October is Women’s History Month in Canada. The observance of October as Women’s History Month in this country was officially recognized by the Federal government in 1992. Women’s History Month is usually about the recognition of white women given that October was chosen because of the “Persons Case.” The “Person's Case” involved five white women, all living in Alberta at the time, who launched a successful challenge to the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to deny women the right to sit in the Canadian Senate. The British Privy Council, at the time the highest court of appeal for Canadians, reversed a Supreme Court of Canada decision in October 1929 to recognise white women as persons who could sit in the Canadian Senate. On October 18, 1929, white Canadian women became persons. If African Canadian women were recognized as “persons” in 1929, would Viola Desmond have been dragged out of a cinema in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia (November 8th, 1946) and arrested because she was sitting in the area reserved for white “persons?”
Surprisingly, this year the theme is “Celebrating Immigrant Women in Canada.” It will be interesting to see which immigrant women are officially celebrated during this month. There are numerous immigrant women in our community who do not get recognition for the work they do. My neighbour Brenda Pierre who immigrated to Canada from Trinidad in 1969 is one of the women I admire for the work she does in the St Jamestown community. Pierre comes by her enterprising spirit honestly as a descendant of enslaved Africans who escaped slavery by fighting on the side of the British during the war of 1812. Her ancestors Amphy and Bashana Jackson were part of a group of the Corps of Colonial Marines from the Chesapeake area who were given land in Moruga in 1816 in what became known as Fifth Company of the Company Villages. As a descendant of people who took the initiative to change their status from enslaved to free people, it is not surprising that in 1999 when Pierre observed that our children in St Jamestown needed help she organized and facilitated the Children First Youth Educational Program. Volunteering five days a week during the school year from 3:30 to 7:00 p.m in the basement of an apartment building Pierre offers much needed academic support to a group of children from kindergarten to grade 8. Some children begin the program hardly able to read and within a short time they are reading fluently and confidently. Pierre also volunteers her time during the summer to ensure that there is a support program for the neighbourhood children which was especially valued this year since the provincial government did not fund a summer school program. With no sustainable funding, merely sporadic donations of books, pencils etc. from various sources, this amazingly enterprising woman has kept the Children First Youth Educational Program going for eight years.
Brenda Pierre is an example of African women who have been immigrating to Canada since the 18th century. Enslaved African women brought to Canada as chattel are not immigrants since they did not choose to settle in Canada. Since the first arrivals in the 18th century, immigrant African women have made their contributions to Canadian life. We can look to the examples of pioneers like Rose Fortune, Mary Ann Shadd and Sylvia Stark, educators like Dr Afua Cooper, social justice and human rights activists like June Veecock and Sherona Hall.
Rose Fortune who is recognized as Canada’s first female police officer came to Canada as a member of the first wave of African immigrants. She was born in Virginia in 1774, into a family of enslaved Africans. The family seized their freedom by escaping to New York which was a free state. They immigrated to Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia in 1783 as members of the United Empire Loyalists. Like thousands of other enslaved Africans during the American Revolution, her parents supported the British who had promised freedom to enslaved Africans. Fortune also started a trucking service for ferry boat passengers transporting luggage to their homes or hotels. She died in 1864 at the age of 90 leaving the legacy of a leader and entrepreneur. The business enterprise that Rose Fortune started became a family business and thrived until the 1960s. A scholarship program has been established in her name by the Association of Black Law Enforcers. In 1984, one of her descendants, Daurene Lewis (elected in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia) became the first African woman mayor in North America.
In 1839, Sylvia Stark was born into an enslaved African family in Clay County, Missouri. In 1851 after her father bought the family’s freedom from their “owners” they left for California, a free state. In 1850 the California legislature passed laws that jeopardized the safety of free Africans in the state. Sylvia Estes had married Louis Stark in 1855 and the Estes and Stark family immigrated to Vancouver at the invitation of the Governor. In 1858 the African American community of California received a letter of invitation to immigrate from the Governor of Vancouver Island, Sir James Douglas (an African man born in British Guiana). Sylvia and her husband, Louis Stark with their family settled on Salt Spring Island in 1860. They were homesteaders who worked at making a home of the log cabin in which they lived and clearing the wilderness around their home for farming. As a pioneer woman, Sylvia Stark had to contend with wild animals (bears and cougars) stealing her livestock and the backbreaking work neccesary to survive as a farmer during the early settlement of B.C. She also served her community as a midwife. She died in 1944 at age 106 and her life is recognised as an important part of B.C history.
Mary Ann Shadd is a famous African woman born in Wilmington, Delaware in 1823 who immigrated to Canada when the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 made life dangerous for free Africans in the USA. In 1853 she became North America’s first female newspaper editor when she began the Provincial Freeman newspaper in Windsor, Ontario. The following year she moved her newspaper to King Street in Toronto, then eventually to Chatham, Ontario where it was published until 1859. The Provincial Freeman was considered militant because Shadd did not pull any punches in her condemnation of slavery and racism.
Dr Afua Cooper who immigrated from Jamaica in 1980 has brought African Canadian history into the 21st century and the consciousness of Canadians. The exhibit at 880 Bay Street (Bay and Grosvenor) is a testament to the meticulous research skills of Dr Cooper. The exhibit is free and the community is invited to visit and hear Dr Cooper speak about the history of Africans in Canada. Visitors are usually awed by her knowledge of the mostly hidden history of Africans in this country we call home. Dr Cooper is the author of “The Hanging of Angelique” where she has documented (after 15 years of research) the life story of Marie Joseph Angelique, an enslaved African woman who was hanged in Montreal in 1734.
Other African women who immigrated to Canada during the 20th century include June Veecock who immigrated from Guyana in 1967. Veecock, an anti-racism activist and Human Rights advocate is also recognized in the labour movement for her groundbreaking work as a trade unionist. She was the first woman from a racialized community to work for a central labour organization in a senior position when she became Director of Human Rights for the Ontario Federation of Labour in 1986. As Director of Human Rights she was responsible for the Ontario Federation of Labour’s Anti-racism and Equity programs. Veecock is a founding member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Ontario, Canada chapter and was instrumental in securing charter status from the parent body. Veecock has proven herself to be a fearless and savvy advocate. Our sister Sherona Hall who transitioned in December 2006, was an activist involved in several social justice campaigns in Jamaica, Canada and the African continent. She was a veteran of the anti-apartheid movement, a founding member of the Black Action Defense Committee and was very involved in supporting our youth who live in Toronto Community Housing Corporation (TCHC) buildings across the city. Hall is one of the women in our community who did not receive the recognition she deserved for her tireless advocacy and activism. These are some of the immigrant women who need to be recognized during this month, Women’s History Month.