A Black Canadian History Timeline
- Past and Present
Enslaved Africans existed in Canada since at least 1628. By 1759, there were more than 3,000 slaves in Canada. In 1807, the slave trade was banned by the British and by 1834, slavery was abolished in Canada. On the legendary Underground Railroad, Canada accepted escaped American slaves between 1815 and 1860, bringing approximately 30,000 refugees into the country. However, even with the abolition of slavery in Canada, Black Canadians faced considerable challenges because of racism and discrimination. Through this timeline, we get a glimpse of the trials and tribulations; and the strength and determination of the Black Canadian community from 1605 to present day.
1605 – First Black in Canada: The first Black person thought to have set foot on Canadian soil was Mathieu Da Costa, a man hired as a translator for Samuel de Champlain’s 1605 excursion.
1709 – Louis XIV Authorizes Slavery in New France: King Louis XIV formally authorized slavery in New France. However, there were fewer slave-owners in the neighbouring English colonies.
May 10, 1776 – Black Corporations Formed: Many Blacks actively participated in the American Revolutionary War. They served as boatmen, woodsmen, general labourers, burglars, and musicians. General Henry Clinton formed a corps of free Blacks called the “Black Pioneers”. By this time Canada had developed a reputation as a safe haven for Blacks during the American Revolution, 1775-1783. The British promised land, freedom, and rights to slaves and free Blacks in exchange for service.
July 26-27, 1784 – Canada’s First Race-Riot in Nova Scotia: The Black Loyalists were among the first settlers in Shelburne, Nova Scotia. On its fringes, they established their own community, Birchtown. When hundreds of White disbanded soldiers found themselves competing for jobs with Black neighbours who were paid less for the same work, hostilities caused a riot.
1790 – The Imperial Statute: The Imperial Statute of 1790 allowed settlers to bring enslaved persons to Upper Canada. Under the statue, the enslaved had only had to be fed and clothed. Any child born of enslaved parents became free at age 25.
January 15, 1972 – The Black Loyalist Exodus: The difficulty of supporting themselves in the face of widespread discrimination convinced almost 1,200 Black Loyalists to leave Halifax and relocate to Sierra Leone, Africa.
June 19, 1973 – Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe’s Anti-Slave Trade Bill: Attorney General White introduced Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe’s anti-slavery measure and it passed. It was not a total ban on slavery, but rather, a gradual prohibition.
July, 22, 1796 – The Maroons Land at Halifax: A group of 600 freedom-fighters called the “Maroons” landed in Halifax. These immigrants came from the Jamaican community of escaped slaves who had guarded their freedom for more than a century.
1812-1815 – The “Coloured Troops” & The War of 1812: Thousands of Black volunteers fought for the British during the War of 1812.
1815-1860 – The Underground Railroad: Canada’s reputation as a safe haven for Blacks grew during and after the War of 1812. Tens of thousands of African-Americans sought refuge in Canada via the legendary Underground Railroad.
August 28, 1833 – British Parliament Abolishes Slavery: Slavery was abolished throughout the British colonies by an Imperial Act which became effective August 1, 1834. The act formally freed nearly 800,000 slaves.
February 26, 1851 – Formation of Canadian Anti-Slavery Society: As more Black refugees entered Canada, sympathizers formed organizations and committees to influence public opinion and help freedom-seekers make their way north in the 1850s-1860s. The Anti-Slavery Society of Canada was formed to aid in the extinction of Slavery worldwide.
November 16, 1857 – William Neilson Hall Wins Victoria Cross: William Hall serves aboard the frigate Shannon in Calcutta during the 1857 Indian Mutiny. He was awarded the Victoria Cross. He was the first Canadian naval recipient, the first Nova Scotian and the first Black to win the prestigious medal.
1866 – First Black Politician in Canada: Mifflin Gibbs was elected to the Victoria Town Council in 1866, becoming the first Black politician in Canada.
February 1911 – Anti-Black Campaign: By 1909, hundreds of Oklahoma Blacks had immigrated to the Canadian Prairies, where they experienced severe discrimination. In 1911, a few newspapers in Winnipeg predicted that the Dominion government would move to exclude “Negro immigrants.”
1914-1918 – Black Canadians in the First World War: Black Canadians at home became actively involved in the war effort. Also, in 1916, military officials authorized the creation of the No. 2 Construction Battalion. This all-Black battalion served in France with the Canadian Forestry Corps.
1939-1945 – Black Canadians in the Second World War: The Canadian military initially rejected Black volunteers, but as the war continued, many Blacks were accepted into the Regular Army and officer corps. At home, hundreds of Black workers joined labour unions for the first time. The all-Black Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was one of the greatest success stories of the war years.
March 14, 1944 – Ontario Passes Racial Discrimination Act: Ontario was the first province to respond to social change when it passed the Racial Discrimination Act of 1944, a landmark legislation prohibiting the publication and display of any symbols, signs, or notices that expressed ethnic, racial, or religious discrimination.
April 18, 1946 – Jackie Robinson Plays His First Game for the Montreal Royals: Jackie Robinson became the first Black player in modern organized baseball.
November 8, 1946 – Black Woman Sits in Theatre’s “White Section”: Viola Desmond, a Black woman from Halifax, was arrested at a New Glasgow theatre for sitting in the “White-only” section, even though she was willing to buy the more expensive ticket for the seat. The Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) supported her in her case against the theatre.
September 25, 1963 – First Black Elected to a Canadian Parliament: Leonard Braithwaite became the first Black Canadian in a provincial legislature when he was elected as the Liberal member for Etobicoke, Ontario.
1964-1970 – Africville Demolished: Encouraged by media attention to Africville, the Halifax City Planning Commission seized the land. Residents resisted, citing the community’s proud traditions, despite Africville’s lack of basic services such as water, sewage, and good foods. Residents were relocated and the community destroyed.
July 28, 1967 – Toronto’s Caribana Festival Founded: Ten Torontonians with a common West Indian heritage founded the Caribana cultural festival to display their rich cultural traditions.
September 18, 1967 – African-Canadian Wins Middleweight Championship: David Downey won his first Canadian Middleweight Championship, which he retained until August 1970.
October 1971 – Trudeau Introduces Canada’s Multicultural Policy: Canadian multicultural policy grew partly in reaction to the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. These policies barely recognized other ethnic groups; rather, it endorsed a “bicultural Canada”. Prime Minister Trudeau asserted that Canada was a “multicultural country with two official languages.”
1974 – Oscar Peterson Wins Grammy: Jazz pianist, Oscar Peterson, won his first Grammy. He went on to win seven others, including the coveted Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 1997.
1971 – African-Canadian Sprinter Receives Order of Canada: Sprinter, Harry Jerome, was awarded the Order of Canada medal for “excellence in all fields of Canadian life.” Jerome proudly represented Canada in three Olympic Games, winning bronze at Tokyo in 1964.
August 6, 1995 – Canadian Sprinter Becomes “World’s Fastest Human”: Oakville’s Donovan Bailey assumed the title of “World’s Fastest Human” when he won the 100-metre sprint at the World Track Championships at Goteborg, Sweden. Bailey went on to win gold at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, setting a new world record of 9.84.
September 27, 2005 – The Right Honourable Michaelle Jean Sworn in As Governor General: The Rt. Hon. Michaelle Jean became Canada’s first Black governor general in 2005. She emphasized freedom as a central part of the Canadian identity.
November 2012 – First Black Chief of Police: Devon Clunis was sworn in as Chief of Police of the Winnipeg Police Service, becoming the first black Canadian to hold the position.
Today, the African-Canadian population is made up of individuals from a range of places around the world including the United States, South America, the Caribbean and Africa. They have played an essential role in the creation of the nation and many have become fixed parts of the Canadian modern culture.
**Note: This timeline is courtesy of black history canada.ca and the Black History in Canada Education Guide - Compiled by Jonnel Briscoe for Public Knowledge.
Mathieu Da Costa - (courtesy Dr. Henry Bishop / Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia)
No.2 Construction Battalion, c. 1917 - (courtesy Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia)
- (Courtesy Harry Jarome site)
Africville - (Nova Scotia Archives)
Caribana dancer 1967 - (Courtesy CBC)
- (Nova Scotia Archive N-6202)
Hon. Lindsay Blackett- (Alberta 1ST BLACK provincial minister)
slaves - Slave traders packed ships with slaves.
hon. michelle jean - Sworn in as Governor General (Courtesy The Globe and Mail)
william hall - (Nova Scotia Archive N-852)
hon. Jean augustine - (1st Black woman to be elected into Parliament)