February is Black History Month: Black representation in Canadian Politics

Why do we commemorate black history month?

People of African descent are often absent from Canadian history books. There is very little mention of slavery in Canada, of the fact that it once existed in this country or that many of the Loyalists who came here after the American Revolution and settled in the Maritimes were Black. Black Canadians have made many sacrifices for this country. A great example of this is their wartime effort during the War of 1812 and the Second World War from 1939 to 1945.

Negro history week

Black History Month began as Negro History Week in the United States in 1926. Historian Carter G. Woodson wanted to raise awareness of contributions of Black people in the country’s history. This week-long commemoration eventually led to Black History Month in the 1970s. Woodson chose February for this observance because the renowned abolitionists Frederick Douglass and former U.S. President Abraham Lincoln were born during the month.

Canadian legislation officially observes black history month

In December 1995, the House of Commons in Canada officially recognized February as Black History Month following a motion introduced by the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Honourable Jean Augustine. The motion was carried unanimously by the House of Commons. 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. It received unanimous approval and was adopted on March 4, 2008. The adoption of this motion completed Canada’s parliamentary position on Black History Month. Senator Anne Cools was the first Black woman to be appointed to the Senate.

Lincoln Alexander (1922 – 2012)

Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament

Lincoln MacCauley Alexander served as the 24th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario from 1985 to 1991. Alexander was also a Governor of the Canadian Unity Council. Born in Toronto to West Indian immigrants, Alexander served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War. He graduated from Osgoode Hall Law School in Toronto in 1953.

In 1968, he was elected to the Canadian House of Commons as the Hamilton West representative for the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada, becoming Canada’s first black Member of Parliament. He held the seat for four successive elections.

In 1985 Governor General Jeanne Sauvé appointed Lincoln Alexander the 24th Lieutenant Governor of Ontario. He became the second Black person to serve in a vice-regal position in Canada.

In 2000, Alexander was named Chair of the Canadian Race Relations Foundation, where he became an active spokesman on race relations and veterans’ issues. In November 2006, his autobiography Go to School, You’re a Little Black Boy was published.

Jean Augustine (b. 1937)

First female Black Canadian in Parliament

Augustine was born in Grenada. She moved to Canada and studied at the University of Toronto, where she obtained a bachelor of arts and a master of education. Later she received an honorary doctor of laws from the same institution. After university she was an elementary school principal with the Metropolitan Separate School Board in Toronto.

In the 1993 federal election, Augustine became the first Black Canadian woman elected to the Parliament of Canada and subsequently the first black woman in a federal Cabinet. She also served three terms as Chair of the National Liberal Women’s Caucus.

She is the recipient of the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award, the Kaye Livingstone Award, the Ontario Volunteer Award, the Pride Newspaper Achievement Award, the Rubena Willis Special Recognition Award and the Toronto Lions’ Club Onyx Award.

In 2009, she was made a Member of the Order of Canada “for her distinguished career as an educator, politician and advocate for social justice in Canada.”

Daurene Lewis (1943 – 2013)

First female Black Canadian mayor

Daurene Lewis was born and raised in Annapolis Royal, NS. She is a seventh-generation descendent of Black Loyalists who settled in Annapolis Royal in 1783.

Lewis first entered political life in 1979, when she ran for a seat on the Annapolis Royal Town Council. In 1982, Lewis was appointed Deputy Mayor. In 1984, Lewis was elected mayor of Annapolis Royal, becoming the first Black mayor in Canada. In 1988 she entered provincial politics and was the first Black woman in Nova Scotia to run in a provincial election. She is also an accomplished textile artist and owned a weaving and design business in Annapolis Royal, for many years.

Lewis’s numerous awards include: an honorary degree from Mount Saint Vincent University in 1993, a space on the Black Cultural Centre’s Wall of Honour in 1994, the Global Citizenship Award commemorating the United Nations 50th Anniversary in 1995, the Progress Club of Halifax Woman of Excellence Award for Public Affairs and Communication in 1998, the Queen’s Jubilee Medal in 2002 and the Order of Canada in 2003.

Michaëlle Jean (b. 1957)

First Black Governor General of Canada

Michaëlle Jean emigrated from Haiti with her family at an early age in order to escape Duvalier’s regime. The family settled first at Thetford Mines, QC, then in Montreal.

Jean, fluent in five languages – French, English, Italian, Spanish and Haitian Creole – received a bachelor of arts degree in Italian and Hispanic Languages and Literature from the University of Montreal, where she would later teach Italian Studies. She studied language and literature Studies at the University of Florence, the University of Perugia and the Catholic University of Milan.

On Aug. 4, 2005, it was announced from the Office of the Prime Minister of Canada that Queen Elizabeth II had approved Prime Minister Paul Martin’s choice of Jean to succeed Adrienne Clarkson as the Queen’s representative.

Jean became the first Black Governor General of Canada and the first Governor General of Caribbean origin. She served as Governor General of Canada for five year and is now Special Envoy for Haiti in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. As of Feb. 1, 2017, Jean will become the 13th chancellor of the University of Ottawa.

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