According to the 2001 Canadian Census, there are 593,335 people who identify as Black and of that number 70,000 also claim European ancestry.
78.4% of Black Canadians are clustered in five cities: Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Halifax and the Canadian capital city of Ottawa. 70% of the Canadian Black population is further concentrated in Montreal and Toronto.
Black Canadians are not recent arrivals. The first African to arrive would be navigator Mathieu da Costa, a free man who was hired as a translator for Samuel de Champlain's 1605 excursion. Unfortunately in 1628 the first enslaved ones would arrive in Canada as well.
While the folks in Halifax and the provinces of New Brunswick and Nova Scotia trace their heritage to our escaped ancestors and loyalists who settled there after the Revolutionary War, many of our peeps who arrived in Canada via the Underground Railroad eventually settled in Windsor, Chatham, London, Hamilton, Collingwood, Toronto and other rural areas in southern Ontario. Others trace their heritage to Nigeria or the Caribbean and half of Canada's Black population is of Jamaican origin.
While Black Canadians have had major impacts on Canadian history, politics, the media and the arts in their country, they have also influenced the culture and history of their southern cousins as well.
The NAACP's progenitor, the Niagara Movement was the result of a 1905 meeting held in Niagara Falls, Ont. The first woman publisher in North America, Mary Ann Shadd moved there after the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850 and later became the first woman to attend Howard University's law school. Inventor Elijah McCoy was born there.
The influence is even more pronounced in the entertainment world. Singers Tamia Washington-Hill, Deborah Cox and Evangelist Denise Matthews (aka Vanity) are respectively from Windsor, ON, Toronto, and Niagara Falls, ON.
A Motown group called Bobby and the Vancouvers discovered Gladys Knight. Bobby also brought the Jackson 5 to Berry Gordy's attention after the J5 performed as an opening act for them. Another interesting tidbit from Bobby and the Vancouvers is that Tommy Chong was their guitar player (yes, of Cheech and Chong fame and daddy of actress Rae Dawn Chong). Actresses Cree Summer, Tonya Lee Williams and Kandyse McClure of Battlestar Galactica fame were either born there or have a Canadian parent. Melyssa Ford, the current poster model that almost every Black male and rapper drools over is from Toronto along with novelist Kayla Perrin.
Baseball fans of my era remember Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame pitcher Ferguson Jenkins, who was from Chatham, ON. Before Ben Johnson, the most famous Canadian sprinter was world record holder and three-time Olympian Harry Jerome. Donovan Bailey won the 100m gold medal at the Atlanta Games.
The best hockey player on the planet is considered to be Calgary Flames captain and 2002 Olympic gold medalist Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames. Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr tended the nets for the four time Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers. ESPN analyst John Saunders is Canadian as well.
Like their southern cousins African-Canadians have also faced faced discrimination and prejudice. In some cases their experiences eerily mirror ours.
In an incident that galvanized civil rights forces in Canada, on November 6, 1946 Viola Desmond was arrested for sitting in the 'White's Only' section of a theater in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia and charged with tax evasion. The NSAACP supported her as the case rose all the way to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case.
In 1954 Blacks visiting rural Dresden, ON were denied service in two restaurants there. The Toronto Telegram sent Black testers to those same restaurants that confirmed the discrimination and published the the story. It confirmed what Black Canadians had suspected all along even though the provincial government only ten years earlier had passed the Racial Discrimination Act on March 14, 1944.
Civil rights activists would persuade the Canadian government to dismantle the odious immigration polices designed to keep Blacks out of Canada. Anti-discrimination laws and policies subsequently were enacted that ended Jim Crow-style laws there and put Canada on the road to acquiring its world-renowned reputation as an oasis of diversity and tolerance.
It's a reputation that we in the States would do well to emulate.
That reputation drew Michaelle Jean's family to Canada from Haiti. She was born there in 1957 but her family relocated to Montreal in 1968 to escape the Duvalier regime. She grew up to become a journalist and commentator for the CBC and Radio-Canada and the first Black Governor General of Canada. She was nominated by former prime minister Paul Martin and assumed the office on September 27, 2005.
Black Canadians continue to make their marks on the world stage inside and outside their country. We're proud of our shared history with our Canadian cousins as part of the African diaspora. We Americans need to exert more effort on the southern side of the border to familiarize ourselves with Canadian Black history since it's another chapter of our story as well.
TransGriot note: photos-Her Excellency the Rt. Honorable Michaelle Jean, the Governor General of Canada, Mathieu da Costa artist's rendition, Mary Ann Shadd, Melyssa Ford, Jarome Iginla, Viola Desmond, Michaelle Jean throne speech.