were called. Desmond was physically dragged from her seat and jailed overnight. She refused the charges against her, and her case went to Nova Scotia’s Supreme Court. In 2018, she made history again by becoming the first Canadian woman to be regularly circulated on a $10 bill.
Lincoln Alexander is widely known for being the first Black Canadian to serve as a member of Parliament in the House of Commons, Cabinet Minister, and Lieutenant Governor. His legacy is recognized annually on the 21st of January, which in 2015 was officially made Lincoln Alexander Day. He was a recipient of honorary degrees from six universities, and was honored with several awards, including Queen Elizabeth II’s Golden and Diamond Jubilee Medals.
Violet King was the first ever Black woman lawyer in Canada. Born in Calgary, she knew from a young age that she wanted to pursue law. To pay for her degree at the University of Alberta, she taught piano lessons in her free time. King accomplished many milestones: she was the first Black Canadian to graduate from law school in the province of Alberta, and was the only Black woman in her graduating class. Through her accomplishments, she paved the way for other BIPOC and women to pursue law.
Josiah Henson was a Canadian author and spiritual leader who was born into slavery in Maryland. In 1830, he escaped to Canada. As a leader in his community, he mobilized abolitionists to create the Dawn Settlement; this was a place for survivors and refugees of enslavement to become educated and learn skills that would help them become self-sufficient.
These five Canadians paved the way for those after them, inspiring millions of people on their way. During Black History Month, it is imperative that we take the extra step to learn their stories and recognize the accomplishments they achieved.