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Black History Month: Celebrating The Legacy Of Ten Remarkable People & Moments In Canadian History
February 1, 2013
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Today, February 1st, marks the start of Black History Month.

It's a chance for the entire country to honour and celebrate the achievements and legacy of black Canadians, past and present.

The video at the top of the page from the government of Canada is part of that celebration.

Of course, there are a number of famous names.

Michaëlle Jean: the first black Canadian to serve as Governor General

Donovan Bailey: the first Canadian to win Olympic gold in the 100m

Oscar Peterson: Legendary jazz pianist and 8-time Grammy winner

Lincoln Alexander: the first black member of Parliament

Ferguson Jenkins: the first Canadian elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame

Measha Brueggergosman: award winning soprano and opera star

And so many more.

But there's a long list of historic black Canadians who've made significant contributions to this country.

With that in mind, here are their stories and how they helped make Canada the diverse and prosperous place it is today.

Maurice Ruddick: in 1958, he was one of 7 men who were trapped for 9 days in a mine disaster in Springhill, Nova Scotia. Ruddick, the only black man in the group, suffered a broken leg.

Over the 9 days, he kept the miners' spirits up by singing and leading them in prayer. After the men were rescued, Georgia's governor invited them to vacation at a high end resort.

However, this being Georgia in the 50s, the governor refused to allow Ruddick to stay with the other miners. Ruddick agreed to stay in a trailer with his family, so it wouldn't ruin the trip for his fellow miners.

Ruddick died in 1988.

black-history-month-honouring-the-legacy-of-ten-remarkable-people-and-moments-in-canadian-history-feature3.jpg Viola Desmond: Often called the 'Rosa Parks' of Canada, Desmond was a successful businesswoman in Halifax in the 1940s.

In 1946, in New Glasgow, Desmond ended up at a movie theatre and took a seat on the main floor. However, at the time, blacks were to sit in the balcony. The main floor was for "whites only."

Desmond refused and was dragged out by police and thrown in jail overnight. For the next 12 hours, she sat upright on the hard jail bench, wearing her white gloves (a sign of sophistication at the time).

She was accused of defrauding the Nova Scotia government of the tax on the higher-priced main floor seats, which amounted to one cent.

Desmond was fined $20 and sentenced to 30 days in prison. But she won an appeal in court on a technicality.

Desmond's case generated so much publicity, Nova Scotia was forced to throw out its segregation laws in 1954.

Peter C. Butler III: the grandson of an escaped slave, Butler was the first black police officer in Canada. Starting in 1883, he spent 50 years in law enforcement with a reputation as a peaceful man.

Sometimes, he let minor offenders stay at his home, instead of tossing them into jail. Butler rarely carried a gun. Instead, he's said to have kept the peace with a baton and his large hands.

black-history-month-honouring-the-legacy-of-ten-remarkable-people-and-moments-in-canadian-history-feature4.jpg Senator Anne Clare Cools: originally from Barbados, Cools spent much of her life as a social worker working to stop domestic and family violence.

In 1974, she founded one of Canada's first women's shelters, 'Women in Transition', and was its Executive Director.

In 1984, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau appointed Cools to the Senate, making her the first black person to serve there. She was also the first black female senator in North America.

Cools was also voted one of the 100 greatest Canadians of all time, as part of the CBC's special series in 2004. Senator Cools was the only serving member of Parliament to be named to the top 100.

Cools also took part in the Sir George Williams Riot in 1968 in Montreal, which we highlight next.

The Sir George Williams Riot: In the spring of '68, six black Caribbean students at Sir George Williams University (now part of Concordia University) accused a biology teacher of racism.

They said the teacher was handing out failing grades to all his black students, whether they deserved it or not.

When a university committee tossed out the complaint, the six students along with about 200 others occupied a computer centre on campus.

Nearly two weeks later, it appeared the two sides had a deal to end the "sit-in" but it fell apart at the last minute. About 100 students barricaded the stairwells and shut off the elevators and telephones.

When police showed up, a riot broke out and 97 people (black & white) were arrested. The next day the accused biology teacher was reinstated.

But in 1971, the university changed how it dealt with complaints of racism - allowing students to be part of the decision-making process.

In 2000, one of the protest leaders Roosevelt Douglas said "It was a fight for black people to have an equal stake in the nation. We had no malice in our heads - we just wanted justice."

black-history-month-honouring-the-legacy-of-ten-remarkable-people-and-moments-in-canadian-history-feature2.jpg Delos Davis: the first black lawyer in this country. Born in Maryland, Davis and his family used the underground railroad to escape slavery and come to Canada in 1850. He was four at the time.

Eventually, he became a teacher, and then studied law in Windsor, Ontario. But because he was black, he couldn't find work as a lawyer.

For more than ten years, he fought for his right to practice law and eventually convinced his local MPP, William Balfour, to introduce a special law that would allow him to practice if he passed the test from the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Davis did, finishing first in his class. He went on to become one of the country's top lawyers. In 1910, he was appointed a King's Counsel - an honour that only a small number of lawyers in the Commonwealth had achieved.

The No. 2 Construction Battalion: When the First World War I started, many black Canadians tried to enlist - only to be told it was "a white man's war."

As the war went into its third year, enlistment in Canada dropped from 30, 000 to 6000 per month. So, to increase those numbers, military officials approved the creation of No. 2 Construction Battalion based in Pictou, Nova Scotia.

Black Canadians enlisted from across the country. The unit's officers were white, with the exception of the chaplain, Reverend William Andrew White. The battalion's job was to support the front lines and bring out the wounded.

They built roads and bridges and defused land mines so Canadian troops could move forward. No. 2 Construction Battalion was officially disbanded on September 15, 1920.

Check out Zanana Akande telling the story of the No. 2 Construction Battalion on our show last season right here.

Chloe Cooley: Cooley was an enslaved black woman in Queenston, Upper Canada. On March 14, 1793, she was bound and thrown on a boat to be taken to the United States and sold.

She fought back, screaming and struggling to get free. Peter Martin, a free Black man, saw what was happening and brought a witness, William Grisley, to report the incident to Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe.

Simcoe used this incident to help introduce the 1793 Act to Limit Slavery in Upper Canada. No slaves were freed outright.

But under the law no one was allowed to bring slaves into Upper Canada, and gradually, enslavement was abolished.

black-history-month-honouring-the-legacy-of-ten-remarkable-people-and-moments-in-canadian-history-feature1.jpg Anderson Abbott: born in Toronto, he came from a wealthy family that owned about 50 properties in the city. In 1861, Abbott was licensed as the first Canadian-born black doctor in Canada.

He went on to serve in a segregated regiment in the American Civil War effort and then as a surgeon in Washington, D.C. Perhaps his most notable patient was the dying President Abraham Lincoln.

Eventually, Abbott came back to Canada, moving to Chatham, Ontario where he was appointed coroner for Kent County. He also advocated for integrated schools.

Mathieu Da Costa: DaCosta is believed to be the first person of African heritage to arrive in what is now Canada.

It's thought that, in 1604, he came here with French explorers Samuel de Champlain and Pierre Du Gua De Monts.

Da Costa, a free man, worked as an interpreter, helping Europeans communicate with the Mik'maq people.

You can read more about Black History Month on the Government of Canada's website and at

The CBC is celebrating the achievements of black Canadians and the rich history of African and Caribbean culture, as part pf the 5th Annual TD Then & Now series.

The series includes art exhibits, film, live performances and much more. This year, TD Then & Now will host events in Halifax, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto.

You can find out everything you need to know by going to the TD Then & Now website.

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