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What is racial segregation?


Children in front of the Marble Village Coloured School, [ca. 1900], Alvin D. McCurdy fonds, F 2076-16-5-2, Archives of Ontario, I0024783

The idea that racism doesn’t happen in Canada has been believed for many years and it’s not true.

Black people faced racism when they first came to Canada. And unfortunately, Black Canadians are still victims of anti-Black racism today.

Let's talk about segregation

You may have heard the word “racism” before, but what about “segregation”?

Segregation means someone with power (like governments, for example) forces the separation of different racial groups (which is based on something like skin colour).

This could happen in a country, community or shared space like schools, offices, movie theatres and so on.

Sign: N.S. Home For Colored Children

Racial segregation of Black people in Canada used to be part of the law.

This meant that Black people weren’t allowed to be in the same places as white people since they were seen as inferior (or not equal) to them.






Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children was an all-Black children's orphanage.

Photo: Nova Scotia Home for Coloured Children; Nova Scotia Archives, Bob Brooks, acc. 1989-468

What was it like in schools?

In the early 19th century, about 180 years ago, the governments of Ontario and Nova Scotia created legally segregated public schools — this meant there were separate schools for Black children.

There were also segregated schools in Alberta, Saskatchewan, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. White residents would often try to block Black families from attending local schools through petitions and threats.

Black students of King Street School in Amherstburg, Ontario with their teacher, J. H. Alexander, [ca. 1890s]
Students of King Street School in Amherstburg, Ontario with their teacher, J. H. Alexander, [ca. 1890s], F 2076-16-7-4, Archives of Ontario, I0027815

In 1865, over 150 years ago, Black students in Nova Scotia could attend school in the same one-room schoolhouse as white students, but at separate times. And if there were no separate schools in town, Black children weren't able to go to school.

About 15 years later, in the 1880s, the same rules came to Ontario in places like Hamilton.

Racial segregation in schools was still a law in Nova Scotia until 1950, which is just over 70 years ago.

Fifteen years later, in 1965, the last segregated school in Ontario closed when the first Black Canadian Liberal member of the Ontario Legislature, Leonard Braithwaite, was elected.

What was it like in theatres?

A picture of the Roseland Theatre taken around the time Viola Desmond stood up for her rights.

This is the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, N.S. where Viola Desmond refused to leave the whites-only section in 1946, about 75 years ago. (Photo: MacGillivray Injury and Insurance Law)

Some performance and movie theatres had segregated seating, and even named Black people’s sections with highly offensive terms.

There were also theatres that didn't allow Black people at all.

What were swimming pools and skating rinks like?

A picture of Borden Park pool from 1925 in Edmonton, Alberta.
Here's a picture taken in 1925 of Borden Park pool in Edmonton, Alberta. Photo: City of Edmonton Archives EA-10-100

In 1923, almost 100 years ago, the Edmonton City Council ruled that Black people couldn’t use swimming pools in the city. This happened because the white public and the Edmonton Exhibition Association were against “mixed bathing,” meaning Black people and white people swimming together.

Skating rinks also wouldn’t let Black people skate.

About 75 years ago, in 1945, 15-year-old Harry Gairey Jr. wanted to skate at an indoor rink with his white friend Donny Jubas. The rink refused to sell him a ticket, because he was Black.

Black Canadians challenging racism

image of The Clarion newspaper featuring Viola Desmond

The Black community were fed up with how they were being treated. 

They began to hold meetings and demonstrations, calling out to the government for change. Some families refused to bring their children to segregated schools and instead, brought them to white schools to force admission.

Black Canadian heroes like Bromley Armstrong challenged segregation in clubs, barber shops, restaurants and even churches.

There was also Viola Desmond, who stood up to the justice system and fought to end segregation in Nova Scotia in 1954, which is almost 70 years ago.

But even with segregation behind us, Black Canadians continue to face racism and discrimination.

Courtesy of Nova Scotia Archives: The Clarion page 1., December 1946, Nova Scotia Archives Newspaper microfilm 4350

How you can help

There are ways to support the Black community and create change, by being an ally.

Being an ally means supporting individuals or groups who are targeted or discriminated against, such as Black people.

Here's how to be an ally

Here are a few tips to keep in mind when you want to support and better understand anti-Black racism in Canada.

  • Call out racist jokes if you hear them.
  • Remember that Black people do not face the same struggles as non-Black people.
  • Find out about cultures that are different than yours.
  • Ask your grown-up for help finding books or social media videos to help you learn more.
  • Listen and ask questions.