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.


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.


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


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.



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


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


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


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.