Black History Month is a month to celebrate influential Black Canadians and their accomplishments and contributions to Canada’s history, culture, development and heritage. In honour of Black History Month, we’re summarizing the work and legacy of six influential Black Canadians who made breakthroughs in Canadian Law.
James Douglas, the father of British Columbia
James Douglas was instrumental in shaping what is now the Province of British Columbia.
Douglas was born into a mixed-race family in British Guiana, now Guyana, in 1803. At 12 years of age, he was taken to Scotland where he apprenticed with the North West Company and eventually became an employee of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Eventually, he became the head of the Hudson’s Bay Company in Vancouver.
In the 1840s a simmering border dispute between the British North American colonies and the United States resulted in HBC moving its headquarters to the southern tip of Vancouver Island (now Victoria). The treaty of Oregon resolved the dispute in 1846 with the 49th parallel as the border between modern Canada and the United States.
In 1858 the lower mainland became the colony of British Columbia and James Douglas became its first Governor. As Governor, Douglas took steps to protect British Columbia from American expansionism and encouraged the settlement of Black Americans suffering discrimination in California in British Columbia. In 1863, Queen Victoria knighted Douglas and in 1866 the colonies of British Columbia and Vancouver Island merged to create what we now know as British Columbia.
James Douglas is the father of modern British Columbia and created the circumstances for the British Columbia’s ultimate entry into the Canadian Confederation in 1871.
William Peyton Hubbard, father of modern Toronto
William Peyton Hubbard was an influential Toronto politician who helped shape the city that we now know and love.
Hubbard was born in a cabin in the woods on the outskirts of what is now Toronto. His place of birth is roughly where modern Bathurst Street intersects with Bloor Street in downtown Toronto. His parents were runaway slaves from Virginia who escaped to Canada via the underground railroad.
Hubbard, nicknamed Cicero for his oratory skills, rose through the ranks of Toronto politics becoming an alderman and eventually rose to join the Toronto Board of Control–the City’s powerful executive body. He worked with Adam Beck to create publicly owned water and hydroelectric utilities and was a frequent advocate for the rights of the City’s growing minority Jewish and Chinese populations. Hubbard was the first Canadian of African ancestry to win a City-wide election.
The Honourable Jean Augustine, first Black woman in Parliament
Jean Augustine was the first African-Canadian woman to be elected to the House of Commons, the first African-Canadian woman to be appointed to the federal Cabinet, and the first Fairness Commissioner of the Government of Ontario.
Augustine was born in 1937 in Happy Hill, Grenada, and moved to Canada in 1960. She began her career as a teacher, and participated in grassroots organizations to strengthen minority and women’s rights. Augustine entered politics in 1993 when she served as a Member of Parliament. She played a large role in Canada’s recognition of February as Black History Month. Augustine proposed her motion before Parliament for the recognition of Black History Month which was passed unanimously in 1995.
She went on to serve as the Minister of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women. She was also a member of the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada and the Citizenship and Immigration Committee.
Augustine is one of many influential Black Canadians who has been recognized for her great contributions to Canada. She has received notable awards and honours including her:
- Induction as Member of the Order of Canada in 2007
- Appointment as a Commander of the Order of the British Empire
- Honorary degrees from the University of Toronto, University of Guelph, McGill University, and York University.
The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean, Governor General of Canada from 2005 – 2010
The Right Honourable Michaëlle Jean was the first Black Canadian Governor General of Canada.
Michaëlle Jean was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 1957. She and her parents immigrated to Canada with her parents in 1968. She attended Université de Montréal where she received her Master’s degree in comparative literature and became fluent in five languages.
Jean began her career with Radio-Canada as a reporter, filmmaker, and broadcaster. She hosted news and affairs programs such as L’actuel, Montréal ce soir, Virages, and Le Point. She was the first person of Caribbean descent to be seen on French television news in Canada. Jean went on to anchor many different programs in Réseau de l’information, joined CBC Newsworld as a host for The Passionate Eye and Rough Cuts, and even hosted her own show called Michaëlle.
Michaëlle Jean became the 27th Governor-General and Commander-in-Chief of Canada in 2005. She was the first Black person and the first Haitian immigrant to hold this office. As the Governor-General, she pushed for initiatives that mattered the most to her including civil society, stimulating constructive synergies, advocating for the disadvantaged, and paying special attention to youth. She also encouraged communication between the Francophone and Anglophone communities in Canada.
After a disastrous earthquake hit Haiti in 2010, Michaëlle served as the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) Special Envoy for Haiti. In this role, she dedicated her time to helping the post-earthquake efforts.
Senator Anne Clare Cools, first Black Senator
Senator Anne Clare Cools was the first Black person in the Senate of Canada and the first Black female senator in North America.
Cools hails from Barbados, West Indies. She attended Queen’s College Girls School in Barbados. She immigrated to Montreal where she attended McGill University and received a Bachelor of Arts degree.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau recommended her to be summoned to the Senate in 1984. She was the first Black person in the Senate of Canada and the first Black female senator in North America. Cools then served as a Liberal Senator for 20 years before briefly joining the Conservatives. She now has no party affiliation. Senator Cools was a social worker in innovative social services in Toronto. She founded and was the Executive Director for one of Canada’s first women’s shelters, Women in Transition Inc. She currently serves on the Senate Special Committee on Aging and the Senate Standing Committee on Rules, Procedures and the Rights of Parliament.
Some of her recognitions include an Honorary Doctor of Laws Degree from Canada Christian College, and the title of one of the 100 greatest Canadians of all time by CBC.
The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander, Conservative Party Trailblazer
The Honourable Lincoln M. Alexander was the first Black person to become a Member of Parliament and was the first member of a visible minority to serve as the Queen’s representative in Canada.
Mr. Alexander was born in Toronto in 1922. He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts at Hamilton’s McMaster University, and passed the bar exam at Toronto’s Osgoode Hall School of Law in 1965. He was appointed Queen’s Counsel and became a partner in a Hamilton law firm from 1963 to 1979. A member of the Conservative Party, he was the first Black person to become a Member of Parliament in 1968 and served in the House of Commons until 1980. He was also federal Minister of Labour from 1979 to1980. He was appointed Ontario’s 24th Lieutenant Governor in 1985 and became the first member of a visible minority to serve as the Queen’s representative in Canada.
In 1996, he was chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation and was also made Honorary Commissioner for the International Year of Older Persons Ontario celebrations. The Honourable Lincoln Alexander was appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada and to the Order of Ontario in 1992.
In Canada, January 21st is Lincoln Alexander Day.
Canada Criminal Lawyer celebrates influential Black Canadians who have worked tirelessly to become leaders in Canada. Their contributions to Canadian law have helped shape Canada. Head to Canada.ca to read more biographies of influential Black Canadians.
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