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Black History in Canada

A Black person walking by a banner image that say Black Lives Matter

Brief history of Black people in Canada

  • The first recorded Black person to arrive to Turtle Island (Canada) was an African named Mathieu de Costa who arrived in 1608 to serve as an interpreter between Mi'kmaq peoples and European colonizers.
  • The first recorded instance of African enslavement in Canada involves Olivier Le Juene, a young boy from Madagascar. He arrived in Quebec in 1628 and was sold by his owner to a clerk of the colony. The enslavement of Black people in Canada was a part of the larger process of the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
  • Between 1783 and 1785, more than 3,000 Black people arrived to Canada from the United States following the American Revolutionary War which promised enslaved people freedom and land if they fought alongside British forces. Many of these Black British Loyalists settled in Nova Scotia and were met with hostility and racial discrimination and forced to live on inhospitable land. Despite this, Black settlers developed tight-knit, vibrant, yet often marginalized, communities, like Africville, located on the outskirts of Halifax, Nova Scotia. 
  • In 1793, Upper Canada introduced the Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada, which granted the gradual abolition and any enslaved person arriving in the province was automatically declared free. This Act was enacted in response to the resistance displayed by an enslaved Black woman named Chloe Cooley. 
  • From the late 18th century to 1861, between 30,000 and 50,000 Black freedom seekers in the United States fled to Canada via the Underground Railroad after the enactment of the first Fugitive Slave Law. Black abolitionists like Harriet Tubman, Josiah Henson, and Mary and Henry Bibb worked as "conductors" on the Underground Railroad, courageously risking their own freedom to guide and support other enslaved Black folk seeking refuge in Canada.
  • The Slavery Abolition Act took effect on August 1, 1834, making enslavement illegal in most parts of the British Empire and freeing over 800,000 Africans across the Caribbean, South Africa and Canada. 
  • In 1910, the Government of Canada implemented the Immigration Act which barred immigrants into Canada from races deemed undesirable. Very few Black people entered Canada in the following decades. 
  • Beginning in the 1950s, several substantial changes to immigration policies followed by the promotion of diversity and multicultural values in the country, led to an influx of Black asylum seekers and immigrants settling in Canada from the Caribbean and parts of Africa.

Demographics of Black people in Canada

  • In 20 years, the Black population in Canada has doubled in size: going from 573,860 persons in 1996 to 1,198,540 persons in 2016.
  • The Black population now accounts for 3.5% of Canada's total population.
  • Today, most of the Black population in Canada were born in the country. In 2016, more than four in ten Black Canadians were born in Canada.
  •  (PDF file) Community organizations (external link)  estimate that 10% of the African Canadian population identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and/or queer.
  • The Black population is younger than the average population in Canada. In 2016, the median age for the Black population was 29.6 years, compared to 40.7 years for the total population.
Two Black people swinging a child in the air by their hands
  • Anti-Black racism (external link)  is prejudice, attitudes, beliefs, stereotyping and discrimination that is directed at Black people and/or of African descent and is rooted in their unique history and experience of enslavement. Anti-Black racism is deeply entrenched in Canadian institutions, policies and practices, such that anti-Black racism is either functionally normalized or rendered invisible to the larger white society. Anti-Black racism is manifested in the legacy of the current social, economic and political marginalization of Black Canadians in society such as the lack of opportunities, lower socio-economic status, higher unemployment, significant poverty rates and overrepresentation in the criminal justice system.

Facts and figures on anti-Black racism in Canada

A Black man sitting smiling in front of a laptop
  • Today, Black students are four times more likely to be expelled from a high school in Toronto than their white counterparts. 
  • Black university graduates earn only 80 cents for every dollar earned by white university graduates – despite having the same credentials.
  • Black workers are twice as likely as Asian workers and four times as likely as white workers to report experiencing racial discrimination in major decisions at workplaces in Canada.
  • 96% of Black Canadians surveyed in The Blackness in Canada Project (external link)  say that racism is a problem in the workplace, with 78% believing that it is a severe problem.
  • More than one in five Black Canadians surveyed in The Blackness in Canada Project (external link)  say that the police have unfairly stopped them in the past 12 months.
  • The first Black History Month in Canada was observed in 1988 in Nova Scotia and later renamed African Heritage Month. On March 4, 2008, a motion was unanimously passed to recognize Black History Month across Canada thanks to Black leaders such as Dr. Daniel G. Hill, Wilson O. Brooks, Rosemary Sadlier, the Honourable Donald H.Oliver, and the Honourable Jean Augustine.
  • On March 24, 2021, the House of Commons voted unanimously to officially designate August 1 as Emancipation Day, the anniversary of the day slavery was abolished across the British Empire in 1833. 
  • Though Black History Month and Emancipation Day are important opportunities to recognize and celebrate the resilience, achievements and contributions of Black Canadians and their communities, both past and present, Black history is Canadian history and should be recognized year round.
A Black child hugging a Black woman
  • The Honourable Lincoln Alexander (external link)  was a leading figure in the fight for racial equality in Canada. In 1968, he became the first Black Canadian to have a seat in the House of Commons and was later appointed the Minister of Labour in 1979, making him the first Black Canadian to serve in Cabinet. In 1985, Alexander became the first Black lieutenant-governor of Ontario. Until his death in 2021, Alexander used his positions to fight prejudice and racism. In the following year, the Legislative Assembly of Ontario declared January 21 as Lincoln Alexander Day.
  • Marie Joseph Angélique (external link)  (born circa 1705) was a Black woman enslaved in Montreal, Quebec who was accused of committing arson after a fire destroyed 46 buildings in Montréal’s merchants' quarter. Angélique was hanged on June 21, 1734 on circumstantial evidence. Angéliques story went on to symbolize Black resistance and freedom.
  • The Honourable Jean Augustine (external link)  was the first Black Canadian woman to be elected to the House of Commons, the first Black Canadian woman to be appointed to the federal Cabinet, and the first Fairness Commissioner of the Government of Ontario. 
  • Carrie Best (external link)  was a journalist, civil rights activist and cofounder of The Clarion, the first newspaper to be owned and published by Black Nova Scotians which called to end racial discrimination and encourage positive change. Best later hosted her own radio show called The Quiet Corner, which aired for 12 years and was broadcast on four radio stations throughout Canada’s Maritime Provinces. 
  • Mary and Henry Bibb (external link)  were freedom seekers, conductors on the Underground Railroad   and part of the North American Convention of Colored Freemen in 1851. The couple also founded Voice of the Fugitive, an abolitionist newspaper, and they established schools to provide non-discriminatory education for Black children and adults. 
  • Dionne Brand (external link)  is a renowned and bestselling queer poet, novelist and director. Her work often centres around themes of anti-racist and anti-capitalist activism as well as queer relationships and erotics. Brand was Toronto's Poet Laureate from 2009 to 2012, and in 2017, she was named to the Order of Canada. 
  • Mary Ann Shadd Cary (external link)  was the first Black woman to publish a newspaper in North America when she established the Provincial Freeman. In her role as a teacher, she established a racially integrated school for Black children in Windsor and wrote educational pamphlets promoting settlement in Canada. Mary was also an advocate for many causes including the abolition of slavery, education and women’s right and one of the first Black women to complete a law degree before becoming a human rights lawyer.
  • Viola Davis Desmond (external link)  was a business woman who was arrested and charged for tax evasion when she refused to move from the segregated seating area reserved for white patrons at Roseland Theatre. Desmond refused to accept the charges against her and pay the fine, resulting in her case going to the Nova Scotia Supreme Court. Although Desmond ultimately lost her appeal, her act of resistance directly challenged segregation and inspired Canada’s civil rights movement. Decades after her death, Desmond was formally pardoned and in 2018, she became the first Black person and the first Canadian woman featured on a regularly circulating Canadian $10 bill.
  • Albert Jackson (external link)  and his family came to Canada as freedom seekers. In 1882, he became the first Black mail carrier in Canada. Jackson faced racism on the job when his co-workers refused to train him and his story was debated in the press for weeks until the support of the Black community in Toronto led to his reinstatement as a postal worker by Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald. He worked as a postal worker for 36 years and, in 2019, Canada Post issued a stamp in honour of Albert Jackson’s legacy. 
  • Angela James (external link)  is a former ice hockey player, who was known as the “the Wayne Gretzky of women's hockey” and led the Canadian women’s hockey team to four world championships. In 2010, James was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, making her one of the first two women, the first openly gay player, and the second black athlete to ever be inducted. 
  • Elijah McCoy (external link)  was born to formerly enslaved parents who fled to Canada from the United States. After studying mechanical engineering in Scotland, he became known for his innovations in industrial lubrication, inventing the portable ironing board and holding more than 50 patents throughout North America and Europe. McCoy’s invention of the lubricating cup that distributed oil evenly over an engine's moving parts went on to mold the cars that we drive today.
  • Jackie Shane (external link)  was a pioneering transgender performer that was prominent in the Toronto music scene in the 1960s. Shane was known for openly celebrating her sex and sexuality at a time when doing so was considered dangerous through her music and sold out shows. Shane’s authentic and explosive performances, including her signature monologues that broached topics of romance and sexuality in a way that was ahead of her time, made her a local celebrity in Toronto and known in Montreal, Los Angeles and Boston.

Resources at the university

Self-educate to learn more

Watch the Dialogue + Disruption: Anti-Black Racism 101 seminar online

This video includes hard captions. Watch the video with ASL interpretation.

We invite you to watch this 90-minute online seminar to increase your understanding of anti-Black racism, including tools to name, disrupt, challenge, confront and ultimately eradicate anti-Black racism. This seminar was led by the Education, Awareness and Outreach unit in the OVPECI.

Contributors will guide participants through:

  • the historical nature and context of anti-Black racism in Canada
  • the impacts of anti-Black racism on Black people
  • language to empower you to engage in critical discussions about anti-Black racism
  • skillful ways you can use your privilege to support the eradication of anti-Black racism and challenge white supremacy
  • the importance of committing to self-education to continue to learn and advocate against anti-Black racism
  • the meaning of solidarity and intersectionality in the context of allyship