Nova Scotia

New book highlights groundbreaking Black Atlantic Canadians

Dartmouth author Lindsay Ruck hopes her new book, Amazing Black Atlantic Canadians, fills a gap for kids today to learn about lesser-known important Black figures.

The illustrated book also includes Viola Desmond, and modern figures

Lindsay Ruck is shown with one of her earlier books, Winds of Change: The Life and Legacy of Calvin W. Ruck. Ruck's latest book, Amazing Black Atlantic Canadians, is aimed at children. (Lindsay Ruck)

Growing up, Lindsay Ruck never learned much about inspiring Black history or people in school.

The Dartmouth author is hoping her new book, Amazing Black Atlantic Canadians, fills that gap for kids today by shining a spotlight on important figures.

"It's my way of honouring them," Ruck told CBC's Information Morning on Friday.

"I feel unbelievably blessed to have the life that I have, and I know it's because of these individuals before me — and also people today who are still living, and who are still fighting that fight, and saying Black lives matter."

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No. 2 Construction Battalion was Canada's first and only segregated military unit. Nearly half of the battalion's 600 members were from Nova Scotia.

Ruck first approached Nimbus Publishing with an idea to write a kids book about the No. 2 Black Battalion, which she had learned about from her grandfather — the late Nova Scotia senator Calvin W. Ruck.

The military unit formed during the First World War was the only predominantly African-Canadian battalion since Confederation. The segregated battalion allowed Black men who had previously been turned away by recruiters to enlist in the military.

But Ruck was "absolutely thrilled" when Nimbus suggested expanding the scope to all kinds of Black Atlantic stories to add it to a new series. The first instalment, Amazing Atlantic Canadian Kids, came out in 2019.

Lindsay Ruck's latest book, Amazing Black Atlantic Canadians, highlights both popular and lesser-known important figures in history. (Nimbus Publishing)

While the research was exciting, and Ruck said she loved learning about groundbreaking Black Canadians, it wasn't always easy. She said it was difficult to find lots of details about certain people, especially for those who had died a long time ago. 

But, with lots of Internet digging and time in the library, Ruck gathered a solid foundation of more than 50 amazing Black people from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Some of the names featured in the book will be familiar, like Halifax's civil-rights activist Viola Desmond and soprano Measha Brueggergosman from New Brunswick.

But many might not know about lesser-known historical figures like Marie Margeurite Rose.

A native of Guinea, Rose lived as a slave in Louisbourg in the early 1700s before being freed in 1755. She then married a Mi'kmaw hunter, and the pair bought and ran a local tavern. She wiped tables and served drinks to a clientele that included former slave owners.

Ruck said she was also a skilled seamstress, and made her own soaps and preserves.

Marie Marguerite Rose is shown in a portrayal from the Fortress of Louisbourg National Historic Site in Nova Scotia. After being freed from slavery, Rose married a Mi'kmaw man and the pair owned and ran a local tavern in the 1700s. (Parks Canada)

"The fact she was a Black woman who owned her own business … and she was in an interracial marriage, there's so much just fascinating about this individual," Ruck said. 

"I definitely wanted her included in the book."

Then there is Lena O'Ree, who hosted the first Black radio show in Saint John, N.B. when she was 17 back in the 1930s. But Ruck said the listeners at the time didn't know that — the owners of the station thought people might not tune in if they knew she was Black.

In the 1950s, O'Ree worked as a housekeeper in a Canadian Pacific Hotel where Black people weren't allowed to walk through the front door or eat in the dining room. 

Ruck said O'Ree decided to take a stand, and refused to return to work until this policy was changed. Her protest made national headlines, which likely made the hotel chain "a bit nervous," Ruck said, and helped pave the way for the colour barrier at the hotel to be lifted.

"It really shows you the power of one," Ruck said.

Painter Edward Bannister is also included in the book, who built a career in the United States with his stunning landscapes. But Ruck said the artist, who was born in New Brunswick, also made a name for himself through portrait commissions of Black men and women.

Especially at that time, Ruck said Black people were used to seeing themselves only depicted as looking inferior, or being ridiculed.

"Having someone with the intention of painting this beautiful portrait of themselves was something that a lot of Black men and women wanted, and it was a sign of respect," Ruck said.

Ruck said she was "really honoured" to be able to write this book, and often thinks about people like the late Maxine Tynes, who was a celebrated poet and teacher.

"I think about the path that she paved, and all these pioneers who did incredible things," Ruck said.

Amazing Black Atlantic Canadians: Inspiring Stories of Courage and Achievement is illustrated by James Bentley and aimed at readers between the ages of 8 and 12.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

With files from Portia Clark and Information Morning