Black History Month Leader Profiles

Throughout the month of February, we are showcasing some amazing Canadians from the Black community - historical leaders in the labour movement and civil rights movement, to the inspiring stories of our fellow sisters and brothers who are making a difference in our workplaces today.


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William Peyton Hubbard

William Peyton HubbardHe was a famous black politician who was elected to Toronto City Council back in the late 1800s. He was a strong advocate for the expansion and ownership of public utilities, electricity, water, and infrastructure.

Hubbard was born in a small cabin in the outskirts of Toronto in an area that is now known as Bathurst and Bloor Street West. His parents escaped from slavery in Virginia through the Underground Railroad and settled in Canada.

He grew up to be a baker and founded his own bakery in the city. Then his life changed in one winter during the 1870s when Hubbard witnessed a horse and carriage accident that had its occupant about to fall into the cold, icy waters of the Don River. Hubbard got off his horse and saved the man from drowning. The man he saved was George Brown, the Toronto abolitionist, newspaper editor and father of confederation. Over time they became good friends and over the years Brown encouraged Hubbard to enter politics.

Hubbard began his political career in 1894 at the age of 52 when he won an election on Toronto’s City Council. He represented the neighbourhood around University Avenue, which used to be one of the wealthiest areas of the city. He was re-elected 15 times for 24 consecutive years in office. He was one of the first black or first visible minority citizens to be elected to public office at either the local, provincial or federal level in Canada.

He fought for public ownership of Toronto’s utilities, including water and hydro-electricity and he opposed the privatization of the city’s water supply. Hubbard worked with Sir Adam Beck to fight for a publicly owned hydro-electricity utility system in Ontario and led efforts to create the Toronto Hydro-Electric Commission. He also advocated for road construction and local infrastructure improvement laws.

He is a famous African-Canadian who, despite the racist attitudes many white Canadians held towards the black community at the time, was able to become a prominent official at the turn of the century. During Black History month we should remember the important role African-Canadians have played in building our country.


Mifflin Wistar Gibbs

Mifflin Wistar GibbsMifflin Wistar Gibbs was born in 1823 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and a successful black American who played an important role in helping British Columbia become a part of the Canadian confederation.

As a young man, he became heavily involved in the abolitionist movement with Frederick Douglass. In 1850s he moved to California during the state`s gold rush, where he founded the state’s only black newspaper. But at that time, California began passing discriminatory laws designed to discourage blacks from migrating to the state. They were forbidden to own property and were not allowed to present evidence against a white person in court. They even had to wear distinctive badges, similar to the badges Jewish people had to wear in 1930s Nazi Germany.

Frustrated with the wave of racism in California, Gibbs and two other black Americans travelled up to British Columbia (BC) to meet with the colony’s governor to find out how blacks were treated there. The governor assured them they would face less discrimination and racism than in their native United States.

In 1858 Gibbs and 600-800 black Americans moved from California to Vancouver Island where he worked as a merchant. In 1861 Gibbs became a citizen of the British Empire and became involved in politics during his ten-year stay in Canada.

In the 1860 Vancouver Island legislative election, the black community united as a block to defeat Amor de Cosmos, a racist political candidate who wanted to restrict black rights in the colony.

Gibbs himself ran and won a seat for Victoria City Council in 1867, where he would play a role in Confederation. In 1868 Gibbs attended the Yale Convention, an important event that helped BC join the Canadian Confederation.

Gibbs eventually eturned to the United States and settled in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he became a lawyer and was active in the Republican Party. He was appointed to a number of judicial and government positions in the state. In 1873 Gibbs was elected to the Office of the City Judge as a Republican, the first black judge elected in the United States.

In 1897, Gibbs was appointed by Republican President William McKinley as the American Consul to Madagascar.

He died in 1915.


Herb Carnegie and Willie O’Ree

Herb CarnegieAlthough ice hockey evolved from simple stick and ball games from the 18th and 19th centuries in Europe, it was in Canada where the modern sport as we know it was developed. The first indoor hockey game was played in Montreal in 1875. By the 1880s, amateur hockey leagues began to pop up and professional hockey began around 1900.

Today it is Canada’s game and features an international cast of players as well as an impressive roster of Canadian players across the globe. Sadly however, hockey is not as ethnically diverse as its country of origin and as of the mid 2000s, the NHL had a mere 17 Black players. That’s surprising when you consider the lives and impact of two of the sport’s great pioneers, Herb Carnegie and Willie O’Ree.

Herb Carnegie was born in Toronto in 1919, the son of Jamaican parents, and began his hockey career in 1938 with the Toronto Young Rangers, a junior team on the OHL. Although offered a spot with the New York Ranger’s minor team, Carnegie found he was better paid sticking with Canada’s minor league system and finished his hockey career this side of the border. Upon his retirement in 1953, Carnegie founded the Future Aces Hockey School to develop respect, tolerance, diversity and sportsmanship amongst young people. By 1987 he had established the Herbert H. Carnegie Future Aces Foundation to provide bursaries to youth to attend college and university.
For his work as a sportsman, philanthropist, mentor, and writer, Carnegie received numerous awards including both the Queen’s Silver and Golden Jubilee Medals, the Order of Ontario and the Order of Canada.

willie oreeWillie O’Ree also played a huge role in breaking down barriers for black hockey players, becoming the NHL’s first black player. Wille O’Ree played his first NHL game as a member of the Boston Bruins on January 18th 1958 making him the first black player in league history. The NHL now has more black players than ever before, with many giving back to the game of hockey and contributing to its expansion in communities all over the world.

O’Ree was often referred to as the “Jackie Robinson of ice hockey” for breaking the black colour barrier, he also shared many of the tribulations of being the only person of colour in a predominately white sport. During his career, both at the NHL and minor leagues level, O’Ree dealt with racism with a positive outlook, ignoring the opinions of his naysayers and continuing to play the game he loved, leaving the critics to get over it.

Retired from hockey by the age of 43, O’Ree was inducted into the New Brunswick Sports Hall of Fame in 1984 and in 1988 was recruited to become the director of youth development in the diversity task force of the NHL. In 2010, Willie O’Ree received the Order of Canada, which is the highest civilian award available to a Canadian citizen, in honour of his work as a dedicated youth mentor in Canada and the US.


Anderson Ruffin Abbott

Anderson RufflinWho was Canada’s first black doctor?

His name was Anderson Ruffin Abbott and he was the first Black Canadian to be a licensed as a physician in Canada. He volunteered his medical services during the American Civil War and attended the deathbed of Abraham Lincoln.

Abbott was born in Toronto in 1837 to a prominent black family in Toronto who had left Alabama as free blacks. After living in New York for a few years, they moved to Upper Canada in 1835 or 1836. Anderson’s father began to invest in real estate and by 1871 he owned 48 properties and had become active in politics.

Benefitting from his father’s success, Anderson received an excellent education, attending both public and private schools. He was an honours student at the Toronto Academy and later attended Oberlin College in Ohio. After returning to Canada he graduated from the Toronto School of Medicine in 1857. Abbott received a license to practice medicine from the Medical Board of Upper Canada in 1861, thus becoming the first Canadian black doctor.

Abbott volunteered as a surgeon during the US Civil War, where he served in Washington, D.C. from June 1863 to August 1865. Abbott was one of only thirteen black surgeons to serve in the Civil War. He had received many commendations and became popular in Washington society. He had a friendly relationship with President Abraham Lincoln. On the night Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, Abbott was one of several doctors in attendance. Mary Todd Lincoln, the widow of the President, later presented Abbott a plaid shawl worn by Lincoln at his first inauguration in appreciation for his attempt to save the President's life.

In 1866 he returned to Canada and established a medical practice and was admitted to the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario in 1871. Like his father, Abbott soon became an important member of the black community in Toronto.

Abbott died in 1913, at the age of 76, in the Toronto home of his son-in-law Frederick Langdon Hubbard, the son of his long-time friend, William Peyton Hubbard. He is buried in the Toronto Necropolis.

Carrie Best

Carrie Best“Nobody in Nova Scotia, or in Canada, or in the world, has the power to rob me of my personal dignity”

Carrie Best, born in 1903, New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, was best known for being an activist and creating the first Black-owned and published Nova Scotia newspaper. Amongst her accomplishments included becoming a Member of the Order of Canada, being awarded the Queen Elizabeth Medal and receiving the Minister’s Award of Excellence in Race Relations, just to name a few.

Growing up in a household with her parents and two brothers, Best and her siblings were encourage to study the history of African-Canadians and be proud of their Black heritage. [1] You can say that Best’s successful career and accomplishments stemmed from her upbringing and was the reason why her voice became as strong as it was in the fight for justice and equality against racism.

An event that could be contributed to spearheading the course of Best’s greatest accomplishments (creating the first black-owned and published newspaper in Nova Scotia, starting her own radio program The Quiet Corner and becoming the human rights columnist for the Pictou Advocate) happened in 1941 where she fought against the racial segregation of whites and blacks in the Roseland Theatre. After hearing several high school girls had been removed by force from the Roseland Theatre after attempting to sit in the white only section [2], Best “argued" [3] and “wrote" [4] to the Roseland Theatre’s owner against the “racist policy” [5], but to no avail.

“The cashier issued tickets for the balcony, the area reserved for Black patrons. Leaving the tickets on the counter, the mother and son walked into the auditorium.”

Carrie Best and her son walked into the Roseland Theatre after not accepting tickets to be seated in the balcony which was the "blacks-only" section. After her ordeal of being “dragged" [6] out of the theatre, and a failed case after Best’s attempt to file a lawsuit against the theatre, she started the newspaper to address “the persistent problems of racism and segregation."[7]

During an interview with Jim Dunn from the CBC in 1991, it was obvious Best’s strength and determination helped achieve her many accomplishments, and to become the prominent civil rights activist that she was.

Carrie Best passed away in 2001, but her legacy continues to this day and was commemorated on a stamp by the Canada Post in 2011.

Watch her CBC interview with Jim Dunn from 1991 here.


The following are some of Carrie Best’s most important achievements:
  • Member of the Order of Canada in 1974
  • Awarded the Queen Elizabeth Medal in 1977
  • Officer of the Order of Canada in 1979
  • Awarded an honorary doctor of civil laws (DC.L.) from the University of King’s 
  • College, Halifax, in 1992
  • Founded the Kay Livingstone Visible Minority Women’s Society of Nova Scotia in 1975
  • Inducted into the Nova Scotia Black Wall of Fame in 1980
  • Received the Harry Jerome Award in 1986
  • Received the Harambee Membership Plaque in 1987
  • Received the Black Professional Women’s Group Award Certificate in 1989
  • Received the Minister’s Award of Excellence in Race Relations—Minister of State for Multiculturalism, in 1990
  • Received the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission Award in 1991
  • Received the Town of New Glasgow Award for work in race relations in 1992
  • Received the Congress of Black Women Certificate in 1993



Rosemary Brown

Rosemary Brown"Brown is Beautiful"

Rosemary Brown was a politician, activist and feminist. Born in 1930, Jamaica, to a politically minded family, Brown immigrated to Canada in 1951, later becoming known for being Canada’s first Black female member of provincial legislature and the first woman to run for leadership of a federal political family.

Brown experienced what we could all imagine an adjustment moving to a new country, but she encountered both sexism and racism first-hand when applying for housing or summer jobs, or simply fitting into university life. Brown studied social work at McGill University (BA) and received her Masters of Social Work from the University of British Columbia. With her educational stream and inherent background in politics, it seemed to be a natural fit that Brown became so dedicated to making an impact to fixing the injustices she, herself experienced.

Before entering politics, Brown held jobs as a social worker and as a counsellor at Simon Fraser University. Her involvement with social groups and becoming a founding member of the Vancouver Status of Women, ultimately led to her becoming the first Black woman to sit in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia and the first woman of African descent elected to a Canadian provincial legislature. With the slogan "Brown is Beautiful", Brown broke colour barriers.

Eliminating sexism in textbooks and educational curricula would seem daunting or near impossible, but Brown committed a committee to do just that and was also instrumental in establishing the Berger Commission on the Family, and in introducing legislation which would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status. We often forget those who fought for the rights we, as Canadians, hold to such esteem. Brown was definitely a key contributor in that fight in pushing out her voice that represented and spoke to so many, regardless of colour and gender.

Brown passed away in 2003 in Vancouver, British Columbia, but her work has continued to influence Canada, where in 2009, she was commemorated by being featured on a stamp by the Canada Post.

Some of Rosemary Brown’s Honours and Awards:

1973 UN Human Rights Fellowship
1993 Chief Commisioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commision
1995 Order of British Columbia
1996 Order of Canada
Received 15 honorary doctorates from universities across Canada



Stephaney Williams

Stephaney WilliamsLeaders in our Midst

She is an SEIU Healthcare member who got involved with her union as a chief steward so she could be the voice for her colleagues in the workplace.

“You need to advocate for yourself and stand up for what you believe in,” she said. “Not everyone can dedicate the time and effort to come out and volunteer.”

“Members need to know their rights and exercise them. Don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand. Remember to read your collective agreement and advocate for others.”

She has really enjoyed her leadership role at SEIU Healthcare which now includes membership on SEIU Healthcare’s E-Board after her recent election at Convention to the representative of Region 4. “My activism has taken me places I never thought I would have gone. In politics, I get to meet different politicians at Queen’s Park and speak to them on behalf of the members. I want them to make things better for us.”

February is Black History Month. This is the time to celebrate the work of Black Canadians and SEIU Healthcare members like Stephany Williams who has taken a lead role in helping create positive change in the lives of SEIU Healthcare members, working people and our healthcare system.

Ainsworth Spence

Ainsworth SpenceLeaders in our midst

He is a strong Black Canadian labour activist and steward at his workplace. He got involved with SEIU Healthcare to engage his coworkers and the people who live in his community.

“By just being able to show support and assist others is very refreshing and rewarding personally,” Ainsworth said. “It leaves you fulfilled and satisfied.”

Ainsworth feels there are a lot of people in the workplace who simply don’t know their rights. He likes being the person who can help his fellow co-workers stand up for themselves in the workplace.

But becoming a steward hasn’t just led to fighting injustice in the workplace. It has expanded his scope to human rights, equity and politics.

“Politics touches every facet of your life,” Ainsworth added. “Whether you are a young child or an older parent or a new Canadian who has just immigrated here, it affects you. Whether you have issues in your workplace or need some support, everything revolves around politics. You can be an agent change by getting involved in political action by supporting candidates of parties that share similar values to you.”

Ainsworth also got involved with the Canadian Labour Congress. He is currently the CLC Workers of Colour Vice President.

“I was encouraged to run. The CLC has really opened up my eyes to human rights, politics, economics, social justice, and freedom. There are the things that become one with me. When you are involved in something that is so broad, it changes your perspective. It engages you to do a lot more. “

What is Ainsworth’s favourite part about being an SEIU Healthcare activist?

“Being a leader. Having the answers. Being a part of the solution,” he answered. “Having the members look up to you. It just makes you feel awesome. It is a really powerful feeling.”



Eulalee Robinson

Eulalee RobinsonLeaders in our midst

She is a Black Canadian who has been involved with SEIU Healthcare for many years. She is a steward, an activist, a workplace leader and a true champion for social justice. She served on the Executive Board for 8 years, is currently the chair of SEIU’s Human Right Committee and sits on SEIU Healthcare’s Pension Board of Trustees.

One of the things Eulalee is known for her inner strength.

“I am a chief steward in my workplace because I want members to receive fair treatment,” she said. “They should be able to speak for what they think is right. We need to attain equal rights for our members in the workplace.”

“I am not afraid to speak to management,” she said. “If they break the rules in our collective agreement, I will hold them accountable. But at the same time, I lead by example; by being professional; being a role model; and being strong but not aggressive. I am respectful.”

One thing she really enjoys doing is engaging the members and mentoring them.

“I like to motivate them. Bring them out as a volunteer and get them involved and passionate about their union.”

Michael Hall

Michael HallLeaders in our midst

He is a Black Canadian and a strong SEIU Healthcare activist. He got involved with his union to make a difference for the members in his workplace.

“I want to give back to the members who have helped me so much over the years,” he said. “I have an autistic child and they have helped me countless times with my childcare issues.”

Whenever he brought his son to work, Michael’s colleagues would always try to help him out. They would take him out to lunch and make his son feel comfortable in their workplace.

“One of the best parts of being an SEIU activist is engaging the members. Talking to them about union values. I try to keep that bridge open with the members.”

“We are fighting for justice and fairness in the workplace. We are trying to get people out of poverty and to help them put food on their table.”

What is the most important aspect to being an SEIU activist?

“You need to have the passion, dedication and willingness to help others. That is the key thing. You don’t become a steward for yourself. You do it to help others. Even though I am a chief steward, it’s not about me. It’s about the members and the union as a whole.”


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