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5 Black Canadians Who Impacted Canadian History

When it comes to telling the story of Canadian history, the contributions of important Black Canadians are sometimes overlooked. These are 5 Black Canadians who made important contributions to Canadian history.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823–1893)

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was an activist, educator, publisher and journalist. She was the first Black woman to publish a newspaper – called The Provincial Freeman – in North America. As an educator, Shadd Cary established a racially integrated school for Black children in Windsor, Ontario, and as an activist, she advocated for the rights of Black people and women.

Lucie and Thornton Blackburn (Thornton 1812–1890)

Lucie and Thornton Blackburn were a couple who escaped from enslavement in Louisville, Kentucky. They initially escaped to Michigan when slave hunters found, re-captured and arrested the couple. While they were being detained, Lucie and Thornton escaped a second time and arrived in Canada. When the Canadian courts refused to extradite the Thorntons into enslavement in the United States, it cemented Canada’s reputation as a haven for formerly enslaved Black people.

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823–1915)

Mifflin Wistar Gibbs was a businessman, politician and community leader who moved from San Francisco to Victoria, British Columbia because of racial injustices in the United States. In BC, Gibbs was elected to Victoria City Council and used his public speaking and community organization abilities to encourage racial integration and fight against segregation in churches and theatres in Victoria. For his contributions as a politician and community leader in the Victoria community, Parks Canada recognizes Gibbs as a person of National Historic Significance.

Viola Davis Desmond (1914–1965)

Businesswoman Viola Davis Desmond owned and operated a beauty parlour and beauty school in Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1946, she went to a movie theatre and chose to sit on the ground floor, a section of the theatre reserved for white patrons only. She was arrested, tried and convicted of tax evasion for not paying the one-cent tax difference on the ground floor ticket. The conviction was upheld. In 2010, Nova Scotia granted Desmond an official pardon and apology for the racism that she and other Black Nova Scotians were subjected to. In 2016, Desmond became the first Canadian woman to appear on a Canadian banknote.

Lincoln Alexander (1922–2012)

Air force veteran, lawyer, and politician Lincoln Alexander was the first Black Member of Parliament and the first Black federal Cabinet Minister. In 1985, he was appointed as Canada’s Lieutenant Governor, becoming the first visible minority to hold this position. As Lieutenant Governor, Alexander’s mandate focused on youth and education. For his contributions to Canadian politics, the Right Honourable Lincoln Alexander was appointed to the Order of Canada at the rank of Companion.


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