In countries around the world, including Canada and the United States, February is Black History Month. Evolving out of Negro History Week, launched in 1926, by American historian Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month invites us to recognize, celebrate, and honour the lives of Black people who transformed the fabric of our society. The stories, experiences, and accomplishments of Black Canadians span hundreds of years and include the histories of African, South American, Caribbean, European, and American people.
Black history is complex, and much of it is difficult. Canada as we know it exists because of the contributions and labour, both forced and paid, of Black people. From the grueling 17th century to the eye-opening 1980s, here is one small segment of the long history of some of Canada’s first workers.
early canadian history
Mathieu de Coste was the first Black man on record to arrive in Canada in 1608. Although he was favoured by European explorers for his language skills and served as interpreter of the Mi'kmaq language to the governor of Acadia, the thousands of Black people who arrived after him were not so privileged. Like in many countries in the Western Hemisphere, the first Black workers in Canada were enslaved. Canadians are often proud to be a country that welcomed Black people seeking freedom from slavery in the United States. Although it’s true that the Underground Railroad lead many Black Americans to a safe haven, Canada did more than just witness the transatlantic slave trade.
From the late 16th to early 19th century, a trade triangle developed across the Atlantic. European merchants travelled to Africa to exchange goods for enslaved people, who were then transported to the Americas under inhumane conditions. Many would die. The surviving individuals were sold to North American slave-owners to produce raw goods that could be transported back to Europe. In this, enslaved African people played a crucial role in the development of North America’s economy.
Alongside slavery, the practice of indentured servitude affected thousands of Black people, who would sign contracts committing to a certain number of years of unpaid labour in exchange for food and shelter. Although indentured servitude was similar to slavery in its cruel and exploitative conditions, individuals were freed once the contract ended. Many enslaved Black people in British North America (what is now Canada) were forced to work as indentured servants even after being freed. It wasn’t until the late 18th century that attitudes towards slavery and indentured servitude began to change. Although various Canadian jurisdictions began to abolish slavery throughout the early 1800s, slavery was only made illegal in the British Empire in 1834.
the industrial revolution of the 20th century
Black Canadian workers were essential to the Canadian economy throughout the 20th century. Their contributions to war efforts took many forms. Despite persistent racial discrimination and segregation in the military, the first black military unit was created. Thousands of Black men, determined to fight, also joined regular units. Many of these men earned medals and recognition for their bravery during the war. Throughout the First World War, Black groups and individuals also worked to manufacture essential goods at home, volunteered as labourers and in hospitals, and helped raise funds. Due to their willingness to support the country, Black women were often assigned the most dangerous tasks: working with explosives in ammunition factories.
The length and difficulty of the Second World War lead to the acceptance of Black Canadians into the Regular Army and officer corps. Although segregation was still common, Black men served alongside their white counterparts, both at home and abroad. The Second World War created more roles for Black Canadians than ever before. Their contribution and service to Canada during this period shows how increasingly integrated they were in Canadian communities.
In the early 20th century, the arrival of Black Caribbean people to Nova Scotia brought a new workforce to Canada. Although many came to work in Cape Breton’s steel mills, a large number of immigrant men were hired to work on the railway and in sleeping cars. The newly built transcontinental railway connected Canada’s coasts and represented national achievement and economic growth, but it also harboured severe racial inequality and cruel labour practices. During this period, Black men were seen as a source of cheap and abundant labour. These porters did work that was often demeaning, under poor conditions. They were also treated differently from white porters, who received promotions and joined unions. With growing frustration within the Black community, the fight for legislative change began. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, the first Black railway union in North America, was created in the United States, with branches popping up across major Canadian cities. This led to improvements in the working conditions on the Canadian railway, with Canadian Pacific Rail agreeing to increase wages and offer more time off. The powerful actions of Black porters reflected the struggle of all Black workers in Canada, which began a movement for change.
civil rights movements in the post-war era
The 1940s brought forth a period of legislative change across Canada, beginning with Ontario’s Racial Discrimination Act in 1944. This historic act was Canada’s first anti-discrimination legislation, banning the display or publication of discriminatory matters based on race or religion. This was followed by British Columbia’s Social Assistance Act in 1945, Saskatchewan’s Bill of Rights in 1947, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. 1948 was also the year the Election act was passed, which prohibited Canadians from being excluded from federal elections based on race. Leonard Braithwaite became the first Black person to be elected to the provincial legislature as the Liberal member of parliament for Etobicoke, Ontario. A decade of hard work from civil rights activists lead lawmakers to pass a federal law that prohibited discrimination and promoted equal opportunity, but it wasn’t until 1960 that Parliament passed the first Canadian Bill of Rights, with the goal of protecting freedom of speech, religion, and equality.
The fight for civil and worker’s rights continued throughout the second half of the 20th century. Wilson Head founded the Urban Alliance on Race Relations in 1975, an organization that is still dedicated to fighting racial and ethnic discrimination. The Coalition of Black Trade Unionists was also created during this period. Together, they fought for the representation of racial minorities in the Canadian Labour Congress and Ontario Federation of Labour Boards.
Half a century of political change created an important place for Black workers in Canada. However, social change is often harder. Even though discrimination is prohibited and Black Canadians legally have equal access to opportunities, the reality of being a Black worker in Canada today is much different.