Canada's noteworthy contributors to Canadian Black History Month
Black History Month is celebrated in February of each year in North America. Even though I publish Black History-themed posts every year on social media, this year I’m going to do things a little differently. Each week will have its own theme where I’ll post about events and individuals which they relate to. For this week, I’ll feature people and events that are related to Canadian Black History.
The Sir George Williams Affair
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of The Sir George Williams Affair—otherwise known as the Sir George Williams Riot—which made worldwide headlines. This was a result of the frustration of many Black students who saw a pattern of questionable behavior on behalf of then biology teacher, Perry Anderson, who gave at least six Black students low grades. According to former student, Rodney John—a native of Saint Vincent—“All of the West Indians in that class had … some personal interaction with Anderson that raised questions.”
The students demanded that the university investigate Perry. After around ten months of inaction, hundreds of students retaliated with a peaceful sit-in—occupying a computer room on the ninth floor of the Hall building. After thirteen days, the protestors thought that they had reached an agreement with the university and began to clean up the room.
However, they were misled.
The students retaliated by barricading themselves into the same room, trashed it, and threw items out the window. A fire broke out, and throughout the incident, John remembers people screaming in the streets below, “Let the n*ggers burn.”
When it was all over, $2 million dollars worth of equipment was destroyed and 97 students were arrested. Many were given amnesty and returned to classes to get their degrees. However, the leaders weren’t as fortunate, as Ann Cools—a native of Barbados—and Roosevelt Douglas—a native of Dominica—were sent to jail. However, their actions were not in vain. After the 1969 affair, Sir George Williams revamped a few key policies. An ombudsman’s office was established and the school adopted regulations on the university’s rights and responsibilities. Apparently, Anderson was cleared of all charges of racism by the university.
Even though Cools and Douglas were jailed for their participation of the sit-in, they both deserve an honorable mention as West-Indians who made an important impact on Black History. The Sir George Williams Affair sparked a conversation of racism in Canada, and opened people’s eyes that it actually existed in the country.
Whenever we hear about a woman who wouldn’t give up her seat to a white man, the name, Rosa Parks, usually comes to mind. Here in Canada we also had our Rosa Parks—her name was Viola Desmond.
On November 8, 1946, Viola Desmond challenged racial discrimination when she refused to leave the segregated Whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. Viola Desmond was arrested, jailed overnight and convicted without legal representation for an obscure tax offence as a result.
On November 8, 2018, Ms Desmond made Canadian Black History again when the Bank of Canada put the new $10 bill into circulation–the first of its kind being a vertical bank note, featuring Ms Desmond.
Daisy Peterson Sweeny
Many have heard of famous Black Canadian Jazz greats such as Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones. However, what is a less known fact of Canadian Black History is that it was Daisy Peterson Sweeny who nurtured their talent.
On February 6, 2019, the city of Montreal finally announced that a park in the Little Burgundy borough and a street bordering it will be named after the well-known and much loved piano teacher.
Canadian Black History wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Marie-Joseph Angélique. Today, many people don’t realize that slavery existed in Canada. Angélique was born in Madeira, Portugal, and died in Montreal, Quebec, after she was charged with arson. The fire burnt most of what is now known today as Old Montreal. She was charged, tortured, and hanged. Even though there was never any solid evidence that linked her to the fire, Ms Angélique remains a symbol of Black resistance even today.
Russell Brooks is an essayist and the author of four action suspense novels.