Trailblazing Black Canadian Women to Celebrate This Month (and Every Month)

February is Black History Month in Canada, a time when we take twenty-nine days to recognize and celebrate the Canadians of African descent who contributed so much to Canada’s culture, history and heritage.

And though we are grateful to the wonderful woman (spoiler alert: she’s listed below!) to whom we owe the creation of Black History Month in Canada, we feel that the legacies of these incredible women, and the women who continue to carry the torch of racial equality and justice in our country, deserve to be applauded all year round.

So, let us begin today, by sharing with you a few of the Black Canadian women who blazed the trails of freedom and equality in our country.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

“The fact that somebody is displeased is no evidence that we are wrong.” 

– Mary Ann Shadd Cary

Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born in Free Delaware and moved to Windsor, Ontario seeking refuge following the establishment of the The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. Once there, Mary Ann opened a school for Black children in Windsor and then went on to become the first Black woman to open a newspaper which operated under the slogan: “Self-Reliance is the Fine Road to Independence.”

Mary Ann dedicated her life to activism, lending her eloquent voice and considerable intelligence to causes, such as that of the abolition of slavery, education and the women’s suffrage movement.

During the latter part of her life, Mary Ann returned to her native United States to become a recruitment agent for the Union Army during the Civil War, after which she enrolled at Howard University and became one of the first Black women to complete a law degree. She went on to become a civil rights lawyer and one of the first Black women to vote in a national election.

The Honourable Jean Augustine

“Being the first Black feels good, yes, but more than that, it says to others and to ourselves that Blacks can be in every place in society.”

– Jean Augustine

Jean Augustine is an exemplary political leader, tireless social activist and educator who has achieved many incredible “firsts” in Canada.

Born in St. George’s, Grenada, Jean Augustine lost her father at a young age and was raised by her loving grandmother.

Jean came to Canada in the 1960’s where she pursued her career as a teacher and became active in Toronto’s community as a social advocate for women’s and minority rights.  

In 1993, she entered politics and made history when she became the first Black Canadian woman to be elected to the House of Commons. Two years later, she proposed a motion to recognize February as Black History Month which passed unanimously. Since then, Jean has continued to open doors for Black Canadians and other visible minorities by serving as Minister of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, member of the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada, and member of the Citizenship and Immigration Committee.

Violet King

“My dream is to become a criminal lawyer.” -Violet King

As a high school student in Alberta, Violet King knew what she wanted to do with her life. She aspired to be a lawyer and did not let the fact that she had never met another female lawyer – let alone another Black female lawyer – stop her from enrolling in the University of Alberta’s law program in 1948.

When Violet graduated in 1953, she became the first Black person in Alberta to graduate law school and be admitted to the bar. In that moment, she realized her childhood dream and made history as Canada’s first Black female lawyer.

Following graduation, she practiced law in Calgary and became a passionate advocate for racial equality, the underprivileged, immigrants and women’s workplace rights. Violet also went to Ottawa work for Citizenship and Immigration and then moved to the U.S. where she worked for the YMCA and later became the organization’s first woman to be appointed to a senior executive position.

Viola Desmond

“But when the usher came again and said, ‘I’m going to have to get a manager.’ Viola said, ‘Get the manager. I’m not doing anything wrong.’”

– Wanda Desmond, Viola’s sister

Viola Desmond was a Canadian businesswoman who managed a beauty salon and beauty college in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

In November 1946, Viola decided to go to see a movie at the Roseland Theatre while her car was being repaired. She refused to sit in the balcony, which was designated for Blacks, and chose to sit on the ground floor, which was reserved for whites only.

When she refused to leave the section, she was dragged out of the theatre and was arrested.

Even though she had originally offered to pay the higher price, Viola was found guilty of “tax evasion” because of the penny difference in tax on the floor ticket. Viola was sentenced to 30 days in jail and fined $25 for her refusal to abide by the discriminatory practices of her time. She appealed the case, immediately becoming an icon for the civil rights movement in Nova Scotia, but the conviction was upheld by the Supreme Court in Canada.

Eventually, Viola moved to New York where she passed away at the age of 50, but in 2010, the Province of Nova Scotia issued an official apology and pardon to Viola, which was received by her 83-year-old sister Wanda Desmond. Four years ago, in 2016, Viola became the first woman to be featured on a Canadian banknote.

There are so many Canadian women of African descent to celebrate, please share with us who you are honouring for Black History Month in the comments below.