Black History Month is observed across Canada every February. Black History Month in Canada provides an opportunity to share and learn about the experiences, contributions and achievements of peoples of African ancestry (see Black Canadians). It was initiated in Canada by the Ontario Black History Society and introduced to Parliament in December 1995 by Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected as a member of Parliament. Black History Month was officially observed across Canada for the first time in February 1996 (see also Black History in Canada).
Origins of Black History Month
Before Black History Month in Canada, there was a movement in the United States to recognize North Americans of African descent. In 1926, African American historian, Carter G. Woodson conceived of the idea to declare Negro History Week to coincide with the birthdates of abolitionist and former enslaved person Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln. During the 1970s, the week became known as Black History Week and was celebrated at the municipal level in many American cities. In 1976, it was expanded to Black History Month and declared a national observance by President Gerald Ford.
Introducing Black History Month in Canada
As understanding of Black history and Black History Week grew among African Americans, sleeping car porters are believed to have brought the idea to Canada. Porters, the majority of whom were Black men, often travelled to and from the United States for work and would have learned of Black History Week from their American counterparts.
On 13 February 1950, Stanley G. Grizzle, president of the Toronto CPR division of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, hosted the first celebration of Negro History Week in Canada at Toronto’s British Methodist Episcopal Church. The event is believed to have been the first in Canada. It included three speakers, including Grizzle, Rev. Stewart and Kay Livingstone. The following year, Livingstone established the Canadian Negro Women’s Association (now the Congress of Black Women of Canada), which continued to organize Black History Week events for many years.
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In 1973, Kay Livingstone chaired the first Congress of Black Women of Canada (CBWC) in Toronto, which was sponsored by the Canadian Negro Women’s Association. After a series of conferences in cities across Canada, the CBWC became a national organization in 1980 and chapters were formed cross the country. In 1992, the CBWC established a foundation that “promotes and facilitates activities and model programs which foster advancement, recognition, history, and education of black women and their families.”
Recognizing Black History Month
In 1978, the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) was established. Its founders, including Dr. Daniel G. Hill and Wilson O. Brooks, presented a petition to the City of Toronto to have February formally proclaimed as Black History Month. In 1979, the first-ever Canadian proclamation was issued by Toronto.
The first Black History Month in Nova Scotia was observed in 1988 and later renamed African Heritage Month in 1996.
In 1993, the OBHS successfully filed a petition in Ontario to proclaim February as Black History Month. Following that success, Rosemary Sadlier, president of the OBHS, introduced the idea of having Black History Month recognized across Canada to Jean Augustine, member of Parliament (MP) and Parliamentary Secretary. Augustine enthusiastically supported the idea. As she mentioned to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights:
“I was an educator.… I recognized that the classroom curriculum was saying very little about African Canadians. The same thing was done to Indigenous peoples —if there was any reference, it was either in the footnote or as a sideline. Black Canadians were not part of the script and were not shown contributing to Canadian society. ”
The motion was unanimously passed in the House of Commons on 14 December 1995, and the first national declaration of Black History Month in Canada went into effect in February 1996.
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Jean Augustine was the first Black woman elected to the House of Commons (1993) and the first Black woman to be appointed to Cabinet (2002). Augustine served as Secretary of State in charge of multiculturalism and the Status of Women in the Cabinets of prime ministers Jean Chrétien and Paul Martin.
In February 2008, Senator Donald Oliver, the first Black man appointed to the Senate, introduced a motion to have the Senate officially recognize February as Black History Month. The motion was approved unanimously and was adopted on 4 March 2008, completing Canada’s parliamentary position on Black History Month in Canada (see also Celebrating Black History Month in Canada).
A version of this article originally appeared in Black History in Canada, a website developed by Historica Canada.