By: Munashe Maguta
edited by: Abigail Isaac and Robyn Taylor
Mickalene Thomas’s ‘Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe: Les trois femmes noires’ which is part of a show called ‘Femmes Noires’ currently at the Art Gallery of Ontario
American Black History has become a widely celebrated and popularized narrative of the “Black experience” in North America surrounding civil rights activism. This wonderfully curated history has told amazing stories of Black excellence in America in the face of its suppression, leading to the creation of Black History Month - a month that celebrates all the amazing Black individuals who have, and are contributing greatly to their communities and the world at large.
Nevertheless, as we learn about Black History in school and through media, we seem to learn exclusively about the triumphs and conversation surrounding American Black History, and rarely get the chance to fully learn about Canadian Black History. For instance, the Underground Railway is usually the main “role” given to Canada in the greater documented history of the fight for racial equality in North America. This role maintains that Canada plays the saviour, as well as the ally, in the fight against the discrimination faced by Black people, and is used to strengthen the national “multicultural” narrative. As a result of this narrative, Canada and institutionalized racism and discrimination appear to be almost incongruous topics due to the well-maintained perception of the Canadian state as an “ altruistic cultural mosaic.” This narrative has created barriers for many people regarding gaining access to accurate information about the history of racism and segregation in Canada, as well as the rich stories of Canadian civil rights activists who fought against racial discrimination. Consequently, the difficulty in uncovering Canadian Black History makes it harder for people to relate to Black History Month in Canada, because we don’t see our own civil rights activists being celebrated, nor Canadian Black stories being regularly told.
So, among the many celebrations of Black History this month, including this amazing Google ad, I decided to take some time and introduce three amazing Black civil rights activists that were present locally in Alberta, and all over Canada.
The first civil rights activist that I wanted to focus on after reading an amazing blog post by Bashir Mohamed is Theodore (Ted) King, a civil rights leader in Canada- specifically Calgary, who fought to make sure Black Canadians were treated as equals. Ted King was the president of the Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (AAACP), as well as the head of the grievance committee which addressed instances of racial discrimination. His sister Violet King, went on to become the first Black lawyer in Alberta. King, along with other AAACP members, was able to combat racial discrimination within Alberta. One of the most famous cases that Ted King handled was a court case against a hotel owner who stated they did not allow “coloured people” to stay at the hotel. This all started when King was looking for a friend, who was staying in a hotel whose name he could not recall. King called various hotels in an attempt to find him, and ended up calling the Barclay's Motel, where he was shocked to discover the hotel did not allow people of colour to stay there. This then prompted King to look into the hotel. He went and requested a room, but was denied service because of the colour of his skin. Following this, King went to the press with his lawyer and told them what had happened. Investigations were initiated, but complications arose that barred the viability of any claim to racism on the part of the hotel owner. This case ended up going to the Alberta Supreme Court. The following trial allowed for the closing of the loophole that allowed innkeepers the ability to deny Black people entrance to their inns, and allowed for increased visibility to the issue of racism in the province.
Many people have heard of Viola Desmond or have seen her face on the $10 bill. She was a Canadian Civil Rights activist in Nova Scotia, who gained public attention after she refused to leave a whites-only seating area at the Roseland Theatre. Though many know of Desmond, very few people know about Lulu Anderson, who made waves doing a similar act in Alberta, about two decades before Desmond. Around the 1920s, racism was rampant in Alberta: cases of blackface (minstrel shows), legislated segregation and acts of violence against Black Canadians were very common. However, even with this blatant discrimination, many Black Canadians were standing up against it, and, as seen in Anderson’s case, were doing so many years before the peak of the Civil Rights movement in the United States. Lulu Anderson was an Edmontonian woman, who in 1922 was denied entry into movie theatre based on her race. Anderson decided to catch a filming of “The Lion and the Mouse” at the Metropolitan Theatre, where she had previously gone with her friends. However, this time Anderson was denied entry as a result of her race. Anderson moved to sue the theatre, and the case made it to court. Nevertheless, the judge decided to rule against Lulu Anderson and in favor of the theatre, stating that “management could refuse admission to anyone upon the refunding of the price of the ticket.” Although Lulu didn’t win the case, (and many details of this case were burned by the government as a result of them not being considered historically important), her story allowed for her to be coined as one of Canada's civil rights pioneers who challenged the systematically racist practices upheld by local businesses.
We know the incredible impact that immigrants have on our communities, and this civil rights activist is no exception. Bromley Armstrong was a Jamaican immigrant living in Ontario who was an activist, Black trade union leader as well as a community organizer. His journey to becoming a civil rights activist began with the simple dream of becoming a welder like his father. To attain this dream he went to trade school, but upon arrival, was told by his supervisor that no company had ever, or would ever hire a Black welder. Nevertheless, Armstrong persevered despite the dismissal of his supervisor, continued his classes, and graduated. Whenever a welding job was available he would apply, but as his supervisor had said, no company was willing to hire a Black welder. Armstrong decided to reach out to the Canadian Auto Workers Local 439- his workers’ union, for help. This is how Armstrong began his involvement with union advocacy and came to be known as a “ shrewd union activist”, as told by the Globe and Mail.
After joining the union, Armstrong worked to help the Toronto District Labour Council gain more information about discrimination within the city. In the 1950s, his work drew the attention of the mayor, who later established the anti-discrimination Fair Employment Practices Act and the Fair Accommodation Practices Act. After this Act was established, Bromley and other activists visited Dresden, Ontario, after hearing news about rampant racial discrimination within the municipality. When they arrived at a restaurant in the town, they sat for twenty minutes waiting to be served. While the restaurant did not have many patrons at the time, they observed that two white patrons who had just entered were attended to before they were. Using the Fair Accommodation Practices Act, they were able to successfully charge the restaurant with a violation of this legislation. This event garnered significant media attention on both provincial and national levels, and signaled the success of initial efforts against racial discrimination in certain parts of Ontario.
These activists and advocates are just a select handful of the many Black Canadians that are part of the incredible history of Canada’s battle against racial segregation and discrimination. These are the people that have laid the groundwork, allowing us to proudly celebrate Black History Month in its historical, present, and future impacts, and their legacies should be commemorated and uplifted throughout the year.
Here are more places you can find information about Black Canadian activists as well as prominent Black Canadians :
(source of picture)