For Black History Month a lot of firms and business advertise what they are doing today, whether it be by highlighting their diverse staff or recent donations made, but I thought it would be interesting to share a blog post of my process of doing some work to learn more about Black history in Canada.
As an Indigenous woman I am very familiar with the ways law has been used to limit the movement, actions and rights of my ancestors and other Indigenous people. And while I know it was used similarly to oppress Black folks in Canada, I know very little about the actual laws and limits, so I decided to start there.
I googled “black race based law in Canada”. One of the first results was an article from the Canadian Encyclopedia titled Racial Segregation of Black People in Canada, so I started there. The article begins by discussing that slavery was legal in Canada and the British Colonies until 1834, and that after slavery ended, the same justifications for slavery were used to justify segregation.
I learned that the last segregated school in Ontario closed in 1965, and in Nova Scotia 1983. I learned that there are many examples of Black people being prevented from purchasing properties by inclusion of clauses on the deed which explicitly stated it could not be sold to a Black person. Examples included as late as until 1965. I learned that at the end of the 19th century where the labour movement was beginning in Canada and unions were forming that Black workers were excluded from unions.
Now, being lawyer, I wondered how my profession handled segregation. I expected not well at all. By googling, I found a timeline put together by Nelligan Law of Black Canadians in Law. This timeline taught me a lot. I learned that Upper Canada’s refusal to extradite escaped slaves lead to Lucie and Thornton Blackburn settling in Toronto and starting the city’s first taxi company. I learned that Robert Sutherland was the first known Black university student and graduate in Canada. He became certified to practice law in 1855, becoming the first known Black lawyer in Canada as well. In 1954, Violet Pauline King Henry becomes the first Black female lawyer in Canada, the first Black person to graduate from an Alberta law school, and the first Black person to join the Alberta Bar. I learned that it was only Ontario and Nova Scotia that enacted legislation to establish segregated school boards. Leonard Braithwaite was the first Black person elected to a provincial legislature, in his case Ontario, and helped to shut down segregated school in Ontario.
In the judiciary, in 1960 Justice Maurice Charles was the first Black judge appointed on Canada. In 1997 the Supreme Court of Canada review a Nova Scotia case decided by Justice Corinne Sparks, the first Black judge in Nova Scotia. In that case, Justice Sparks noted "I am not saying that the constable misled the court, although police officers have been known to do that in the past. I am not saying that the officer overreacted, but certainly police officers do overreact, particularly when they're dealing with non-white groups.” The Crown appealed, but a majority of the SCC upheld the decision.
While this is by no means, all the history of Black oppression in Canada, committed through use of the law, nor of all of the history of Black legal professionals in Canada, it is some of the pieces I found interesting, surprising, or I simple didn’t know before when I started looking into this,
But I also want to look forward too. I know at U of T, Black students worked tirelessly with the administration to start Black Future Lawyers. BFL is described as:
“a groundbreaking collaboration between UofT Law, our Black Law Students Association, members of our Black alumni community, and the broader legal profession. BFL offers supports and engagement opportunities to Black undergraduate students who aspire to go to law school and become lawyers. BFL’s goal is to increase the number of Black students who attend law school and join the legal profession.”
I cannot commend the students who did this work enough. I know how tiring it is to advocate while also being a full-time student. I hope the legal profession will continue to focus on how they can support this program, the local chapters, and Black professionals.
I wrote this, and shared the process of my googling and reading, so that others can do that same. I am often asked how to learn more about reconciliation, and this is the approach I suggest, so I wanted to take my own advice. Google and read from reputable sources. Google in relation to the industry you work in or your community to learn about the local aspects of history. Black History Month is a great time to celebrate Black excellence, and a great time to challenge yourself to learn more about that excellence and resistance.