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Black History Enriches Canadian History

Musicians Oscar Peterson and K’Naan, hockey player P. K. Subban, former governor-general Michaelle Jean and the first black moderator of the United Church of Canada, Dr. Wilbur Howard, are all well-known in Canadian society.

Many of us see jazz legend Oscar Peterson’s name whenever we pass by the elementary school in town which bears his name.

But, on the whole, many of us don’t know as much about the accomplishments and contributions of the black community as we do about people of other backgrounds. That’s why Stouffville’s Claudette Zabsonre is on a mission to make the achievements of black people more commonly known.



She was the organizer of the Stouffville Multicultural Association’s celebration of Black History Month at 19 on the Park-Lebovic Centre for Arts and Entertainment in late February. Among the community leaders who spoke at the event were Rosemary Sadlier, president of the Ontario Black History Society, which celebrates its 35th anniversary this year.

She surprised some of the audience by stating that people of African origin have been in Canada for over 400 years. Records show that Mathieu Da Costa, a free black man, arrived here in 1608 after being hired as a translator by European immigrants.

We are all familiar with the fact of American slavery: it was in practice for around 300 years until the end of the Civil War in 1865. But did you know that Canada also kept slaves for over 200 years until the practice was abolished in 1834? Yet these are among the people who helped to build the foundations of the new Canada. They worked as domestic servants, miners, fishermen and sailors and were carpenters, coopers, blacksmiths and other skilled tradesmen.

Several thousand enslaved African-American men, who were promised their freedom if they enlisted in the British Army, fought in the American Revolution. After the British were defeated and the war ended in 1783, around 3,000 black Loyalists came to Canada, with the majority settling in what is now Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.

“As a people with roots dating back to 1603, African-Canadians have defended, cleared, built and farmed this country; our presence is well established, but not well-known,” Ms Sadlier writes on the website.

Ms Zabsonre had wanted to do a black history/heritage event for some time after moving to Stouffville seven years ago. But first she decided to make connections in her new community. She has done that by volunteering with organizations such as the York Regional Police, Victim Services of York Region, the United Way, Markham-Stouffville Hospice and South Lake Hospital as a spiritual visitor.

She believes that it is important for youngsters to know their heritage. It gives them “a sense of connection and values to hold on to,” Ms Zabsonre said. When young people can see what their forebears have done, they can say “I can follow in their footsteps,” she observed.

She noted that the first taxi in Toronto was owned by a black family and that Mary Ann Shad was the first female and first black person to own a publishing company in Canada.

We should know who “made our society and our country a beautiful place to live,” she said.

Ms Zabsonre believes that increasing awareness about black history and achievements is about inclusiveness. At a Scarborough school with a predominantly non-black population, teachers and students created a Black History event, where all students took part, doing the dances, singing, and exploring other aspects of the culture.

Stouffville’s Black History Month event was MC’d by Christopher Alexander from the Scotiabank Caribbean Carnival, and the event was filled with music, dance, food, and an informative display on sickle cell anemia, a serious inherited disease predominantly found in the black population.

Among the exhibitors was new Stouffville resident Norma Hines-Brissett, who brought her bold, colourful paintings inspired by her Jamaican homeland. In Jamaica, this painter and writer trained teachers and taught art. She has received awards from the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission for creative writing. She recently completed her book, To Hurt and To Hold, which shares a story of spousal abuse, survival and forgiveness, and she has also written a sequel.

Along with teaching her granddaughter, Lauren, the joys of art and writing, she eventually wants to teach children’s art programs and teach art and creative writing to seniors in town.

“I will always do art that is very Jamaican,” she writes on her website, “but as I adopt Canada as my new home, it is only natural that I will study Canadian art and it will influence my future works.”

To find out more about black history and achievements, you can start by logging on to the Ontario Black History Society at and

By Hannelore Volpe

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