From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/African Canadians/Ames W. St. G. Walker
From the African-Canadian perspective, efforts to achieve equality in the face of racial discrimination have dominated intergroup relations, while participation in mainstream politics has generally been seen as one aspect of the same ongoing quest for justice.
Black Loyalists, besides not obtaining the land grants they deserved, were not deemed eligible to vote or serve on juries. Usually no laws were passed to implement these distinctions, though the city of Saint John legislated certain restrictions against blacks in the 1780s; they simply became a part of public policy and administrative practice. The black Loyalists did not, however, refrain from political activity, for they regularly petitioned for their individual rights, for the abolition of slavery, and for recognition of their status as Loyalists. Thomas Peters’s mission to London in 1790–91 was a dramatic demonstration of their faith in British justice and their determination to receive equitable treatment. Yet it was only in the 1830s that it became common for black men to be admitted as voters in the Maritimes. The leading Reform politician Joseph Howe, who overtly sought the blacks’ vote for his candidates, assured them of their right to the franchise despite a widespread prejudice to the contrary, and following their electoral support in the 1841 election he regularized their land grants in 1842 and called blacks into jury service in 1845. By the 1847 election both parties in Nova Scotia were actively campaigning for the black vote, giving the black communities an opportunity to negotiate for political favours. In Upper Canada, similarly, naturalized adult black males who owned taxable property were legally qualified to vote and serve on juries, but local convention frequently prevented them. On several occasions it required appeals to local magistrates for the civil rights of black Canadians to be recognized in practice. In Victoria, too, there was resistance in the 1860s to allowing American-born blacks to exercise the franchise or act as jurors.
If black freedom was incomplete, at least discrimination in the matter of voting rights did not have the sanction of law; when legal authority became involved, it was to enforce the rights of blacks and not deny them. This encouraged African Canadians in their practice of appealing directly to political leaders and to the courts to preserve their rights and further their progress towards equality. The Anglo-African Mutual Improvement and Aid Association of Nova Scotia, as we have seen, coordinated black voting behind those most favourable to black rights and challenged any insult or restriction against their members on grounds of colour. In the early 1840s Toronto blacks successfully petitioned the city council to ban travelling American shows that ridiculed black people, or at least to require them to omit certain insulting songs from their repertoire. In 1857, when a member of the Canadian legislature referred to blacks as habitually lazy people, thieves, and liars, Toronto blacks held a mass “indignation meeting” to refute the charges and demand an apology, threatening retaliation at the ballot-box. In Upper Canada the fugitives tended to favour Conservative candidates, associating Reformers with an American-style democracy which had kept them enslaved. The political status quo in Canada was what preserved their freedom, making them suspicious of any political change and overwhelmingly opposed to radical reform. But when individual candidates spoke out directly on black-related issues, black voters in Upper Canada were as ready as those in the Maritimes to coordinate their vote for political effect.
The law did not, however, secure African Canadians against discrimination by individuals or private businesses; on the contrary, the right to discriminate on grounds of race was upheld by the Canadian courts. Some of the most widespread discrimination occurred in public accommodations, transportation, and places of entertainment. Hotels, saloons, lake steamers, stagecoaches, and theatres in the Maritimes, Ontario, and the west habitually refused service to blacks or relegated them to segregated facilities. Occasionally, racial separation was enforced by mob violence. For example, in Chatham in 1860 a violent demonstration protested the marriage of the Reverend William Pinkney, a black, to the white Elizabeth King, demanding legislation against “racial amalgamation”; and in Victoria that same year, blacks who sat in the main section of the Colonial Theatre were attacked by whites who wanted them restricted to the balcony. Although such incidents were not frequent, they demonstrated a consistent principle, namely, that blacks must not presume to behave as if they were equal to whites.
Against this separatist logic, African Canadians seized the rhetoric of British rights to assert their demand for equality. In Nova Scotia blacks objected that segregated and inferior schools were unfair and that as taxpayers and voters they deserved the same opportunities for their children as anyone else. The 1883–84 campaign for integrated schools in that province, like the one in Chatham, Ontario, a few years later, was both a tactic to improve the future prospects of black children and a fundamental declaration of black equality under the British constitution. In Saint John, New Brunswick, Abraham B. Walker, a British Columbian–born lawyer who had studied at an African-American college, adopted tactics very similar to those of the Anglo-African Association in Halifax: he coordinated black voting in order to gain some influence upon the political leadership, and he targeted discriminatory circumstances in deliberate public confrontations. For instance, in 1887, as part of Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee celebrations, local organizers promoted a “Coloured Baby Show” in Saint John. Walker protested that such an event was “ungentlemanly” and would be an occasion to ridicule the black community. The event was cancelled. Then, during jubilee celebrations that resounded with the rhetoric of British imperial justice, William Diamond was denied access to public transportation from Saint John to Portland, Maine. His protest was couched as a query: was it the transit authorities or the jubilee declarations of equality that were in error? Diamond received no answer, but in 1898 a Montreal bellhop named Johnson sued a theatre for refusing him a seat on grounds of colour. The Quebec appeal court awarded him damages because he held a ticket for the specific seats in question, but the judges added that the broader question of racial equality was not a matter for the courts.
There were occasions when African Canadians themselves sought office as elected politicians. Before confederation Austin Steward of the Wilberforce settlement, Abraham Shadd of Buxton, and Wilson Abbott of Toronto all won municipal office. On the west coast several African Canadians were elected to local school boards. John Craven Jones won a seat on the Saltspring Island municipal council in 1873, while Mifflin Gibbs was elected to the Victoria council in 1866 and became chair of the city’s finance committee. In 1868 Gibbs was the delegate of Saltspring Island to the Yale Convention, where he supported British Columbia’s union with the dominion of Canada. Henry Weaver was repeatedly returned as a Chatham alderman during the 1890s, as was Robert Dunn in Windsor into the early years of the twentieth century. The most successful political career belonged to William Hubbard, who was first elected to Toronto council in 1894 and remained a key figure in the city’s municipal government for the next twenty years.
Another and more frequent way for blacks to demonstrate their commitment to Canada and the empire was through voluntary military service. Even before coming to Canada the black Loyalists had fought to retain British rule throughout the American colonies, and after their arrival they and the later refugees remained in militia units in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. In Upper Canada blacks served in regular militia units until a separate company was formed during the War of 1812. The black corps saw action against the Americans at several engagements during that conflict before being disbanded in 1815. Black volunteers were enlisted in Upper Canada again during the Rebellion of 1837, and, in the 1840s and 1850s, black units remained in the provincial militias of Upper Canada, Nova Scotia, and New Brunswick while in both Hamilton and Victoria blacks created their own volunteer rifle corps. The notion that blacks would fight for British supremacy arose repeatedly in their petitions. During the Crimean War Chatham blacks volunteered their services against Russia, and when an American invasion of Canada was rumoured in 1856 black Upper Canadians formed a volunteer force to repel the threatening Yankees. This would occur again during the Fenian raids after the American Civil War. African Canadians served the Empire abroad as well. The most famous black soldier was William Hall of Nova Scotia, who joined the British navy in the 1852, served in the Crimean War, and won a Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery at the relief of Lucknow during the Great Revolt of 1857.
After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, young black men once again offered to defend their country. Though no blanket restriction was imposed, individual commanding officers were entitled to refuse black recruits, and almost all did so. The racial stereotype in 1914, contrary to all Canadian experience, identified blacks as inadequate soldier material whose presence would weaken a fighting unit. Despite insult and rebuff the blacks persisted, appealing to politicians and the governor general for an opportunity to serve. Finally, in 1916, they were rewarded with the formation of the Nova Scotia No. 2 Construction Battalion, which was authorized to recruit black men all across Canada. When the No. 2 went overseas in 1917 it was not to fight Germans but to provide physical labour as attachments to the Canadian Forestry Corps. In Europe the men of the No. 2 were segregated in the camp cinema; provided with their own “coloured chaplain,” the Reverend William White of Truro, who, as an honorary captain, was the only black officer in Canada’s army; treated in a separate hospital wing when ill or wounded; incarcerated in a separate punishment compound when they misbehaved. Although some individual African Canadians did serve with distinction in regular regiments, the general experience in war was similar to their condition at home: rejection, limitation, and consignment to an auxiliary role. At the end of the war, physical attacks by both Canadian soldiers and civilians – and the establishment of a separate section for deceased black veterans in the Camp Hill military cemetery in Halifax – provided further evidence that the loyal efforts of black servicemen had not gained them the acceptance of white society.
Yet wartime discrimination did not discourage black Canadians from their quest for equality and dignity. When the American film Birth of a Nation (1915) appeared in Canada, with its implicit approval of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) and its disparaging images of black people, there was an immediate reaction from the Canadian Observer (Toronto, 1914–19), a black newspaper: it launched an editorial counter-attack and editor J.R.B. Whitney organized a community protest in September 1915. Resolutions denouncing the film as degrading to black people and provoking hatred against them were carried to Premier William Hearst by a black delegation, and Hearst agreed to have some of the most objectionable scenes removed from the film. In Halifax, with the compliance of white supporters, blacks were actually able to have the offensive film banned from city cinemas.
These successes were not sufficient, however, to stem the tide of global racism in which Canadians were caught regardless of local experience. In 1910–11, during the black migration from Oklahoma, city councils and boards of trade across the prairies passed resolutions asking Ottawa to suspend further immigration and to segregate those African Americans already in Canada. In a revealing document the Edmonton branch of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire demanded that blacks be kept out or white women would not be safe, and it warned that lynchings could occur if the government did not act to protect white womanhood. The American stereotypes were apparent. In 1920, when a black family moved into the Calgary district of Victoria Park, a petition was signed by almost 500 white householders asking city council to legislate racial segregation. Since the council had no experience with such matters (the black population numbered only seventy people), the city clerk wrote to sixteen other Canadian cities asking for any by-laws they might have to enforce racial segregation. When no model legislation was found, the exclusivity of Victoria Park was preserved by a property covenant agreed among the white residents. Just four years later Edmonton council received a request from its own city officials for a by-law banning blacks from public parks and swimming-pools. Though no legislation was forthcoming, segregated private recreational facilities were allowed to continue. Local black organizations – the Colored Protective Association of Calgary and the Negro Political Association of Edmonton – rallied in defence of black rights, and in Ontario in 1924 there was an effort to create a national body to confront these and related issues. As noted earlier, however, the Canadian League for the Advancement of Colored People never expanded beyond southwestern Ontario.
Once again, there were appeals to the courts to declare and enforce black equality. The most well known was the above-mentioned Loew’s theatre case of 1919 which upheld the principle of racial segregation. But there were other cases too. One of the most important was launched in 1936 by Fred Christie when he was refused a beer in the York Tavern, located in the Montreal Forum. With the moral and financial support of the city’s black community, Christie sued the tavern and appealed eventually to the Supreme Court of Canada. In December 1939 the highest court in the land pronounced that racial discrimination was legal. The Christie precedent was followed less than six months later when the British Columbia Court of Appeal upheld the right of a Vancouver hotel to decline service to a black man named Rogers simply because the owners objected to his colour.
The Christie decision showed that Canadian attitudes remained unchanged after the outbreak of World War II. In response, the Negro Community Centre and the Canadian Society for the Advancement of Coloured People, both of Montreal, not only denounced the employment practices of the National Selective Service but also intervened on behalf of volunteers who were rejected from the navy and air force. Protests by black soldiers were common as well, and gradually change did occur. As in World War I, the pattern was not absolute and numerous black soldiers were embraced as equals by their comrades, but a discriminatory shadow hung over the Canadian forces throughout much of the war and was dissipated primarily by the efforts of black people themselves.
During the 1940s and 1950s most provinces and some municipalities passed laws against discrimination in employment, accommodations, and public facilities, and in 1960 the federal government enacted a Bill of Rights incorporating many of the principles for which African Canadians had been struggling. But these changes did not just happen on their own. The post-war period witnessed an articulate black attack on the restrictions which had existed for generations, and it reached an increasingly receptive white audience horrified by Nazi racism and encouraged by the United Nations Charter and global opinion to consider legislative reforms. In the forefront of this attack were the railway porters. The international president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, A. Philip Randolph, rallied his American membership to become a movement for racial equality in the United States, threatening a massive protest march on Washington which virtually forced President Franklin Roosevelt to integrate the wartime defence industry and to establish a Fair Employment Practices Commission. In 1942 Randolph visited Toronto, not only to receive the CPR porters into his union but to voice the international porters’ abiding concern with discrimination. It was the Toronto division of the CPR porters, led after the war by Stanley G. Grizzle, that was particularly effective in communicating information and advice from coast to coast. Grizzle and other porters on layover would contact local black communities, help them to understand that their experiences were part of a broader pattern, and offer specific tactical suggestions. The porters’ union saw the advantage of making alliances with other Canadian movements, including organized labour (which had not traditionally been sympathetic to racial issues) and newly developing black associations at the local level, in order to mobilize a concerted demand upon governments for legislative change.
Fighting the same fight as the porters was the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People. From the time of its founding in 1945 under the leadership of W.P. Oliver, the NSAACP identified three chief areas of concern – education, employment, and housing – as the fundamental expressions of racial disadvantage in Nova Scotia. The association insisted upon “full citizenship” for black Nova Scotians, which meant that the same standards of rights and responsibilities must be applied to blacks and whites. Oliver accepted the historic convention among his people that discrimination could be overcome if blacks acquired skills and attributes which were genuinely appreciated by mainstream society, and he taught that blacks must educate themselves to be ready for the exercise of full citizenship. Through the African Baptist churches, as we have seen, the NSAACP promoted education for both children and adults. It also conducted surveys of housing and employment conditions, using the results to press for government action, and sent delegations to visit employers in efforts to break through long-standing discriminatory patterns. Sister associations in New Brunswick, Alberta, and British Columbia, founded over the next few years, had comparable programs.
The most direct legislative result arose from the efforts of the National Unity Association in southwestern Ontario. In 1943 one of its founders, Hugh Burnett, appealed to Justice Minister Louis St Laurent to interfere in a local situation of severe discrimination, but he was told that according to the Christie precedent there was nothing the federal government could do. With this decision in mind, the NUA directed its program locally, asking Dresden council for an anti-discrimination bylaw in 1947. The council prevaricated and then decided that the issue required an explicit mandate from the voters. In 1949, therefore, council held a referendum seeking approval for such a by-law, but the people voted 517 to 108 against it. Burnett and the NUA then turned to the provincial government for redress, joining a broader movement led by the Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights, the Canadian Jewish Congress, and the Association for Civil Liberties. Using Dresden as their primary example, the coalition eventually convinced Premier Leslie Frost that a legislated response was necessary, and, as indicated above, Ontario’s Conservative government became the first to enact fair employment and fair accommodations practices acts.
Meanwhile, Toronto blacks had achieved a regulation similar to the one rejected in Dresden. In 1946 a Toronto skating-rink ejected the son of Harry Gairey, porter and prominent member of the Toronto black community, for no other reason than his colour. Joined by university students, church groups, and labour organizations, black Toronto held a series of public demonstrations and sent delegations to city council, winning an order requiring places of amusement licensed by the city to accept all customers regardless of “race, colour or creed.” Several other municipalities followed the Toronto model. Conscious, as always, that racial stereotypes lay behind much discriminatory behaviour, African Canadians were also confronting public images which undermined their quest for equality. In 1944 the Colored Citizens’ Improvement League in Halifax, joined later by the NSAACP, launched an eventually successful campaign to have the story Little Black Sambo (1899) withdrawn from school readers. In Toronto Daniel Braithwaite focused on the same story, convincing the Toronto Board of Education to remove it from the public schools in 1956.
Three court battles in the post-war years gave insight into the state of intergroup relations in Canada. In 1946 the Roseland Cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, ejected Viola Desmond, a visitor from Halifax, because she had sat in the downstairs section rather than the balcony where blacks were segregated. She was jailed overnight and fined $20 on the grounds that she had been issued a balcony ticket and was therefore entitled only to sit in that section. Carrie Best of New Glasgow, editor of the Clarion newspaper (1946–49), rallied a public campaign on Desmond’s behalf and the NSAACP funded an appeal to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia. The court acknowledged that balcony tickets were a device to enforce segregation, but, since the provincial tax was one cent higher on a downstairs ticket, Desmond was in technical violation of the law and her fine was upheld. No action was possible against the cinema, for segregated seating was not only legal but quite common in the 1940s. Following passage of the Fair Accommodations Practices Act in 1954, this was no longer so in Ontario, but restaurants and other enterprises in Dresden continued to refuse service to blacks. During the summer of 1954 Hugh Burnett and the NUA conducted “tests” of Dresden restaurants, sending groups of whites and blacks to ask for service and lodging formal complaints when the blacks were refused. In September the Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights joined the campaign, sending teams from Toronto to test the restaurants accompanied by newspaper reporters. A reluctant provincial government was embarrassed into laying charges, only to have them dismissed in court in 1955 because the Crown failed to prove that the denial of service had been motivated by racial discrimination. Another round of testing by local blacks and volunteers from Toronto was necessary before a conviction was upheld in 1956 and FAP was finally enforced. Alberta had no comparable act in 1959 when Ted King, president of the AAACP, learned that a Calgary motel would not receive black guests. To confirm this report, King, a Calgary resident, drove to the motel and asked for accommodation, suing for damages when he was refused. He lost his case, and his appeal to the Alberta Supreme Court in 1961 was dismissed; though the racial motive was not denied by the owners, it was not illegal for a motel to practise racial discrimination in Alberta at that time. As a result of the publicity surrounding the King case, the provincial government amended its Innkeepers’ Act to prevent other occurrences of this nature.
West Indian immigrants participated in these campaigns but their special concern was discriminatory immigration regulations which prevented family reunification and which above all characterized black people as undesirable. In 1951 Donald Moore, first secretary of the Universal Negro Improvement Association and a Toronto community activist since the 1920s, founded the Negro Citizenship Association (NCA) to press for federal immigration reform while cooperating with other groups such as the National Unity Association in the movement for provincial anti-discrimination legislation. The NCA attacked the implicit assumptions of an immigration policy that favoured certain “races” over others, pointing to the historic contribution of blacks to Canadian society through which they had earned their right to equality, and denouncing the poisonous atmosphere generated by regulations designed to keep Canada white. The Canadian Negro newspaper (Toronto, 1953–56) reported fully on NCA meetings and resolutions, and its accounts were spread by railway porters across the country. The Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights assisted with writing briefs to the federal government; MPs of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (precursor of the New Democratic Party) brought the NCA’s arguments before the House of Commons. In 1954 a delegation travelled to Ottawa to meet with cabinet ministers; there, Moore presented the NCA brief and Stanley G. Grizzle added passionate support from the BSCP. The legislative result was modest but real: the government introduced the West Indian Domestics Scheme in 1955, the first deliberate program to expand the black population of Canada. The full fruits of the campaign would not be seen until the 1960s.
Experience was teaching African Canadians that the courts did not provide an effective route to equality: legislation was more direct. By pressing for human-rights reforms blacks were able to amend public policy in Canada, culminating in 1962 when Ontario consolidated its anti-discrimination laws in a comprehensive Human Rights Code with a full-time commission to enforce it, a model followed by other provinces and the federal government over the next fifteen years. Appropriately, an African Canadian, Daniel G. Hill, was appointed to head the pioneering Ontario Human Rights Commission. Public policy had once been a source of racial discrimination in itself, for example, in military recruitment or immigration restrictions; public policy had also served as an enforcer of private discrimination, as in the Christie or Desmond cases. By the 1960s public policy explicitly declared against discriminatory acts and provided punishments for their perpetrators. And yet in many substantial ways African-Canadian conditions had not improved. A study of blacks in Halifax published in 1962 found that 60 percent had no private bathrooms and 75 percent had no hot running water, and unemployment ran at double the rate for non-blacks. To city officials the most embarrassing conditions were in Africville, located within the city limits on the shores of Bedford Basin. Talk of expropriating Africville and relocating its people had begun as early as World War I, but it became more serious in the late 1950s as Halifax initiated a major urban-renewal program. Demands by the Africville people to have their community improved and developed right where it was were disregarded, and in 1964 Halifax began relocating Africville residents to alternative accommodations in the city, usually subsidized public housing. Compensation packages and adjustment assistance were, however, inadequate; a viable black community had been destroyed in a concrete example of black powerlessness, public misunderstanding, and government insensitivity. The legislative reforms and human-rights codes of the 1960s had not saved Africville, had created no jobs for unemployed blacks, and had not even squashed overt expressions of white supremacy, as attested by burning crosses and KKK slogans in Amherstburg, Ontario, in the summer of 1965.
By 1968 there were young black people in Canada ready for a different approach to social reform. Developments in the United States were seductive. The southern-based non-violent civil rights movement, launched when Rosa Parks took a front seat in a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955, gaining momentum through the freedom rides and student sit-ins beginning in 1960, and reaching a crescendo with the march on Washington in 1963, was shocked into a new reality with the assassination of Martin Luther King on 4 April 1968. Tactics appropriate to the American south – voter-registration drives and courting arrest for violating state segregation laws – had already been proved irrelevant for urban and northern African Americans who had a right to vote and sit at the front of the bus but had no jobs, inadequate housing, poor education, and daily experience of racial harassment. Symbolic of the African-American shift was the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), founded in 1960 with King’s collaboration; in 1966, under its new leader, Stokely Carmichael, SNCC dropped its non-violent commitment, expelled its white members, and adopted the electrifying slogan “Black Power.” In Oakland, California, the Black Panther Party advocated black solidarity and active self-defence against racist oppression. “Race riots” in Watts, Detroit, Newark, and Washington seemed to be a fulfilment of the radical agenda and a promise of a revolutionary adjustment in intergroup relations.
In Canada the new black consciousness and its attendant political orientation was best represented by Halifax youth leader Burnley (“Rocky”) Jones. With a group of young black activists and a few white students, Jones articulated an intellectual message not often heard in Canada before, offering a novel definition of the “race” problem and a program to combat it. Jones and his colleagues identified the problem as systemic, as the responsibility not just of a few overt racists but of society as a whole. Instead of fighting instances of discrimination case by case, Jones confronted the underlying syndrome which tended to generate another case every time one was solved. Rather than lobbying with political leaders, he carried his message directly to the people, describing the nature and effect of racism and then assigning responsibility to all members of the mainstream public, including his white audiences. In the place of laws to restrict and punish individual acts of racism, which he regarded as ineffectual, Jones demanded broad intervention to interrupt the self-perpetuating syndrome of black disadvantage in Canada. Jones did not reject the traditions of his Nova Scotian community, but he revitalized them and gave them a political edge. For example, while he acknowledged the historic significance of self-help programs, Jones demanded affirmative action from government to give black initiatives a chance of success. An indicative product of this intellectual approach was the Transition Year Programme at Dalhousie, of which Jones was one of the originators. Dressed in dashiki, Afro hairstyle, and dark glasses, Jones thrilled listeners both black and white and forced a re-examination of the black situation in Canada.
“Racial violence” featured in Canada’s most famous student incident at Sir George Williams University in Montreal in February 1969. The previous spring a group of West Indian students had accused a biology professor of racism. Finding the subsequent university investigation unsatisfactory, in January 1969 a number of students, both black and white, staged a sit-in to dramatize a demand for a more thorough inquiry and attention to allegations of pervasive racism at the university and in the city of Montreal. The student occupation provided a forum, virtually a “teach-in,” on Canadian racism; aroused students barricaded themselves in the university’s computer centre, refusing to leave until the issue of racism was seriously addressed. On 11 February authorities moved to dislodge the students by force, and in the ensuing struggle about $2-million damage was done to the computer equipment. Ninety student occupants were arrested, forty-one of them black. Subsequent press reportage tended to emphasize the culminating violence, rather than exploring the existence of racism, and to identify the perpetrators as foreigners, although only twenty-three of the ninety arrested were West Indians. Frustration at the public response and embarrassment at the connection with violence renewed a proposal, first raised in Montreal in 1968, to create a national network of black organizations. In late 1969 the National Black Coalition of Canada was founded in Toronto, chaired by Howard McCurdy of Windsor, to coordinate efforts towards black equality. Meanwhile, in Halifax, the concept of the united front underwent considerable community debate, leading in August 1969 to the receipt of federal government funding and in September to the appointment as first executive director of the Black United Front of Jules Oliver, author of a revelatory 1968 report on employment discrimination in Halifax and a collaborator in the group that had originated the Transition Year Programme.
West Indian immigration, growing annually through the 1960s and into the 1970s, temporarily diverted attention away from black issues per se to the adjustment problems of the newcomers. Many Canadian-born blacks were resentful, finding the impact of their own rising assertiveness being submerged by overwhelming numbers of West Indians whose attributes and initial concerns seemed quite different. Repeated experience with common treatment in Canada derived from their skin colour, however, led indigenous and immigrant blacks to discover the extent of their common interest. This became especially apparent by the mid-1970s, when a series of violent racist incidents in many parts of the country led Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to declare in a 1975 speech that Canada was facing a “race” crisis. At the same time, small groups of white extremists began openly to articulate racist hostility, gaining attention from the national media. Most Canadians were shocked by these events and at first denied that they could be symptoms of racism. Public and press demanded government action to clarify the situation, punish the wrongdoers, and restore Canada to its reputed condition as a non-racist, non-violent society. The result was a flood of official and private inquiries probing the feelings of violators, victims, and the general population. Several dozen reports were filed, sponsored by human rights commissions, institutes, and every level of government, focusing public attention as never before and producing, finally, a recognition that racial discrimination did in fact exist in Canada. Legislative changes followed, facilitated by article 15 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms which committed Canada to racial equality and permitted official affirmative-action programs to overcome the legacies of past discrimination. By the mid-1980s public policy had assumed a corrective role, accepting a responsibility to interfere in the historic syndromes that kept blacks and others unequal, just as certain far-sighted elements in the black community had demanded two decades earlier.
The black profile in Canadian public life was expanding throughout this post-war era as mainstream Canada grew more responsive to the black presence. Many African Canadians became active in local politics, as councillors and school trustees and occasionally as municipal heads: Ralph McCurdy was reeve of Amherstburg, S.F. Monestime was mayor of Mattawa, Daureen Lewis was mayor of Annapolis Royal. The first African Canadian to win a seat in a provincial legislature was Leonard Braithwaite of Ontario, who held the Etobicoke riding for the Liberals from 1963 to 1975. Then in 1968 Lincoln Alexander of the same province became the first black member of the House of Commons when he was elected in Hamilton West. In 1979 Alexander set another mark when he became minister of labour in the Conservative government of Prime Minister Joe Clark before leaving electoral politics in 1980. In 1972 Emery Barnes, originally from New Orleans, and Rosemary Brown, born in Jamaica, became the first black immigrants in a Canadian legislature when both were elected in a British Columbia provincial election as New Democrats. Brown contested the federal leadership of her party in 1975 and left the legislature in 1986; Barnes, repeatedly re-elected in Vancouver, became speaker in 1994. Another New Democrat, Howard McCurdy, was elected to the federal House of Commons in 1984 from Windsor and reelected in 1988. In 1990 he was a candidate for the federal leadership of the New Democratic Party. The 1993 federal election brought three Caribbean-born Liberals to Ottawa: Jean Augustine, Hedy Fry, and Ovid Jackson. The first black provincial cabinet minister was Alvin Curling, appointed minister of housing in Ontario’s Liberal government following his election in 1985 and minister of skills development from 1987 to 1989. The New Democratic victory in the Ontario election of 1990 brought Zanana Akande of Toronto to the provincial cabinet as minister of community and social services from 1990 to 1991, the first black woman to reach cabinet rank. More history was made in 1993 when Wayne Adams of Nova Scotia was elected in the new provincial riding of Preston, deliberately created to concentrate black voters for greater electoral impact. All three major parties nominated black candidates in Preston, and when his Liberal Party formed a government Adams joined the cabinet as minister of supply and services. Other African Canadians have been serving the public in non-elected positions. Anne Cools, a Barbados-born Toronto Liberal, was appointed to the Senate in 1984. She was joined in the upper chamber by Halifax Conservative Donald Oliver in 1990. Jamaica native Glenda Simms was appointed president of the Canadian Advisory Committee on the Status of Women in 1989. In 1991 Julius Isaac, born in Grenada and a justice of the Supreme Court of Ontario since 1989, was elevated to become chief justice of the Federal Court of Canada. Yet another honour in the history of black Canada went to Lincoln Alexander when he was named to the vice-regal position of lieutenant governor of Ontario in 1985.
Genuine as this recognition was, African Canadians continued to face frustrations in intergroup relations. For generations, one significant measure blacks have applied to their progress toward equality has been the respect and dignity they receive from their fellow-citizens and their government. Symbolic of dissatisfaction in this regard have been widespread reports of hostility and unfair treatment from the police. Complaints included outright brutality, such as beatings in police stations, and constant harassment such as being stopped for questioning or submitted to degrading body searches on no evidence. In one 1985 Toronto survey almost half (46 percent) of blacks replied that they were treated with less courtesy by police than non-blacks were. Above all, there have been shootings of black people by police in several Canadian cities in circumstances that did not seem to require such a degree of force, leading community members to conclude that the police lacked adequate respect for the life of a black person. In response to perceived police harassment and violence, the Black Action Defense Committee was formed in Toronto in 1987 to monitor police behaviour, lay official complaints, and rally public opinion. One public demonstration, held in Toronto on 4 May 1992 to protest the Rodney King beating in Los Angeles and the fatal shooting of Raymond Lawrence by Toronto police on 2 May, deteriorated into a rampage of vandalism and looting down Yonge Street by black and white youths, many not associated with the original demonstration. Labelled a “race riot,” the Yonge Street episode prompted a four-level government inquiry into intergroup relations in Metropolitan Toronto and a personal investigation by former United Nations ambassador Stephen Lewis. Their reports confirmed a pervasive sense of alienation among young black people, who perceived that they still did not receive equal respect from those in authority.
Allegations of unfair treatment or demeaning images aroused black anger in several Canadian centres. Following a high-school snowball fight in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, in 1990, there was community outrage when only the black participants were charged. In July 1991 violent skirmishes occurred when black youths complained that they were turned away from Halifax night clubs; the same month a similar complaint provoked a night of violence in Montreal. In Toronto a Royal Ontario Museum exhibit, “Into the Heart of Africa,” was deemed to perpetuate imperialist stereotypes about black people, leading to a demonstration organized by the Coalition for the Truth about Africa which lasted several months in 1990. In 1993 the arrival of the American musical “Show Boat” was widely protested by Toronto blacks because of scenes and language felt to be degrading to the black characters. These and similar protests continued a long-standing black tradition in Canada, which in the past had produced objections to minstrel troupes and to films and stories bearing insulting imagery; the difference was that now the protest was public, carried to the Canadian people directly. At the end of the twentieth century, restricting stereotypes were being undermined by a record of black achievement in business, professional, and public life, and a numerically powerful and politically alert black population made the continuing quest for equality increasingly difficult to ignore.