The Fred Christie Case (1939) is a decision of the Supreme Court of Canada that allowed private businesses to discriminate on the basis of freedom of commerce. In July 1936, Fred Christie and two friends went to the York Tavern attached to the Montreal Forum to have a beer. The staff refused to serve them because Christie was Black. Christie sued, eventually bringing his case to the Supreme Court, which ruled that the York Tavern was within its rights to refuse to serve people on the basis of race. The case reveals an era of legalized racism , while its facts hide the subtle ways that racism operated in early 20th-century Canada.
The ancestors of the Maroons of Jamaica were enslaved Africans who had been brought there by the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, and later by the British (who captured Jamaica from Spain in 1655), to work its lucrative sugar plantations. The word maroon was widely used to describe a runaway, and maroonage to denote the act and action of escaping enslavement, whether temporarily or permanently. After a series of wars with the colonial government in Jamaica, one group of Maroons was deported to Nova Scotia in 1796. While Maroon communities existed in Nova Scotia for only four years before they were sent to Sierra Leone, their legacy in Canada endures.1
Lincoln MacCauley Alexander, CC, QC, OOnt, lawyer, parliamentarian, public servant, lieutenant-governor of Ontario (born 21 January 1922 in Toronto, ON; died 19 October 2012 in Hamilton, ON). Alexander was the first Black Canadian Member of Parliament, cabinet minister and lieutenant-governor (Ontario).
Viola Irene Desmond (née Davis), businesswoman, civil libertarian (born 6 July 1914 in Halifax, NS; died 7 February 1965 in New York, NY). Viola Desmond built a career and business as a beautician and was a mentor to young Black women in Nova Scotia through her Desmond School of Beauty Culture. It is, however, the story of her courageous refusal to accept an act of racial discrimination that provided inspiration to a later generation of Black persons in Nova Scotia and in the rest of Canada. In December 2016, it was announced that Desmond would be the first Canadian woman depicted on the face of a Canadian banknote — the $10 note in a series of bills released in 2018.1
The vast continent of Africa and its complex array of peoples has not had a close relationship with Canada. Prior to 1960, black Africans comprised a very small, scattered and almost unknown group of newcomers to Canada, although Africans of European and Asian ancestry had a clearer presence.
On 15 April 1947, Jackie Robinson played in his debut game with the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play in the major leagues in the modern era. Prior to that point, professional baseball in the United States was segregated, with African Americans playing in the Negro leagues. When Robinson broke Major League Baseball’s colour barrier in 1947, he entered American history books. What many baseball fans may not realize, however, is that Robinson was embraced by Canadian fans one year earlier as a member of the Montreal Royals, a farm team for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The history of Black Canadian voting rights is marked by contrasting shifts. Enslaved during the period 1600–1834, Black persons could not vote. Emancipated, they were entitled to the rights, freedoms and privileges enjoyed by British subjects, including the franchise; however, racial discrimination did at times impede Black Canadians’ right to vote. The rights and freedoms of Black women were further restricted by virtue of their sex.
Black people have lived in Canada since the beginnings of transatlantic settlement. Although historically very few have arrived directly from their ancestral homeland in the continent of Africa, the term "African Canadian" became increasingly popular in the 1990s to identify all descendants of Africa regardless of their place of birth.
The Underground Railroad was a secret network of abolitionists who helped African Americans escape from enslavement in the American South to free Northern states or to Canada. It was the largest anti-slavery freedom movement in North America, having brought between 30,000 and 40,000 fugitives to British North America (Canada).
In early Canada, the enslavement of African peoples was a legal instrument that helped fuel colonial economic enterprise. Enslavement was introduced by French colonists in New France in the early 1600s, and lasted until it was abolished throughout British North America in 1834.
Michael Lee-Chin, businessman, investor and philanthropist (born 3 January 1951 in Port Antonio, Jamaica). Lee-Chin is president and chairman of Portland Holdings, a private investment company. According to Canadian Business magazine, Lee-Chin has an estimated net worth of more than $3.95 billion (as of 2017) and was ranked the 20th wealthiest Canadian. He is also one of the richest Jamaicans. Lee-Chin is also a dedicated philanthropist and has pledged and donated more than $60 million to hospitals, universities and, most notably, the Royal Ontario Museum, where the Michael Lee-Chin Crystal is named in honour of his $30-million pledge.
Angela James, hockey player (born 22 December 1964 in Toronto, ON). Known as "the Wayne Gretzky of women's hockey," Angela James was a pioneering and dominant force in women's hockey during the 1980s and 1990s. James led the Canadian women’s hockey team to four world championships (1990, 1992, 1994, and 1997). She was also one of the first three women to be inducted into the International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame. When James was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame (in Toronto) in 2010, she was one of the first two women, the first openly gay player, and the second black athlete to ever be inducted.
Charles Lightfoot Roman, MD, CM, surgeon, author, researcher, lecturer (born 19 May 1889 in Port Elgin, ON; died 8 June 1961 in Valleyfield, QC). Charles Lightfoot Roman was one of the first Black Canadians to graduate from McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine and became a recognized expert in industrial medicine. He was also one of the first Black Canadians to enlist for service in the First World War, and was the only known Black person to serve with the Canadian General Hospital No. 3 (McGill). Lightfoot Roman was also likely the first Black Grand Master of a traditional Masonic lodge.
Order-in-Council P.C. 1324 was approved on 12 August 1911 by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The purpose of the order was to ban Black persons from entering Canada for a period of one year because, it read, “the Negro race…is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.”
Harry Winston Jerome, OC, track and field athlete, consultant, teacher (born 30 September 1940 in Prince Albert, SK; died 7 December 1982 in Vancouver, BC). Three-time Olympian Harry Jerome won the bronze medal in the 100 m race at the 1964 Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo, Japan. He also won gold medals at the 1966 Commonwealth Games and the 1967 Pan American Games. Jerome broke the Canadian record in the 220-yard dash when he was only 18 years old and set or equalled world records in the 60-yard indoor dash, the 100-yard dash, the 100 m sprint and the 440-yard relay. Following his retirement from competition, he promoted amateur and youth sport through national and provincial programs. Jerome also advocated for better support of Canadian athletes and for greater representation of ethnic minorities on Canadian television and advertising. He was the recipient of numerous honours and awards, including the Order of Canada.
Barbara Howard, athlete, educator (born 8 May 1920 in Vancouver, BC; died 26 January 2017 in Vancouver). Barbara Howard is believed to be the first Black female athlete to represent Canada in international competition. At only 17 years old, she broke the British Empire record for the 100-yard dash, qualifying to represent Canada at the 1938 British Empire Games in Sydney, Australia. At the Games, she finished sixth in the 100-yard race but won silver and bronze medals as part of the 440-yard and 660-yard relay teams. Howard never competed in the Olympic Games, which were cancelled in 1940 and 1944 because of the Second World War. In 1941, she became the first member of a visible minority to be hired by the Vancouver School Board. She had a 43-year career in education, including 14 years as a physical education teacher, before retiring in 1984.
Sam Langford, boxer (born 4 March 1886 in Weymouth Falls, Nova Scotia; died 12 January 1956 in Cambridge, Massachusetts). Langford was a professional boxer who competed across multiple weight classes during his 24-year career. A well-rounded boxer with fierce punching power, Langford often found success against much larger opponents and garnered praise as a fearless competitor. Despite an impressive winning record and praise from icons of the sport, Langford faced racial barriers that prevented him from competing for a title during an era when White champion boxers didn’t want to be seen losing to Black opponents. Though he was crowned heavyweight champion of England, Australia, Canada and Mexico, Langford is considered one of the best fighters never to win a title in the United States. Langford lost his vision during a fight later in his career, which ultimately forced his retirement. He was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame in 1955, one year before his death. Langford’s professional record varies depending on the source — with the most comprehensive listing 214-46-44 with 138 knockouts. Some historians contend that Langford may have fought in over 600 matches.
Richard Pierpoint (also Pawpine, Parepoint; Captain Pierpoint, Captain Dick; Black Dick), loyalist, soldier, community leader, storyteller (born c. 1744 in Bondu [now Senegal]; died c. 1838, near present-day Fergus, ON). Pierpoint was an early leader in Canada’s Black community. Taken from West Africa as a teenager and sold into slavery, Pierpoint regained his freedom during the American Revolution. He settled in Niagara, Upper Canada, and attempted to live communally with other Black Canadians. In the War of 1812, he petitioned for an all-Black unit to fight for the British and fought with the Coloured Corps.
Violet Pauline King Henry, lawyer (born 18 October 1929 in Calgary, AB; died 30 March 1982 in New York, NY). King was the descendant of Black settlers from the United States. Her life consisted of several important milestones. She was the first Black person to obtain a law degree in Alberta, the first Black person admitted to the Alberta Bar and the first Black female lawyer in Canada. She was also the first woman appointed to an executive position with the YMCA in the United States.
Mabel Adeline (Addie) Aylestock, minister of the British Methodist Episcopal Church (born 8 September 1909 in Glen Allan, ON; died 25 July 1998 in Toronto, ON). The first Black woman to be ordained in Canada, Aylestock helped organize congregations in several communities in Ontario, as well as in Québec (Montréal) and Nova Scotia (Africville and Halifax).