Get to Know Your Black Canadian History With These Books

Canadian Heritage Office Black History Month Banner, 2017

Whenever we think of Black History Month, we usually default to African-American figures and the American Civil Rights Movement. But there was also a civil rights movement in the United States’ northern neighbour: Canada. After the announcement that Viola Desmond will be on the $10 Canadian bill in 2018, many people realized how much they didn’t know about black Canadian history (i.e., Desmond is often called Canada’s Rosa Park despite making the news nine years before Parks). Hopefully, this book list will inspire people to look into these black Canadians and others who’ve made an impact on Canadian history.

Bromley: Tireless Champion for Just Causes. Bromley L Armstrong. Vitabu Publications. 2000.1. Bromley: Tireless Champion for Just Causes by Bromley L. Armstrong

Bromley Armstrong, is a black Canadian civil rights leader born in 1926. He was active in the nascent civil rights era in Canada, beginning with his arrival in 1947. Armstrong was a committed union activist who worked to improve conditions for workers in industry. He was also active in promoting equal rights for African-Canadians and was involved with the National Unity Association sit-ins in Dresden, Ontario restaurants that refused to serve blacks. He was awarded the Order of Canada in 1994.

Viola Desmond's Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land by Graham Reynolds and Wanda Desmond. Fernwood Publishing. 2016.2. Viola Desmond’s Canada: A History of Blacks and Racial Segregation in the Promised Land by Graham Reynolds and Wanda Robson

In 1946, Viola Desmond was wrongfully arrested for sitting in a whites-only section of a movie theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. In 2010, the Nova Scotia Government recognized this gross miscarriage of justice and posthumously granted her a free pardon.

Most Canadians are aware of Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat on a racially segregated bus in Alabama, but Viola Desmond’s act of resistance occurred nine years earlier. However, many Canadians are still unaware of Desmond s story or that racial segregation existed throughout many parts of Canada during most of the twentieth century. On the subject of race, Canadians seem to exhibit a form of collective amnesia. Viola Desmond’s Canada is a groundbreaking book that provides a concise overview of the narrative of the Black experience in Canada. Reynolds traces this narrative from slavery under French and British rule in the eighteenth century to the practice of racial segregation and the fight for racial equality in the twentieth century. Included are personal recollections by Wanda Robson, Viola Desmond’s youngest sister, together with important but previously unpublished documents and other primary sources in the history of Blacks in Canada.”

There’s also another book on Viola Desmond called Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged by Jody Nyasha Warner and Richard Rudnicki from House of Anansi.

Season of Rage: Hugh Burnett and the Struggle for Civil Rights. John Cooper. Tundra Books. 2005.3. Season of Rage: Hugh Burnett and the Struggle for Civil Rights by John Cooper

The last place in North America where black people and white people could not sit down together to share a cup of coffee in a restaurant was not in the Deep South. It was in the small, sleepy Ontario town of Dresden.

Dresden is the site of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Slaves who made their way north through the Underground Railroad created the thriving Dawn Settlement in Dresden before and during the Civil War. But they did not find Utopia on the Canadian side of the border, despite their efforts.

Then in 1954 something extraordinary happened. The National Unity Association, a group of African Canadian citizens in Dresden who had challenged the racist attitudes of the 1950s, forged an alliance with civil rights activists in Toronto to push the Ontario Government for changes to the law in order to outlaw discrimination.

Despite the law, some business owners continued to refuse to serve blacks. The National Unity Association worked courageously through a variety of means of protest to change attitudes.

A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West. Mary Ann Shadd. Broadview. 2016.4. A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West by Mary Ann Shadd Cary

Mary Ann Shadd’s pamphlet A Plea for Emigration; or Notes of Canada West is, as the title promises, a settler’s guide designed to inform prospective immigrants of conditions in their proposed new home. But whereas most such works were addressed to potential white emigrants to North America from Britain or continental Europe, Shadd’s aimed to entice black Americans to emigrate to Canada.

The introduction and background materials included in the volume situate Shadd’s pamphlet in its political and cultural context, and in the context of Shadd’s own remarkable life as an abolitionist, women’s rights activist, writer, and educator.

Singing Towards the Future: The Story of Portia White. lian goodall. 2004. Napoleon and Co.5. Singing Towards the Future: The Story of Portia White by lian goodall

Portia White, born in 1911, had a dream: to sing on stage. Even as a little girl in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she could imagine an audience before her, clapping as she took her bow. But how could a poor girl growing up in a family with ten siblings make that dream come true? At that time, there were few opera roles available for black singers. To become a recital singer, she would have to go to Europe to study. How could she ever afford that? But Portia was not only a talented contralto, she was determined. With the support of her family and community, she eventually climbed onto stages across Canada, the United States, and Central and South America in the late 1930s and early 1940s. She crossed the colour barrier to enter concert halls and sing before white and black audiences on both continents. Later, she became a teacher and mentor of other well-known and successful singers. When Portia White died in 1968, she left a legacy of living to her belief that “first you dream and then you lace up your boots.”

You can learn more about black Canadians with CBC’s 23 historical black Canadians you should know

Ardo Omer

Ardo Omer

Former WWAC editor. Current curmudgeon and Batman's personal assistant. Icon art by Diana Sim.