From the Canadian Heritage website
Historic Black Canadian Communities
Since 1996, the Government of Canada’s annual Black History Month campaign encourages people of all backgrounds to learn more about Black history in Canada. This brief overview documents some of the events that helped shape the contributions that Black people have made to all sectors of society well before this country was even called Canada.
The first person of African heritage known to have come to what is now Canada arrived over 400 years ago. In 1604, Mathieu Da Costa arrived with the French explorers Pierre Du Gua De Monts and Samuel de Champlain. Da Costa, a multilingual interpreter who spoke English, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Pidgin Basque, provided an invaluable link with the Mik’maq people encountered by the Europeans.
In 1628, Olivier LeJeune was recorded as the first enslaved African to live in Canada (i.e. New France). Olivier LeJeune’s birth name is not known, as he was taken from Africa as a young child and eventually given the last name of the priest who purchased him.
In May 1689, following complaints about labour shortages in New France, King Louis XIV of France gave permission for the colonists to enslave Pawnee Native Americans and Africans.
Between 1749 and 1782, most of the Black people brought to Nova Scotia were enslaved by English or American settlers. In 1750, there were about 400 enslaved and 17 free Black people living in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Although the system of slavery did expand in this period, by 1767 there were also 104 free Black people living in Nova Scotia (which included present-day New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island). In 1760, during the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France, the Articles of Capitulation, which ceded New France to Britain, permitted that Black people and Pawnees would remain enslaved.
During the War of American Independence (1775-1783), the British offered freedom to enslaved Africans in America who joined the British side during the war. Many saw this as an opportunity for freedom, and eventually 10 percent of the United Empire Loyalists coming into the Maritimes were Black. The Black Loyalists founded settlements throughout Nova Scotia. The largest was at Birchtown, near Shelburne, and other settlements were Brindley (Brinley) Town (near Digby), Preston (Guysborough County), Negro Line (now Southville, Digby County), Birchtown (Princedale–Virginia East–Graywood region, Annapolis County), and Old Tracadie Road (Guysborough County). The Black Loyalists were treated unfairly and given considerably smaller plots of land, fewer provisions, and were expected to work for lower wages. In 1790, about 1,200 Black Loyalists who had become dissatisfied with conditions in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, accepted the offer of the Sierra Leone Company (a British anti-slavery organization) to resettle in Sierra Leone, on the Atlantic coast of West Africa.
In 1793, the anti-slavery movement was emboldened by the actions of Chloe Cooley, an enslaved African woman in Upper Canada (now Ontario) who resisted being transported and sold into the United States. John Graves Simcoe, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, who supported abolition before coming to Canada, had heard about Cooley’s case. He introduced a law titled An Act to Prevent the further Introduction of Slaves and to limit the Term of Contracts for Servitude. This law freed enslaved people aged 25 and over and made it illegal to bring enslaved people into Upper Canada. The introduction of this Act in Upper Canada and court decisions in Nova Scotia in the 1790s contributed greatly to a decline of African enslavement in Canada, and made Canada a destination for those seeking freedom and an important base for the abolitionist movement.
Throughout the 1800’s, a number of historic Black communities were established across Canada. Some of these communities came as a result of war. Between 1800 and 1865, approximately 30,000 Black people came to Canada via the Underground Railway – the network of secret routes and safe houses used by enslaved Africans to escape into free American states and Canada with the support of abolitionists and their allies.
In 1807, the Act on the Abolition of the Slave Trade in the British Empire received Royal Assent and became law throughout the British Empire.
During the War of 1812, many Black people sided with the British Empire. The Coloured Corps was inaugurated in Upper Canada (Ontario), comprised of free and enslaved Black men, who fought in the Battle of Queenston Heights. In 1815, Black veterans of the War of 1812 received grants of land in Oro Township; however much of the land was not suited to agriculture and many of those who received grants found they had to seek out employment in other places. Other communities such as Amherstburg, Chatham, London, Woolwich and Windsor, Owen Sound and Toronto also grew in this period.
Nova Scotia’s Black communities were also reinvigorated during and after the War of 1812. Following a British offer to those who deserted the Americans, some 2,400 Black people from Georgia and the Chesapeake region of the United States either served in the British military or supported the war effort. After the war, the “Black Refugees” settled at Preston, Hammonds Plains, Beechville (‘Refugee Hill’), Five Mile Plains, Beaverbank, Prospect Road, Halifax, Dartmouth, and elsewhere. By 1834, the Black Refugees had created communities with African Baptist churches as well as societies such as the African Friendly Society and the African Abolition Society.
In 1833, the Act on the Abolition of Slavery in the British Empire, abolished enslavement in most British colonies, including Canada.
- In the early 1850’s, 2 important abolitionist newspapers were founded in Canada to support the global anti-slavery movement:
The Voice of the Fugitive was established in 1851 by Mary and Henry Bibb in Windsor, Ontario and reported on the Underground Railroad.
- The Provincial Freeman, which was published out of Toronto and later Chatham, was founded by Mary Ann and Isaac Shadd in 1853 – making Mary Ann Shadd the first Black woman in North America to own and publish a newspaper.
In 1858, nearly 800 free Black people left the oppressive racial conditions of San Francisco for a new life on Vancouver Island. Though still faced with intense discrimination, these pioneers enriched the political, religious and economic life of the colony. About 400 Black Californian families moved to Victoria or Salt Spring Island before the start of the gold rush.
By 1879, significant numbers of Black people started immigrating to Alberta from Oklahoma, as they had been unable to find equality despite being experienced farmers and were increasingly alarmed by a series of Ku Klux Klan lynchings. In Canada, however, they had to contend with attempts to prevent Black immigration.
As Canada moved into the 20th century, many of the Black communities founded before and just after Confederation established organizations and institutions that fostered their unique Canadian identities. More communities and organizations were introduced across Canada as immigration policies that had discriminated against Black people, amongst others, were abolished or reformed.
Over the course of the last 4 centuries, Black people have shaped their own identities in Canada while making important contributions to Canadian society.
Legacies and Institutions
Through nearly 4 centuries in what is now Canada, Black women have shaped their own identities while taking decisive actions to help ensure the survival, preservation, and growth of families and communities. As advocates and catalysts for change, Black women have created many important organizations that have advanced equality and human rights.
Midwives of the African Nova Scotian Communities
People of African descent have been in Nova Scotia since the early 1600’s. Larger migrations came during the late 1700’s to the early 1900’s. Through the early days of struggle, they had to be self-reliant. Helping bring new generations of babies into the world, midwives were an essential part of the African-Nova Scotian existence.
Midwives left their home at any hour of the night under many conditions to aid in the safe arrival of babies. Arriving with satchel in hand, their tools were clean cloths, scissors, and usually something to assist in making a meal. These women came not only to help with labour, they also helped maintain the family home and often stayed until the mothers were back on their feet.
Their experience, courage, and ultimately their faith guided them through regular deliveries and challenging birth situations. Their goals were to ensure babies took their first breath, and to keep hope even when the Doctor present had given up on a baby. Midwives went where they were needed, which sometimes took them into the surrounding white communities to assist with deliveries when the Doctor could not make it. Within the Black Communities in Nova Scotia, midwives delivered generations of babies well into the 1960’s.
Ladies Auxiliary of the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia
Between 1824 and 1891, a network of African Baptist churches was organized in Black communities throughout Nova Scotia. In 1854, these churches were regrouped into the African United Baptist Association (AUBA), where Black women were key members, organizers, and teachers. The Ladies Organization (Auxiliary) was born in 1917 during the AUBA’s Annual Session in East Preston, Nova Scotia, 12 years before women were declared persons under Canadian law. The first President was Sister Maude Sparks from Cherry Brook.
The Provincial Freeman, Ontario
The Provincial Freeman, a paper launched in Windsor, Ontario was co-founded by Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first Black female publisher in North America and the first female publisher in Canada. Dedicated to anti-slavery, temperance, and general literature, this weekly newspaper was published from March 24, 1853, to September 20, 1857, and covered the activities and issues relevant to Black people in Canada.
Coloured Women’s Club, Montreal
A group of Black women who, because other groups were not open to Black women, formed their own social club founded the Coloured Women’s Club of Montreal in 1902. From the beginning, members of the Club focused on the need of their community in the St. Antoine (Little Burgundy) district of the city. The Black women who formed the Club were following the examples of African American women such as Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, among others, who had created the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs which was founded in Washington, D.C. on July 21, 1896.
During the First and Second World Wars and the Great Depression, the Coloured Women’s Club helped to organize, feed, shelter, and care for community members in need. Their benevolent and charitable work was recognized in 1997 by the Ministère des relations avec les citoyens de l’immigration du Québec. The Anne Greenup Solidarity Prize is named in honour of the club’s first president, and is given to individuals or organizations that contribute to networking, generational solidarity, civic engagement , and belonging.
The Hour-a-Day Study Club, Windsor, Ontario
Founded in Windsor, Ontario in 1934, the Hour-A-Day Study Club,originally called ‘The Mothers’ Club’. Their pledge to study for one hour a day had a tremendous influence on the community as members of the Club became encouraged by their school achievements and each year students who excelled in their studies received the ‘Hour-A-Day Study Club’ scholarship awards. The Club also organized many social and cultural events such as the Parents’ Dinner, Mothers’ Day worship services and the Spring Musical.
The Club was very active in promoting the rights of young Black women in Canada . When young women were being prevented from entering nursing, the Club petitioned the provincial Minister of Health and the University of Toronto to have Black nurses admitted. Through the late 1940s to the early 1950s, Black women were gradually accepted as nursing students and eventually employed in hospitals across Canada. Study Club members also took up various social causes, including helping to plan Emancipation Day festivities.
Canadian Negro Women’s Association
Based in Toronto, Ontario, the Canadian Negro Women’s Association was originally formed in 1951 under the name Canadian Negro Women’s Club. The Association was dedicated to public education about Black history, providing scholarships to deserving Black students, and eventually organizing the Calypso Carnival (precursor to the Caribana Festival) as a fundraiser for other service projects. The Association was a key player in the creation of the Congress of Black Women of Canada.
Congress of Black Women of Canada
The Congress of Black Women of Canada (CBWC) was first convened in Toronto, Ontario in 1973 under the sponsorship of the Canadian Negro Women’s Association. Through their discussions, it became apparent that there was a need for a national organization that could address issues facing Black women in Canada. In 1974, the Montreal Regional Committee was founded (eventually becoming the first chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada). 2 years later, the delegates at a conference in Halifax set up a national organization, and in 1977, in Windsor, a National Steering Committee was established to build a communication network, and draft a constitution and an organizational structure. It was in Winnipeg, in 1980, where the national organization was launched, the constitution ratified and a national executive council was selected.
The Congress of Black Women remains dedicated to improving the lives of all Black women and their families in their local and national communities.