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Ever since the late eighteenth-century, when Canada was known as Upper and Lower Canada, Black people have been an integral part of the landscape. In 1793, through the efforts of the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe, The Act Against Slavery was passed to offially outlaw slavery. This new Upper Canada law, however, contained compromises made to appease those whose businesses relied on slave labour. Following this compromised law, slavery was completely abolished with the passing of the British Imperial Act on August 1, 1834. After that important day (also known as Emancipation Day), a steady but slow exodus began from the United States to Canada.

By the late 1850s, Blacks who had arrived, first met with significant success. Some believed that education was the key to the future prosperity and ultimate independence of the community. When the University of Toronto opened its doors in 1827, Blacks were some of the first people to enroll. Within years, the country had its first Black professionals, who made their presence known almost immediately. They joined the ranks of religious leaders, business and property owners, and respected professionals in the general community.

This page pays tribute and attention to the spirit of these Black pioneers and their accomplishments. Here are a few of those individuals:

First Black pioneers:

The first Black man to visit Canadian soil was Mattieu da Costa from Azores. He was the interpreter for a French trading expedition to Acadia (Nova Scotia) in 1606. It is very possible he visited as early as 1603.

Mattieu was a linguist, interpreter, explorer, and pioneer. He was aboard the Jonas ship, which left La Rochelle on May 13, 1606 for Canada (Acadia). Among the crew was Samuel Champlain, the "Father of Canada."

The fact that Mattieu was able to speak the native language and other tongues suggests most strongly that he had been in Canada before. Additionally, Mattieu was a "well-educated and baptized Christian," as well as a charter member of Canada's oldest club, "The Order of Good Cheer."

Mattieu died during the winter of 1606-1607 in the little habitation that he helped to build at Port Royal. His true likeness is not known.

Sources: Ontario Black History Society and The Roy States Collection, McLennan Library, McGill University.

First Black residents of Canada:

Oliver le Jeune, from Madagascar, was brought to Quebec City as a six-year-old boy in 1628. After being sold several times, he was freed in 1638; he died in 1652.

The first Black woman to live in what became Ontario was Mrs. Sophia Burden. She was born in New York State and was sold to the Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant in the 1770s, some time before the American Revolution. She became a free women in 1792, married Robert Pooley, and was still alive in the early 1850s.

First Black person to publish a newspaper in Canada

Mr. Henry Bibb was born in Kentucky in 1815. He escaped to Cincinnati in 1837 but was recaptured when he returned for his wife. He then escaped again (to Detroit) and became a noted lecturer for the anti-slavery movement.

Mr. Bibb came to Canada after the United States passed the Fugitive Slave Act. He founded The Voice of the Fugitive in Windsor, Ontario in 1851. He remained closely connected to the Refugee Home Society, an organization involved in the settlement of refugees in Sandwich Township.

Sources: Ontario Black History Society and The Roy States Collection, McLennan Library, McGill University.

First Black Canadian-born doctor

Anderson Ruffin Abbott was born in Toronto in 1837 and received his medical degree from the University of Toronto at the age of twenty. In 1861, Mr. Abbott was licensed to practise medicine in Canada by the Medical Board of Canada. Abbott died in 1913.

Source: Ontario Black History Society.

First Black Lawyer in Canada

Mr. Robert Sutherland was born in Jamaica in 1830. He entered Queens University in Kingston, Ontario in 1849 and graduated three years later. He was called to the bar in 1855, and practised near Owen Sound, Ontario. He died in Toronto, Ontario in 1878.

Source: Ontario Black History Society

First Black Doctor in Canada:

Mr. A.T. Augusta, opened and operated his own pharmacy on Yonge Street in Toronto in the mid 1850s. He graduated from Trinity College as a doctor in 1860.

Source: Ontario Black History Society.

First Black Canadian male lawyer:

Mr. Delos Rogest Davis was born in Colchester Township in 1846. He was called to the bar of Ontario in 1885. He also became the first Black King's Counsel in 1910.

Source: Ontario Black History Society

First Black female lawyer in Ontario:

Mrs. Myrtle Blackwood Smith was called to the Ontario Bar in 1960.

Source: Ontario Black History Society

First Black lawyer in Nova Scotia:

Mr. James Robinson Johnston was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1876. He earned a Bachelor of Laws Degree from Dalhousie University in 1898.

Mr. Josiah Henson

Mr. Henson was born into slavery in Maryland on June 15, 1789. He escaped to Ontario with his family at age forty-four, arriving October 28, 1830. Mr. Henson fought for Canada (with William Lyon Mackenzie) in the 1837 Rebellion. During this battle, he single-handedly captured an American ship, The Anne, which was threatening the town of Sandwich.

Mr. Henson has also been described as a "Canadian pioneer in education." He was very instrumental in establishing the British American Institute at Dawn (Dresden), Ontario, which trained Canadians in Technical Systems for three-quarters of a century.

Additionally, Mr. Henson was the spiritual leader to the Black community in several regions. He served as the pastor of the British Methodist Episcopal Church at Dawn for many years.

Mr. Henson's home, located in Dresden, Ontario, is known as "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It has been transformed into a museum which illustrates history and life in Black-populated areas during the nineteenth century. In 1965, Mr. Henson's gravesite was declared an historic site.

Sources: Ontario Black History Society and The Freedom Seekers, 193-197

Materials prepared by William Brown.

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