Most Historically Famous Black Canadians

Canada has a rich history, and while the contributions of Black Canadians have sometimes been overlooked, there are individuals who have made significant historical impacts.

Below, World History Edu presents some of the most historically famous Black Canadians:

Viola Desmond (1914–1965)

Viola Desmond’s portrait, showcased at Government House in Halifax.

Viola Desmond, a businesswoman and beautician, is a civil rights icon. In 1946, she challenged racial segregation at a movie theatre in Nova Scotia by refusing to move to the designated Black section. As a result, she was convicted of a minor tax violation for a mere one-cent difference in seat prices. Despite having paid for a less expensive seat, she used a pricier one, exposing the racial discrimination pervasive in Canada.

The incident became a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement in Canada, emblematic of the broader struggle against systemic racism and segregation.

Undoubtedly, Viola Desmond’s courageous stand left an enduring impact on the quest for equality in Canadian history, solidifying her legacy as a symbol of resistance against racial injustice.

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Did you know…?

  • Following her trial in Nova Scotia, Viola Desmond’s marriage ended, prompting her to close her business. She relocated to Montreal to attend a business college and later settled in New York City.
  • She passed away on February 7, 1965, at the age of 50 due to gastrointestinal bleeding. Viola Desmond is interred at Camp Hill Cemetery in Halifax, Nova Scotia, marking the final resting place of this trailblazing figure in Canadian civil rights history.
  • In 2010, Viola Desmond received a posthumous free pardon, the first in Canada. This pardon retroactively cleared her of the tax violation, canceling all associated consequences. However, the government only reimbursed her estate’s $26 fine in 2021, adjusting it to $324 CAD to account for the time value of money through a $1,000 scholarship. The Crown-in-Right-of-Nova Scotia also issued an apology, recognizing her rightful resistance against racial discrimination.
  • In 2018, Desmond made history as the first Canadian-born woman on a banknote, the $10 bill, unveiled in Halifax.
  • She was additionally honored as a National Historic Person in 2018 for her pivotal role in the Canadian civil rights movement.

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Mathieu Da Costa (17th century)

Although not much is known about his life, Mathieu Da Costa is believed to be the first person of African descent to reach Canada. He was a free man who worked as a translator for French and Dutch explorers in the early 1600s.

It’s a known fact that many mixed-race African-Portuguese individuals belonged to the Atlantic Creole generation. Often times, they were employed as sailors or interpreters.

In the case of Mathieu Da Costa, it’s said that his linguistic skills were diverse, including Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, Mi’kmaq, and pidgin Basque—the latter being a dialect commonly used by Indigenous peoples for trade during that period. This multilingualism of Da Costa facilitated communication and interactions among different communities in the Atlantic world.

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Did you know…?

  • Da Costa’s contributions are recognized in Canada, including receiving an honor at the Port-Royal National Historic Site in Nova Scotia.
  • Additionally, Mathieu de Costa is the subject of a French graphic novel titled “Mathieu de Costa,” authored by Diane Groulx and illustrated by Jocelyne Jatte. This novel serves to highlight and commemorate his historical significance, contributing to the understanding and appreciation of his work and impact in Canada.
  • Canada Post issued a domestic rate postage stamp on February 1, 2017, to honor da Costa during Black History Month.
  • Additionally, at the Port Royal Habitation National Historic Site, a plaque commemorates da Costa’s contributions, forming part of the Mathieu da Costa African Heritage Trail. Unveiled in July 2005, this series of monuments in the Annapolis Valley marks key aspects of African Nova Scotian history, further recognizing and celebrating the historical significance of Mathieu de Costa.

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William Hall (1827–1904)

William Hall, born in Nova Scotia, was the first Black person, and the first Nova Scotian, to receive the Victoria Cross for his heroic actions during the Siege of Lucknow in 1857, part of the Indian Rebellion.

William Nelson Edward Hall (28 April 1827 – 27 August 1904) holds historical significance as the first Black person and first Nova Scotian to receive the Victoria Cross, making him the third Canadian to be awarded this prestigious honor. His remarkable actions during the 1857 Siege of Lucknow in the Indian Rebellion earned him the medal.

In the account, Hall, who was part of a naval gun crew, faced heavy fire while attacking a mosque. Despite the casualties among his fellow soldiers, Hall and an officer persisted, loading and firing a 24-pounder gun at the Shah Nujeef mosque walls, aiming to restore Mughal suzerainty in the face of strong local resistance.

Originally buried in an unmarked grave without military honors, Hall was reinterred in 1954 in Hantsport, Nova Scotia. His grave is now marked by a monument at the Baptist church.

Did you know…?

  • The local Royal Canadian Legion, now closed, was named “The Lucknow Branch” in tribute to his Victoria Cross action.
  • In 1967, Hall’s original Victoria Cross was repatriated from Britain by the Nova Scotia government and is now permanently displayed at the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax, commemorating his heroic actions during the Siege of Lucknow in 1857.
  • William Hall is prominently featured in exhibits at the Halifax Citadel and the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.
  • Canada Post paid tribute to his legacy by issuing a commemorative stamp in February 2010 in Hantsport, Nova Scotia.
  • Recognizing his historical importance, Hall was designated a National Historic Person by the Canadian Historic Sites and Monuments Board in Hantsport in 2010.

Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823–1893)

An image of Mary Shadd from the National Archives of Canada

Born in Delaware, U.S., Mary Ann Camberton Shadd Cary (October 9, 1823 – June 5, 1893) was a pioneering American-Canadian figure famed for engaging in anti-slavery activism, journalism, teaching, and law.

Notably, she became North America’s first black woman publisher and Canada’s inaugural female publisher.

As the second black woman to attend U.S. law school, Shadd Cary established the Provincial Freeman newspaper in 1853, advocating for equality, integration, and self-education for black communities in Canada and the United States.

Her family, active in the Underground Railroad, relocated to southern Ontario after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. And during the American Civil War, she recruited soldiers for the Union.

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Did you know…?

  • Mary Ann Camberton Shadd Cary’s former residence in the U Street Corridor, Washington, DC, achieved National Historic Landmark status in 1976.
  • Recognized by the National Women’s History Project as a Women’s History Month Honoree in 1987, she was later inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998.
  • Similar to the Black Canadians on this list, Shadd Cary is designated a Person of National Historic Significance, commemorated with a plaque in Chatham, Ontario, and honored at BME Freedom Park.
  • Plaques in Toronto mark the site where she published The Provincial Freeman while residing in the city from 1854 to 1855.

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