February is recognized in Canada and the United States as Black History Month. During this time, we honour and celebrate the Black Canadians who have made significant contributions to our country. There are a great many that are worthy of recognition, too many to name here in a single post. In fact, students have been learning about many of their achievements in school. But these four famous people are among the most influential to Canadians today, and for Black History Month, we are sharing their stories.
Lincoln Alexander – Hamilton, ON
The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander was an accomplished man. He was born in Toronto, served with the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War, and was educated at Hamilton’s McMaster University and Toronto’s Osgoode Hall School of Law. He became a partner in a Hamilton law firm in 1963 and passed the bar examination in 1965. In 1968, he was the first Black person elected to become a Member of Parliament. He was also federal Minister of Labour between 1979 and 1980.
In 1985, Lincoln set another first, when he was appointed Ontario’s 24th Lieutenant Governor, becoming the first member of a racialized community to serve as the Queen’s representative in Canada. In 2006, Hamilton recognized him as the “Greatest Hamiltonian of All Time.
Viola Desmond – Halifax, NS
If you’ve seen one of the recent $10 bills, then you’ve seen a picture of Viola Desmond, the first Black woman to appear on Canadian currency. While visiting a theatre on November 8, 1946, Viola refused to sit in the balcony – the designated seating area for Black people at the time – and sat on the ground floor, which was for White patrons only. Viola was arrested, found guilty of not paying the one-cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket, and sentenced to 30 days in jail and a $26 fine. The trial did not focus on the discriminatory practices of the theatre, and dissatisfied with the verdict, the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, with Viola’s help, took the case to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia, where her conviction was upheld.
It wasn’t until April 15, 2010, the province of Nova Scotia granted an official apology and a free pardon to Viola, who was no longer alive to receive it. In 2016, Finance Minister Bill Morneau and the Bank of Canada governor Stephen Poloz announced that Viola will be featured on the $10 bill, making her not only the first Black woman, but also the first Canadian woman to be featured on a Canadian banknote.
For elementary students interested in learning more about her history, our tutoring team recommends checking out Elizabeth MacLeod’s biography Meet Viola Desmond.
Willie O'Ree – Montreal, QB/ Fredericton, NB
Willie O'Ree played junior hockey in Quebec and Ontario before being signed by the Quebec Aces of the QHL in 1955. Midway through his second minor-league season with the Quebec Aces, O'Ree was called up to the Boston Bruins of the NHL to replace Leo Labine. His NHL debut with the Bruins on January 18, 1958 against the Montreal Canadiens, made him the first Black player in NHL league history.
As the first Black player in the sport, he faced intense discrimination, and he remained the only Black player in the league until another Canadian, Mike Marson, was drafted by the Washington Capitals in 1974. Willie came close to almost never playing at all, because in 1956, O'Ree had been blinded in his right eye by an errant puck – a truth that would have kept him from playing if the Bruins had known, but a secret he managed to keep. He’s still alive and living in his hometown of Fredericton, NB, working to promote diversity and inclusion in hockey programs.
The Honourable Jean Augustine – Toronto, ON
Jean Augustine immigrated to Ontario, Canada from Grenada in 1960. After immigrating, she spent decades advancing her education and career, participating in organizations to strengthen minority and women’s rights, and serving the people and City of Toronto with great passion and charisma.
In 1993, she entered politics as a Member of Parliament, becoming the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Commons. In 1995, she proposed Parliament recognize February as Black History Month, which passed unanimously. It is because of her that every February now celebrates the important contributions of Black Canadians to Canada’s history, culture, development, and heritage.
We hope you enjoying reading about these important achievements during Black History Month, and continue learning about other famous contributors to our country!
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