Sudbury·Black History

Black settlers part of the much more 'complex history' of northern Ontario

People generally think about the Black history of northern Ontario only going back a few decades, but it goes back a lot further than that.

New book to highlight the number of multi-racial couples in Cobalt in the 1910s

David Douglass's father came to Temiskaming in the early 20th century and was one of the only Black families in the area. (David Douglass )

According to the census, there were 75 Black people living in northern Ontario in 1911. Connie Visser's grandfather was one of them.

Those roots are still here. The 76-year-old still lives where she grew up in Kerns Township outside of New Liskeard and is one of the 5,000 Black people who live in the north today.

Her grandfather moved from southern Ontario to the Temiskaming district in 1902, but she isn't sure why.

A photo of Connie Visser's ancestors, including her grandfather William Miller (standing at left) who came to the Temiskaming district in 1902. (Connie Visser)

But Visser doesn't think much about her family's pioneering role as some of the first Black settlers. 

"Most people around here have come from somewhere else," she says.

She says her mother never spoke much about it either. 

"Like anybody that saw her knew she was brown, but I don't think she had too much trouble with prejudice," says Visser. 

"I didn't. Everybody accepted me... I'm a little darker than a white person."

David Douglass grew up in one of the only Black families in New Liskeard and then went onto to become the fourth Black officer in the history of Ontario Provincial Police. (David Douglass )

Her cousin David Douglass also comes from one of the first Black families in the north, who settled in the Temiskaming area in the early 20th century.

The 77-year-old remembers his father wasn't allowed into bars at the time and wonders if it was because he was mistaken for an Indigenous man. Douglass says this prompted his dad to give up drinking.

He says he faced some racism growing up in New Liskeard in the 1940s and 1950s. 

"My sister, she took care of a lot of the name calling and protected us," says Douglass.

"On the way to school, she would chase them down and beat on them. It seemed to dissipate and actually we had a good life in New Liskeard. They treated us well."

Douglass now lives in Mattawa, one of the northern towns he protected as an Ontario Provincial Police officer, the fourth Black person to wear the uniform. 

He says he sometimes got odd reactions, especially from American tourists he pulled over in northern Ontario.

"One person said to me 'What are you doing way up here?'" says Douglass.

Richard "Dick" Elliot was a prospector in Cobalt in the early 20th century who won the Four Nations Mine in Kenogami, pictured here, in a bet on a hockey game. (Val Macpherson)

The history of northern Ontario is usually focused on white prospectors and lumberman coming to settle the region, but Charlie Angus says it's much more complicated and multi-racial than that.

The Timmins-James Bay MP has been picking away at the history of Black people in Cobalt ever since a conversation with a Black American artist friend of his in the 1990s. 

"And he kept saying to me 'Where's the Black history here?' And I said 'I don't know of any Black history,'"

"And he said 'Listen, this is frontier town. There's a Black history here. Where is it?'" remembers Angus. 

"And that stuck in my mind... and I began to piece together a more interesting and complex history."

That research is going to be part of a new book on the history of the Cobalt silver rush due to come out in 2022.

Angus says it will includes the story of a Black prospector who won a mine by betting on a hockey game and a story of a white woman and a Syrian woman who got into a fight because of "amorous advances" toward the white woman's Black husband. 

"Cobalt seemed to have many multi-racial couples, but there were serious roadblocks," he says.

Angus uncovered another story from the 1910s of a Black cook in Cobalt, who went to New Liskeard to visit his white fiancee and was attacked by a white mob. 

"It tells you about that kind of frontier nature, where the definitions of social hierarchies are still being defined," he says. 

When you think of the pioneers who came to northern Ontario over a century ago, you probably don't picture a lot of black faces, but they were here, and their roots are still part of this region. The CBC's Erik White joined us with more on that story. 8:54

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Erik White

journalist

Erik White is a CBC journalist based in Sudbury. He covers a wide range of stories about northern Ontario. Connect with him on Twitter @erikjwhite. Send story ideas to erik.white@cbc.ca

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