Black History Month 2021: Historic Black Canadians

February 22, 2021 | Nerissa

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Every year in February, we celebrate Black History Month in Canada. Black History Month was designed to:

  • Highlight Black achievements
  • Provide awareness of the African Diaspora
  • Gain an understanding of the trailblazers who may have struggled to pave a better way for the future
  • Honor historic members of the Black Community

The stories of the journeys, sacrifices, and outcomes can be relatable for many immigrants coming to Canada. 

I always think about the reasons members of my family came to Canada, and their reasons. I think about my mother, born in St. Vincent, who came to Canada to expand on her nursing education and be exposed to a new culture. My father, who was born in Guyana and immigrated to Canada, who sought new accounting prospects. As well my Aunt, from Trinidad, an aspiring educator who sought out Canadian life to achieve her goal of teaching young children. And my Uncle, a Vice-Principal in St. Vincent, with the desire to further his career in Canada.

Black History Month reminds me of their journeys, and the journeys of other Black people who have made a name for themselves as they made their mark here in Canada.

I wanted to highlight a few of them here. These are just some of many important Black Canadians.


Lincoln Alexander (First Black Lieutenant Governor of Ontario)


"Go to School, You're a Little Black Boy": The Honourable Lincoln. M. Alexander: A Memoir by Lincoln Alexander and Herb Shoveller

Lincoln Alexander was born in Toronto in 1922 to Caribbean immigrant parents. When the Second World War began, Lincoln was too young to enlist. Instead, he went to work in a factory where anti-aircraft guns were being made. In 1942 joined the Royal Canadian Air Force, but because of his poor eyesight he was unable to take part in combat. Instead of being discouraged, Lincoln went on to train to be a wireless operator for the Royal Canadian Air Force. When the war was over, Lincoln enrolled in McMaster University, earned his degree, and then pursued his law degree from Osgoode Hall. In 1953, he joined the first interracial law firm in Canada. He later became the first Black Member of Parliament in 1968 and was appointed to the Cabinet. He was chosen to be the Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, making him the first Black Canadian to be in an official position representing the British Monarchy.


Willie O'Ree (First Black Hockey Player in the National Hockey League)


Willie: The Game-Changing Story of the NHL's first Black Player by Willie O'Ree

Willie O'Ree was born in Frederiction in 1935. He was the youngest of 13 children. His grandparents came to Canada through the Underground Railroad to escape slavery in the United States. When he was growing up there were only two other Black families in Frederiction. From an early age, Willie loved playing hockey and became involved in organized sport. As he grew older the "colour barrier' was becoming more noticeable to him. He later moved to Quebec and then Ontario to play. When playing for the Kitchener Canucks, he was badly injured by a pick that hit his eye. Despite suffering 95% vision loss, Willie was determined to play for the NHL. He kept his injury secret because NHL rule states that players who are blind in one eye cannot play. In 1958, Willie became the first Black hockey player to play a game in the NHL. Despite experiences of racism, Willie continued to play and later became NHL's Director of Youth as well as an ambassador for NHL Diversity. Willie O'Ree was recognized for his dedication and skill with the Order of New Brunswick and the Order of Canada. In 2018 he was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.


Viola Desmond (First Black Woman to appear on Canadian Currency)


Viola Desmond: Her Life and Times by Graham Reynolds with Wanda Robson

Viola Desmond was born in Halifax in 1914. Following in the footsteps of her hard-working parents, she became an independent businesswoman. She opened the Desmond School of Beauty Culture which gave training opportunities to Black Women to help them confidently open their own business. Viola is also known for the most public racialized case in Canada. In 1946, she was forcibly removed from a theatre for sitting in the "Whites Only" section. Viola was arrested and jailed. In 2010, the government issued an official apology to the late Viola Desmond for being wrongfully jailed and fined. In 2018 Viola Desmond was selected by the minister of Finance to appear on the Canadian 10-dollar bill.

Jean Augustine (First Black Woman to be elected to the House of Commons)

Jean Augustine
Jean Augustine, 1987. Toronto Star Photograph Archive.

Jean Augustine was born in Grenada in 1937. She came to Canada in 1960 through a nanny contract program. When her contract ended, she enrolled in Teachers College. Jean found her passion as an elementary school teacher and worked her way up to becoming a principal in Toronto's public school system. Jean was also an activist in Toronto's Caribbean communities. She volunteered in organizations to help bring awareness to immigrant and women's rights, spoke out against violence against women, and about drug abuse and poverty. She was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1993, making her the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Commons. Jean Augustine was responsible for the act designating February as Black History Month in Canada.


Anne Clare Cools (First Black Canadian to be named to the Senate)

Anne Cools

Anne Clare Cools was born in Barbados in 1943. She came to Canada in 1957 and followed her passion for learning. She attended Thomas D'Arcy McGee Highschool in Montreal and went on to study psychology and sociology at McGill University. Anne founded one of Canada's first shelters for female victims of violence. She later served on the Parole Board of Canada. In 1984, Anne became the first Black Canadian to be named to the Senate and devoted 34 years to that position.

Isaac Phills (First Black man to receive the Order of Canada)

Isaac Phills was born in St. Vincent in 1896. When he came to Canada in 1916, he wanted to work in agriculture but positions were not available. Instead, he began to work in a steel plant. During the First World War, Isaac served in the No. 2 Construction Battalion, also known as the Black Battalion. It was Canada's only all-Black segregated military unit. When he was discharged from service, he went back to work at the steel plant and stayed there for another 45 years. Phills was determined to provide a decent life for his family and give back to the community. In 1967 Isaac Phills became the first Black Canadian to receive the Order of Canada for his gracious service to the country, his community and his family.


Further Reading

These are just some of the moving stores of proud, ambitious Black people that have called Canada their home, whether they came here by plane, the Underground Railroad, or were born here. For more great stories, check out these recommended reads.


Black Canadians: History, Experience, Social Conditions by Joseph Mensah


Who's Who in Black Canada: Black success and excellence in Canada: A Contemporary Directory by Dawn P Williams


100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women - 2018 Second Edition by Dr. Jean Augustine, Denise O'Neil Green and Dauna Jones-Simmonds


The Black Battalion 1916-1920: Canada's Best Kept Military Secret by Calvin W. Ruck


The Kids Book of  Black Canadian History by Rosemary Sadlier

Cool Black North

Cool Black North (DVD)

Cool Black North explores the unique and vibrant Canadian Black Community and its role in our country’s contemporary identity. 

Are you looking for more Black History Month recommended reads, virtual events, and more? Explore our TPL Black History Month webpage! For newcomers, we also have great resources on our New to Canada page. You can also access our Digital Archive for rare historical photos, maps, books, and more!