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Black History in Canada: Notable Figures

Notable Figures in Black Canadian History

Canada's past is full of trailblazers from the African diaspora. From musicians to politicians, journalists to civil rights pioneers, learn more about some notable figures in Black Canadian history below.

Violet King (1929-1982)
Violet King "was the first Black Canadian to obtain a law degree in Alberta, the first Black person admitted to the Alberta Bar and the first Black woman to become a lawyer in Canada" (The Canadian Encyclopedia).

Clement Ligoure (1887-1922)
"Dr. Ligoure was Halifax’s first Black doctor and an unsung hero of the Halifax Explosion, as he treated hundreds of patients free of charge in his home medical office. Dr. Ligoure was also instrumental in the formation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion, Canada’s first and only all-Black battalion" (The Canadian Encyclopedia).

Black and white photo of Mary Ann Shadd Cary via Library and Archives Canada.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

From the Canadian Encyclopedia: "Mary Ann Shadd was the first Black female newspaper publisher in Canada. Shadd founded and edited The Provincial Freeman. She also established a racially integrated school for Black refugees in Windsor, Canada West. She played an important role in giving Black people a voice and advocating for women’s rights. In 1994, Shadd was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada." Image via Library and Archives Canada (C-029977).

Viola Desmond

From the Canadian Encyclopedia: "In 1946, Viola Desmond challenged racial discrimination when she refused to leave the segregated Whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Viola Desmond was arrested, jailed overnight and convicted without legal representation for an obscure tax offence as a result. ... Desmond’s courageous refusal to accept an act of racial discrimination provided inspiration to later generations of Black persons in Nova Scotia and in the rest of Canada." Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Lincoln Alexander

A trailblazing politician and lawyer, "Lincoln MacCauley Alexander... was the first Black Canadian member of Parliament (1968), Cabinet minister (1979) and lieutenant-governor (Ontario, 1985)" (Canadian Encyclopedia). On his first speech to the House in 1986, "I am not the spokesman for the Negro; that honour has not been given to me. Do not let me ever give anyone that impression. However, I want the record to show that I accept the responsibility of speaking for him and all others in this great nation who feel that they are the subjects of discrimination because of race, creed or colour" (Canadian Encyclopedia).

Jean Augustine

In 1993, Jean Augustine became the first Black woman to be elected to parliament (Etobicoke-Lakeshore) where she served four consecutive terms. During this time, Augustine also served as "Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Minister of Multiculturalism and the Status of Women; Chair of the Foreign Affairs and International Trade committee; Chair of the Human Rights Committee, three-time Chair of the National Women’s Caucus" ( She also worked with the Ontario Black History Society to introduce the motion declaring February as Black History Month at the federal level. Image via

Leonard Braithwaite

Braithwaite was the first Black Canadian elected to a provincial legislature (1963). He served as a Liberal member of the Ontario Legislature from 1963 to 1975. "On 4 February 1964, in his first speech to the Ontario Legislature, Braithwaite spoke out against the Separate Schools Act, a law that permitted racial segregation in Ontario schools. One month later, education minister and future Ontario Premier Bill Davis introduced a bill that repealed the 114-year-old provision and amended the Act" (Canadian Encyclopedia). Image via Ontario Black History Society.

Rosemary Brown

"Rosemary Brown was Canada's first Black female member of a provincial legislature and the first woman to run for leadership of a federal political party" (The Canadian Encyclopedia). Image via The Canadian Press/John Goddard.

Michaƫlle Jean

Michaëlle Jean was "the first Black person to serve as governor general. The descendant of enslaved people, she used her office to passionately emphasize freedom as a central part of the Canadian identity. Reflecting on her experience as an immigrant, Jean argued that it was time to "eliminate the spectre" of the two solitudes, French and English, which had long characterized the country's history" (The Canadian Encyclopedia). Photo by Sergeant Eric Jolin, Rideau Hall.

Willie O'Ree

"On 18 January 1958, Willie O’Ree became the first Black hockey player to play in the National Hockey League (NHL). He played professional hockey for more than 20 years, including 45 games with the Boston Bruins. Since 1998, O’Ree has been the NHL’s Director of Youth Development and ambassador for NHL Diversity. He is a Member of both the Order of Canada and the Order of New Brunswick. He has been inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame, the Hockey Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame" (The Canadian Encyclopedia).

Anderson Abbott

"Anderson Abbott was educated at the Buxton Mission School, a racially integrated school near Chatham, Canada West, that was noted for its superior education. The school was part of the Elgin Settlement, a safe haven for refugees from enslavement established in 1849. Later, he studied at the Toronto Academy, where he was an honours student, followed by Oberlin College in Ohio. In 1857, Abbott enrolled at University College in Toronto to study chemistry. In 1858, he began studies at the Toronto School of Medicine, which later became affiliated with the University of Toronto... In 1861, Abbott was licensed to practise medicine, becoming the first Canadian-born Black doctor in Canada" (The Canadian Encyclopedia). Photo from the Anderson Ruffin Abbott papers S90 via the Toronto Public Library.

Denham Jolly

Brandeis Denham Jolly "established FLOW 93.5, the first Black-owned radio station and the first station in Canada to showcase Black music and the stories of the Black community" (Canadian Encyclopedia). Image via BNN Bloomberg.

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