Black History in Canada: Resources for Self-Education

Breaking Barriers: Black Activism and the Labour Movement

February marks Black History Month in Canada. This month serves as an opportunity to reflect on the immeasurable contributions made by Black Canadians, the enduring struggles they face, and the significant distance remaining towards true equality.

Few places are the contributions of Black Canadians more prevalent than in the labour movement. The history of Black Canadians in the labour movement dates to the early 20th century when individuals from the African diaspora sought better working conditions, fair wages, and an end to racial discrimination practices. Despite facing systemic racism and segregation, Black workers played a pivotal role across Canadian industry and in the fight for workers’ rights – establishing the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of Canada’s earliest labour unions, and the first to be organized by Black activists.

Though advocating not only for Black worker rights but for all workers, these activists endured persistent discrimination. The mid-20th century saw the rise of the civil rights movement. Inspired by the successes of the American Civil Rights movement, Black Canadians began demanding equal opportunities and rights, giving rise to iconic figures in Canadian history.

Viola DesmondViola Desmond, a businesswoman and civil rights activist, has since become a symbol of the  fight for equality in Canada. When she challenged racial discrimination by refusing to leave the segregated Whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in Nova Scotia, her case highlighted racism in the justice system, and in 1954, segregation officially ended in Nova Scotia as a result of the mobilization of activists like Viola Desmond

Bromley ArmstrongBromley Armstrong, a Jamaican-born activist, emigrated to Canada during a period marked by racism and discrimination. Joining the United Automobile Workers (UAW), he soon became a leader in the Canadian trade union movement, serving as a shop steward and fighting to improve conditions for industrial workers. 

His work in advancing workers’ rights was intertwined with his fight for equality. Founding or co-founding organizations like the Congress of Racial Equality, Urban Alliance on Race Relations, and the Canadian Ethnocultural Council, he made immeasurable contributions to Canadian society. From his role in the Dresden Story to the Toronto Rent-Ins, his efforts were focused on dismantling the racial barriers in employment and housing, making significant strides in the fight for equality.

Stanley G. Grizzle

Stanley G. Grizzle – a railway worker, soldier, civil servant, and citizenship judge – was a staunch advocate for the rights of Black Canadians. 

A key figure in establishing the Young Men’s Negro Association of Toronto and a member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, Grizzle advocated for better working conditions not just for Black Porters but for all Canadian Pacific Railway workers. 

His advocacy extended to challenging restrictive labour laws, and he played a pivotal role in reforming Canada’s immigration practices, which at the time discriminated against non-White British Commonwealth applicants.

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE

While progress has been made, many of the same challenges still persist for Black Canadians. Racial wage gaps, underrepresentation in leadership positions, and discrimination stand as barriers that have yet to be overcome. 

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is crucial to recognize and appreciate the enduring legacy of Black Canadians in the labour movement and their continued fight for equality. 

Their contributions have not only shaped the landscape of workers’ rights but have also contributed towards building a more just and equitable Canada. By acknowledging this past and the continued fight for equality, we honour the resilience and determination of Black Canadians who continue to leave their mark on Canada’s history.

We have curated a selection of resources spanning literature, film & television, and the internet that you can use to learn more about Black History in Canada. We encourage you to invest time in learning, reflecting, and taking meaningful steps toward building a more inclusive Canada.

LITERATURE

They Call Me George- The Untold Story of The Black Train Porters_

They Call Me George: The Untold Story of Black Train Porters and the Birth of Modern Canada 

By Cecil Foster

A historical work of non-fiction that chronicles the little-known stories of black railway porters – the so-called “Pullmen” of the Canadian rail lines. 

The actions and spirit of these men helped define Canada as a nation in surprising ways; effecting race relations, human rights, North American multiculturalism, community building, the shape and structure of unions, and the nature of travel and business across the US and Canada.

View on Google Books.

The Underground Railroad Records: Narrating the Hardships, Hairbreadth Escapes, and Death Struggles of Slaves in Their Efforts for Freedom by William Still

The Underground Railroad Records  

By William Still

As a conductor for the Underground Railroad—the covert resistance network created to aid and protect slaves seeking freedom—William Still helped as many as eight hundred people escape enslavement. He also meticulously collected the letters, biographical sketches, arrival memos, and ransom notes of the escapees. The Underground Railroad Records is an archive of primary documents that trace the narrative arc of the greatest, most successful campaign of civil disobedience in American history.

View on Google Books.

In the Black: My Life  

By William Still

In the Black traces B. Denham Jolly’s personal and professional struggle for a place in a country where Black Canadians have faced systematic discrimination. He arrived from Jamaica to attend university in the mid-1950s and worked as a high school teacher before going into the nursing and retirement-home business. Though he was ultimately successful in his business ventures, Jolly faced both overt and covert discrimination, which led him into social activism. The need for a stronger voice for the Black community fuelled Jolly’s 12-year battle to get a licence for a Black-owned radio station in Toronto. 

View on Google Books.

The Hanging of Angelique  

By Afua Cooper

Writer, historian and poet Afua Cooper tells the astonishing story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a slave woman convicted of starting a fire that destroyed a large part of Montréal in April 1734 and condemned to die a brutal death. In a powerful retelling of Angélique’s story―now supported by archival illustrations―Cooper builds on 15 years of research to shed new light on a rebellious Portuguese-born black woman who refused to accept her indentured servitude. At the same time, Cooper completely demolishes the myth of a benign, slave-free Canada, revealing a damning 200- year-old record of legally and culturally endorsed slavery.

View on Google Books.

Viola Desmond Won't Be Budged

Viola Desmond Won’t Be Budged!  

By Jody Nyasha Warner & Richard Rudnicki

Vividly illustrated children’s book about the story of Viola Desmond, a Black businesswoman who fought racial discrimination. In 1946, Desmond refused to give up her main-floor seat in a New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, segregated movie theatre and move to the balcony where Black people were supposed to sit. She was arrested and jailed, but her actions encouraged and inspired Canada’s Black community. 

The book’s oral-style text is a sensitive way to introduce young learners to the history of racial segregation in Canada.

View on CMHR’s Website.

Film & TElevision

NFB Canada

Black Communities in Canada: A Rich History

National Film Board of Canada

The National Film Board of Canada has created this playlist with the intention of providing a glimpse of the multi-layered lives of Canada’s diverse Black communities. The incredible stories of strength, courage, and perseverance in the face of adversity found in these films are rarely found in mainstream history books, making them an important educational resource.

View on NFB Canada’s Website.

The Skin We’re In: Desmond Cole

CBC Gem

Watch on CBC Gem.

Home Feeling Cover

Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community

By Jennifer Hodge and Roger McTair

Watch on NFB Canada’s website.

Journey to Justice Cover

Journey to Justice

By Roger McTair

Watch on NFB Canada’s website.

dIGITAL RESOURCES

Learn

UFCW Canada is offering members an “On the go” Black History Month course.
Make your free WebCampus account below.

Learn

Learn about the struggle of Black railway porters on the Canadian Pacific Railway and their historic fight for labour rights.

Learn

Read about the history of Black Pioneers in British Columbia, who helped shape communities throughout the province.

Learn

ULearn more about Black History in Canada by reading the many articles, biographies, and videos compiled by the Canadian Encyclopedia.

Take Action

Join community organizations and support the work of anti-racism activists at Black Lives Matter.

Take Action

Support the Hogan's Alley Society, an organization supporting the social, political, economic, cultural well being of people of African descent.

FreshCo and Chalo Workers Unite at Bargaining Kick-off Conference

Image of conference attendees with the FreshCo/Chalo Bargaining Kickoff Conference logo overlaid.

FreshCo and Chalo Workers Unite at Bargaining Kick-off Conference

Preparation for the upcoming FreshCo and Chalo bargaining negotiations are officially underway, with workers from across British Columbia gathering at UFCW 1518 Headquarters this past week for the inaugural FreshCo + Chalo Bargaining Kick-off Conference. Standing as a united front, these workers are ready to mobilize their colleagues and secure a fresh agreement—one that prioritizes workers’ rights and respects the essential roles they play in FreshCo and Chalo’s stores across the province.

The two-day conference was opened by Chief Rhonda Larrabee of the Qayqayt Nationwho spoke on the Nation’s ongoing pursuit of land rights in their ancestral territories, and highlighted the importance that guests on these territories in their struggle, and our shared pursuit of respect and fairness.

The conference included informative workshops, panels featuring union activists, presentations by industry experts, and interactive sessions where FreshCo and Chalo members collaboratively outlined key priorities and goals for the upcoming negotiations. Union leaders also shared insights into effective negotiation techniques, highlighting the impact of collective action and member involvement.

Members engaged in an interactive Bargaining Workshop hosted by UFCW 1518 President Kim Novak, and Secretary-Treasurer Patrick Johnson focused on understanding their rights, strengthening communication skills, and building a united front to address common challenges faced by workers in FreshCo and Chalo stores. The educational sessions aimed to empower members with the knowledge and tools necessary to advocate for fair wages, improved working conditions, and enhanced benefits.

Panel featuring Jaime Emerson, Angie Crosato, Erica Jones, Dean Patriquin, and moderated by UFCW 1518 President Kim Novak.

In addition to workshops and strategy sessions, the conference presented a panel of UFCW 1518 Executive Board Members Jaime Emerson, Angie Corsato, Erica Jones, and UFCW 247 Director of Training, Dean Patriquin. These seasoned advocates shared their experiences in securing positive outcomes for workers through strategic bargaining and community engagement. Their stories served as a source of inspiration, motivating FreshCo and Chalo members to stand strong in their commitment to achieving a groundbreaking agreement that prioritizes the well-being of the workforce.

Canadian Labour Congress Senior Economist, Troy Cochrane also took the stage, providing valuable insights into the current landscape of the grocery industry, workers’ roles in it, and the importance they play. This knowledge equipped FreshCo and Chalo members with a comprehensive understanding of the broader context in which their negotiations would take place, empowering them to make informed decisions that would benefit both workers and the industry as a whole.

As FreshCo and Chalo members return to their respective units, they are more prepared to enter bargaining united in their pursuit of building fair and equitable workplaces.  This momentum sets the stage for a historic push towards a fair and respectful deal, recognizing and valuing the indispensable contributions of workers.  

UFCW 1518 Commemorates Black History Month

In the month of February we commemorate Black History Month. While the recognition of Black Excellence and history should not be limited to a single month, this dedicated period serves as a deliberate call for us to intentionally reflect. In February we not only acknowledge historic and continued racism faced by Black communities in Canada and across the world, but also recognize and amplify the extraordinary achievements and contributions made by Black individuals—nowhere more evident than in the labour movement.

We celebrate the integral role Black activists have played and continue to play in advancing workers’ rights. From the Anti-Slavery Society of Canada to the pioneering labour activism of the Order of Sleeping Car Porters and beyond, the efforts of Black organizers, workers, and activists have been at the forefront of the fight for emancipation, safe working conditions, fair compensation, and equal rights.

We take pride in highlighting the exceptional accomplishments of Black members within the union and the wider labour movement. These individuals’ contributions enrich the movement, and reinforce the belief that it is our diversity and collective strength that empower us to make positive change.

If you are interested in learning more about Black History, UFCW Canada has introduced an “On the go” web campus course dedicated to Black History Month for members. We strongly encourage members to enrol in the course, which provides an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the importance this month holds. Throughout February, we will also be be sharing resources for self education on the continued barriers faced by Black individuals around the world, and how you can practice intentional allyship.

UFCW 1518 reaffirms our commitment to anti-racism, and we continue to strive towards building stronger, more equitable, and more inclusive communities. Together we reflect and celebrate, while actively working towards a future where every individual is treated with respect and dignity.

Resources:

Member Spotlight: Activist and Actor Alyssa Scott

Photo of Alyssa Scott, interview. Text reads Line 1: "Alyssa Scott" Line 2: UFCW 1518 Member Line 3: Vancouver, BC

Alyssa Scott is an up-and-coming actress and UFCW 1518 member who is originally from Terrace, BC, but currently calls Vancouver, BC, home. A Gitxsan wolf from the Niist house of the Gitsegukla Band, Alyssa’s roots also extend to the Kispiox Band through her mother. Her journey has been marked by her passionate pursuit of the arts, with a drive to reconnect with her heritage.

Embarking on her debut film role, Alyssa embodies the captivating character of Princess Delta Dawn in an upcoming documentary chronicling the life of the legendary Indigenous BC wrestler.

Can you tell us about your journey and how it led to acting?

My upbringing involved a lot of moving around which exposed me to different places, people, and experiences. This meant that from a young age, making new connections became second nature to me. 

Eventually I settled in Terrace, BC, where I started exploring various interests, one of which was acting. Joining a drama class there, I quickly realized it was something that I loved. I was surrounded by people who were engaged, passionate, and excited about the same thing as me – they built a safe space which allowed me to explore my passion. My first real play was in middle school – I saw my family show up to support me, and in that moment, I decided ‘ok, this was what I want to do with my life’.

While you’ve been pursuing acting, you have also been reconnecting to your Indigenous heritage. 

Can you share how you started down that path?

I didn’t really grow up at home – constantly being on the move meant I didn’t have the opportunity to connect to my Indigenous culture as others had. As I’ve started learning more about my heritage, about the struggles my family went through, generational trauma which extends all the way from my grandparents to myself, I have become more passionate about making change for my community. There are many barriers Indigenous youth my age face which makes them feel like there’s a lack of opportunity.

Alyssa Scott wearing a graduation gown. Her sisters are standing on either side of her.

My sisters are also such an integral part of my life. I am really driven to care for and support them, so that has played a big role. When they moved in with my grandmother, I started taking a more active role in helping support them. That was when I started to see the discrepancies between the education Indigenous youth had access to, versus the education others were receiving. Seeing their experience and the shortcomings of the system when it comes to Indigenous youth was what drove me to get more involved.

You also recently took on your first role in front of the camera with a documentary about legendary Indigenous BC wrestler Princess Delta Dawn. 

Can you share your experience and how it helped you reconnect with your roots?

The Princess Delta Dawn documentary was one of the most amazing experiences of my life thus far. Working on the project was intense, especially since I had no prior wrestling background, unlike most of the others on set. I was so fortunate to have a supportive crew, and my director, Asia Youngman, who was not only encouraging but was also able to help me strike a balance between creativity, while still staying true to Dawn’s story.

Dawn is an inspirational figure who made waves for Indigenous women like me, so that made my first film experience even more meaningful. The highlight for me was when I was honored with the opportunity to wear her grandfather’s headdress, an artifact which is so important to Dawn’s family and community, and a symbol reserved only for Chiefs in my own culture. I feel so privileged that she trusted me to help share her memories and will treasure it for the rest of my life.

What drove you to join and get involved with UFCW 1518?

I was very fortunate to meet (UFCW 1518 Executive Board member and Shop Steward) Chris Holowka and be exposed firsthand to all the advocacy she is engaged in, and ways she is vouching for Indigenous peoples. Chris was so open to share her story, and so accepting of mine – that when she suggested I get more involved with the Union, I knew I wanted to participate. She is so driven to involve more young people with Union, particularly those who don’t often have the opportunity.

What advice do you have for those who want to get more involved with their Union?

It just goes back to speaking your mind – feeling comfortable to share your thoughts and ideas, while also speaking out about the change you want to see. I think that really applies to every aspect of life. You never know who’s listening, and whether that person can play a pivotal role in your journey, so it’s important to be outspoken and engaged. The communities I grew up in were so involved, impactful, and supportive of new ideas and initiatives that participating in the Union was just a natural fit for me.

With so many achievements already under your belt, what’s next for you?

My passion lays in my career, in acting, and continuing to be exposed to more of my own, and other cultures, moving forward. I really want to start building my own foundations in a literal sense, settling down into my own place, etc., but also laying down a solid foundation for my sisters so that they have an easier path as they grow up.

Alyssa Scott speaking with crew members on set.

A few years ago, I made this list of goals for the next 10 years of my life starting from 20 years old, and I’m very fortunate to have already checked off many of them. I’ve finished three years of college, written and directed my own short films, and am pursuing my dream career. I also want to keep reconnecting with my heritage and incorporating my culture into every aspect of my life – I’m passionate about starting my own businesses in skincare, makeup, etc., and incorporating my culture into it, whether it be involving the traditional artists in my family within the design process, making it accessible to my community, or many other ways.

Solidarity in Action: Grounds for Coffee Workers Unite and Secure Major Improvements 

In February of 2023, workers at Grounds for Coffee demonstrated a powerful show of solidarity with their colleagues by joining forces across two locations and organizing with UFCW 1518

Since then, they have been hard at work fighting for fairness at the bargaining table, and after months of hard work and advocacy, these workers have secured a groundbreaking win by ratifying a strong first collective agreement. This agreement solidifies many benefits for the hardworking café workers across both locations.  

Key highlights from the newly ratified contract include:

Wage increases that will provide all employees with a minimum $0.50 increase 

Wage progression tied to hours worked for fair compensation 

Minimum wage spread – a wage scale that accounts for minimum wage increases 

Health and Welfare Plan now accessible to those working average of thirty (30) hours a week with six months or more of service 

Advanced Schedules, allowing workers to plan ahead  

Joint Labour Management Meetings – a new avenue to promote a more harmonious relationship between management and employees 

Shop Stewards who will represent and defend the interests of their fellow employees 

Grounds for Coffee workers took their first step towards a more and equitable workplace a year ago, laying the foundation for positive change. Today, they are seeing the fruits of their labour, and the benefits of union membership.  

This collective win is a testament to Grounds for Coffee workers’ solidarity for one another, and their dedication towards building a better workplace.  


UFCW 1518 comprises tens of thousands of workers in BC’s retail sector. The Grounds for Coffee, Matchstick, Gallagher’s Coffee Bar & Café, and Cartems Donuts staff are fighting to improve morale and working conditions in BC’s cafés. If you are a café worker and would like to join a union, check out ufcw1518.com/join. 

Looking back at Union Wins in 2023

What a year it’s been!

Over the last year, we have been honored to stand with you and your co-workers, fighting for fairness at units across British Columbia and The Yukon. This year was a momentous one thanks to your hard work, dedication, and unwavering solidarity. We achieved remarkable milestones at Save-On-Foods, Sobeys, where UFCW 1518 members negotiated industry-leading contracts.

At industrial units, our members also stood together to win industry-leading contracts at workplaces like Sofina.

But our victories don’t end there. We’ve also successfully organized new units, empowering more workers to stand united for their rights and better futures We welcomed new members to your union at places like Earnest Ice Cream, Trees and Fireweed Cannabis, Gallaghers, Grounds for Coffee and more.

This holiday season, we extend our gratitude to every member, supporter, and ally who contributed to these incredible achievements. Your dedication and unity have made this possible.

As we gather with loved ones to celebrate, let’s look forward to building even more power in 2024.

Inspired by our achievements this year? Find out more about joining at ufcw1518.com/join

Workers at Sephora Kamloops to Hold Strike Vote Ahead of Christmas

Workers at North America’s only unionized Sephora are gearing up to hold a crucial strike vote on December 21 and 22, ahead of the Christmas and Boxing Day holiday shopping rush.

UFCW 1518 has been in contract negotiations with the cosmetics giant for more than a year. The workers are seeking substantial wage increases and other workplace improvements, including better flexibility in scheduling, assurances for health benefits, store bonuses, and more.

The company, whose parent corporation reportedly made more than $62 billion in revenue in 2023, has refused to offer reasonable wage rates for their highly skilled and specialized employees at the Kamloops store.

“It’s the workers that help make this company profitable by creating a top-notch customer experience at Sephora all year round, and even more through the holidays,” said UFCW 1518 President Kim Novak. “We want to see Sephora recognize their hard work. That comes in the form of better wages and improved working conditions. That is why our members in Kamloops are taking a strike vote. After a year of negotiations, our members are ready to fight for a deal that meets these very reasonable expectations.” 

Last year, the workers at the Kamloops store forced a major policy change that required employees to remain unpaid for up to half an hour at the end of their shifts while waiting for bag checks. Following the advocacy of UFCW 1518 on behalf of the Kamloops workers, the company rescinded the policy not only at Kamloops but at all Sephora locations across Canada.

The strike vote is an opportunity for Sephora Kamloops workers to express their solidarity and fight for better working conditions at their location and in retail stores across the province. 

Sephora workers who want to learn more about how a union can improve their workplace can reach out at ufcw1518.com/join

UFCW 1518 Calls for an Immediate Ceasefire

UFCW 1518 is deeply horrified and heartbroken by the unfathomable death of thousands of people including children, the elderly, and the vulnerable in Israel-Gaza.

At UFCW 1518, we are joining the call for a ceasefire. We stand strongly against and condemn all acts of hatred, racism, antisemitism and Islamophobia in our communities and abroad. 

We call on the Canadian Government to take steps to pressure all parties involved to agree to an immediate ceasefire and find sustainable resolutions for peace and the safety of many innocent people caught in the war.

We also recognize the extreme impact and devastation on our members who have family, friends and loved ones living in these regions. We believe that it is our collective responsibility to work towards a future where all people can live in peace, safety, and dignity.


Ways for UFCW 1518 members to take action:

  • Email your MP to push for an immediate and permanent ceasefire. Click here to use an online tool to take action
  • Find and attend the next local event to work together and build a movement.

Safeway and FreshCo Pharmacy Workers Ratify Historic New Agreement

The majority of workers at Safeway and FreshCo Pharmacy this week have voted in favour of a historic new contract that will add over 300 full-time jobs, bring needed benefit improvements, and create the highest wage increases at these units in 25 years.

Some key highlights of the new agreement include:

  • Access to 300 *NEW* full-time jobs
  • Highest top rate wage increases in 25 years with retro pay
  • Improved wage scale with NO ONE frozen at minimum wage
  • Voluntary severance
  • Night work premium of an additional $2/hr on top of wage increases
  • No wage cap on Starbucks/Coffee Bar employees
  • Significant wage improvements for Pharmacy
  • Vacation bridging for many employees to capture up to 7 weeks of vacation
  • Increased mobility through postings in stores around the province

The agreement came together after 98% of Sobeys members voted in September to authorize a strike. The company initially offered wage increases as low as less than 1% and demanded several concessions from the workers.

“Workers at Safeway and FreshCo Pharmacy stood up together and demanded better from their employer by delivering a 98% strike vote that empowered our committee to make significant gains for workers at the bargaining table,” said UFCW President Kim Novak. “This agreement is significant because it not only provides the highest wage increases in decades, it offers workers a pathway to more full-time jobs, a much-improved wage scale and more flexibility in what their schedules look like.”

UFCW 1518 will work hard to finalize the agreement over the next several weeks and will send it to Sobeys workers upon completion. The new contract will come into effect this Sunday, October 22. Members who would like to know more about the agreement can reach out to their Shop Stewards and Union Reps for more information.