February marks Black History Month, a time to highlight Black Canadians’ accomplishments, history, and heritage. It’s also time to recognize the struggles and sacrifices made by many in their fight to be treated equitably in communities across Canada.
Canada’s rich history of Black Canadian culture dates back to the early 1600s. From the first Africans who arrived in Nova Scotia to the Black Loyalists who fought for freedom during the American Revolution, to the Underground Railroad, to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Black Canadians have made significant contributions to the social and economic development of Canada.
According to Statistics Canada, here are some key stats about Black Canadians:
- In 2021, over 1.5 million people in Canada reported being Black (+349,000 since 2016), accounting for 4.3% of Canada’s total population.
- Overall, the Black population in Canada reported more than 300 ethnic or cultural origins in 2021. The four most frequently reported origins were African, Jamaican, Haitian and Canadian.
- According to the 2021 Census, nearly one-third (32.4%) of the Black population aged 25 to 64 had a bachelor’s degree or higher, up from 27.0% in 2016.
- In December 2022, about two-thirds (66.6%) of Black Canadians aged 15 and older were employed.
The History of Black History Month
In the 1970s, the founders of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) delivered a petition to the City of Toronto to have the month of February formally proclaimed as Black History Month. In 1979, the society was successful in its request, and the first-ever Canadian proclamation was issued by the City of Toronto.
Many years later, the first Black History Month was observed in Nova Scotia in 1988, with Ontario following suit in 1993 after the OBHS successfully filed a petition to proclaim February as Black History Month.
Following these successes, the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month in December 1995. Over ten years later, in February 2008, the Motion to Recognize Contributions of Black Canadians and February as Black History Month was introduced and received unanimous approval. The motion was adopted on March 4, 2008, officially completing Canada’s parliamentary position on Black History Month.
Noteworthy Black Canadians
As we celebrate Black History Month, we honour the many Black Canadians who have made a difference in our communities. Here are just few noteworthy figures:
Viola Davis Desmond (1914 – 1965)
Desmond was a Black Canadian civil rights activist who challenged racial segregation in Nova Scotia in 1946. Her historic court case, which she lost, is credited with galvanizing Canada’s modern civil rights movement. Desmond was a beauty salon owner and entrepreneur who was arrested for refusing to leave a whites-only area in a movie theatre. She was fined and jailed for her refusal to comply with the segregation rules, and she became a symbol of resistance against unjust laws. Desmond was pardoned in 2010, and in 2018 she became the first Canadian woman to be featured on a banknote.
Dr. Clement Courtenay Ligoure (1886-1922)
Ligoure was born in Trinidad in 1866 and later became Halifax’s first Black doctor. When Dr. Ligoure moved to Halifax, he applied to join Canada’s armed forces as a medical officer. After facing continued discrimination and being denied hospital privileges, Dr. Ligoure established a private practice in his home in Halifax’s north end called the Amanda Hospital. His private practice served those injured in the aftermath of the Halifax Explosion on December 6, 1917, treating hundreds of injured community members for the weeks following the event.
Emma Stark (1856-1890)
Stark was born in 1856 in California and later relocated to Canada, living both on Salt Spring Island and in Nanaimo with her family. In 1874, at 18 years old, Emma became the first black teacher on Vancouver Island, influencing the lives of many children and leaving a legacy.
BC-Based Black History Organizations and Black History Month Education Resources
As we celebrate Black History Month, it’s also important for us to recognize the organizations highlighting the history of Black Canadians. The British Columbia Black History Awareness Society (BCBHAS) is a great example of this. The BCBHAS celebrates the historical and contemporary achievements and contributions of Black communities in British Columbia by creating an awareness of their history in this province and stimulating interest in their stories. This website offers a learning centre with resources, articles, reports, and videos for everyone, including educators, parents, students, families, and researchers.
Here are some additional resources to learn more about Black History Month:
- Anti-Slavery Society in Canada – Canadian Encyclopedia
- Black History Month in Canada’s Digital Collections
- Black History Canada Portal
- Canadian Encyclopedia: Black History in Canada
- Remember Africville
- Remembering Black Loyalists, Black Communities in Nova Scotia
- Underground Railroad – Historica Canada
There are many other ways to acknowledge and learn more about Black History Month, which include reading books, attending events, and engaging in conversations and activities related to Black Canadians. Whatever you choose, please remember that understanding, reconciliation and equity doesn’t come from just acknowledging one month. It’s important that we learn about the history and experiences of all peoples that make up Canada and make us the vibrant, rich, and diverse country that we get to call home. At the Abbotsford Community Foundation, we continue to do our own reflection, a work in progress, as we focus on our part in building a stronger, more caring community.