In North America, names like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Malcolm X are synonymous with Black History Month. Their contributions are often immortalized in movies and television and stylized in books and literature. People often learn more about these figures and have become canonnized within the realm of Black history. This could be because Black American history is circulated more than Canadian Black history as Black History Month in Canada was not officially recognized until 1995 by the Canadian government, while Black History Month in the U.S has been recognized since 1976. Nevertheless, the overshadowed narratives of Black Canadians are just as captivating. They have made very important contributions to Canada’s history and it’s important not to overlook them. The Underground has decided to uncover some of the narratives belonging to Black historical figures in the country’s history to shed some light on the paths they have carved.  

Willie O’Ree

Many honour Willie O’Ree as the “Jackie Robinson” of hockey because he was the first Black player in the National Hockey League (NHL) and by extension, broke racial and social boundaries. O’Ree was born in the small coal mining town of Fredericton, New Brunswick in 1935, during a time when there were only two black families. O’Ree was the youngest of thirteen children and would begin playing organized hockey at the age of five.

After graduating from the New Brunswick Amateur Hockey Association, O’Ree would join a minor league team, The Québec Aces. In 1958, O’Ree was called up from the Boston Bruins, where on Jan. 18, 1958, he would become the first black player to play in the NHL. O’Ree would later recall the racial abuse he would receive from fans and players. In a 2012 Bleacher Report article he was quoted saying, “I particularly remember a few incidents in Chicago. The fans would yell, ‘Go back to the south’ and ‘How come you’re not picking cotton.’ In the penalty box, stuff would be thrown at [me], and they’d spit at me…I never fought one time because of racial remarks. I fought because guys butt-ended me and speared me and cross-checked me. But I said, ‘If I’m going to leave the league, it’s because I don’t have the skills or the ability to play anymore. I’m not going to leave it ’cause some guy makes a threat or tries to get me off my game by making racial remarks towards me.’”

O’Ree retired from the San Diego Hawks of the Pacific Hockey League at the end of the 1978-1979 season and five years later, he was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame. In 2000 O’Ree would be honoured with the Lester Patrick Trophy, an annual award presented for outstanding service to hockey in the United States. O’Ree’s impact at the time may have been undermined but today holds great importance. O’Ree broke through racial barriers in hockey and did it with determination and dignity. As of 2016, there are 25 players of Black descent in the NHL, which could not have been possible without the bravery of Willie O’Ree.

Viola Desmond

Born July 6, 1914 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Viola Desmond’s parents were prominent figures in the Black community. After a stint teaching in two racially segregated schools, Desmond entered a program at the Field Beauty Culture School in Montréal, one of the few schools that accepted Black applicants. She quickly found success in the beauty industry and opened her own school, the Desmond School of Beauty Culture, to train women in aesthetics and expand the business of her beauty products.

On November 8, 1948, while en route to a business meeting in Halifax, her car unexpectedly broke down in the town of New Glasgow. The repair was going to be a few hours and so Desmond opted to see a movie to pass the time. She got to the ticket booth and requested a main floor seat, usually reserved for white people. She was unknowingly given a balcony ticket and was challenged by the ticket taker who told her her seat was upstairs. The teller told her, “I’m sorry but I’m not permitted to sell downstairs tickets to you people.”

Desmond rejected this rule and proceeded to main floor seating. She was confronted by the manager who said they had the right to “refuse admission to any objectionable person.” Desmond argued that she was not refused a ticket and offered to pay the difference for a main floor seat. Despite this, the police were called and Desmond was dragged out of the theatre and thrown into jail overnight. Desmond was brought to court and charged with attempting to defraud the provincial government based on her alleged refusal to pay the difference of the tickets. The judge fined her $26. Desmond was not given counsel or informed she had the right to any. Magistrate Roderick MacKay was the only legal official in the court.

Though the issue of race was never mentioned, it was common knowledge among the Black community that in New Glasgow seating at the Roseland Theatre was segregated. Carrie Best, the founder of the second Black owned newspaper in Nova Scotia, The Clarion, took special interest in the case and would often cover it on the front page. Despite her conviction, many thought Desmond was innocent. It was only after 62 years that Desmond was finally and rightfully granted a free pardon by Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Mayann Francis. Faced with adversity in a time where race relations were far from perfect, Viola Desmond handled a difficult and unjust situation with dignity and courage. She did this by never backing down from her claim of innocence and bravely sharing her story with others. On Dec 8, 2016 Desmond became the first Canadian women and the first Black women to appear on a Canadian bank note that will begin circulation in 2018.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

Life is rarely ever easy for a Black woman and in the 19th century, a time where a majority of Blacks were being enslaved, a Black women obtaining a degree or starting her own publication would have been a rarity. Even so, that’s exactly what Mary Ann Shadd Cary did. Born into a free Black family in Delaware in 1823, she was educated at a Quaker school in Pennsylvania and in 1852, after the passage of fugitive slave law, she migrated to Canada where she opened her own integrated school.

It was also in Canada she started her newspaper called The Provincial Freemen, a weekly publication in which Shadd Cary wrote most of the articles. Holding the title as the paper’s editor and publisher, most of the articles were written by Shadd Cary. When the provincial ran its first weekly issue on March 24, 1853, she became the first Black woman in North America to publish a newspaper, a historic feat achieved when she was only 29 years of age.

Though the newspaper folded due to financial problems in 1860, Shadd Cary had not only solidified her place in history but paved the way for other Black women writers and newspapers, including Carrie Best of The Clarion, and many others. Shadd Cary would spend her later years as a school teacher in Washington, D.C and Chatham and as a recruitment officer during the Civil War.

In 1883, she pursued a degree in law at Howard University and became the second Black woman in America to do so. Shadd Cary’s contributions to Black journalism are vast as she set a trail for Black female writers in the 19th century and beyond. She was very influential in getting Black families from the U.S to migrate to Canada during the 19th century. She was political and intellectual in her approach to abolish slavery and did her best to aid the advancement of her race.

The contributions of these as well as many other Black Canadians should be regarded with the highest respect and honour from all Canadians. These three individuals along with countless other Black Canadians have aided the advancement of their race and in their own way have shaped Canada’s history. They have broken barriers, provided voices for the voiceless, and triumphed in the face of injustice.

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