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Ontario's 20th-century Black heritage

Racism and discrimination against Blacks did not disappear with the abolition of slavery, but continued into the 20th century in both the United States and Canada, as did the struggle for freedom, rights and dignity for Blacks across North America.

Throughout the 20th century, Blacks in Ontario made important contributions to Canada's military, cultural, legal and political institutions. During the First World War, over 600 men from across Canada and the United States fought in the segregated No. 2 Construction Battalion and in other units. Formed in 1916, this battalion served in France with the Canadian Forestry Corps. On the home front, Blacks were actively involved in the war effort both on an employed and volunteer basis. A teacher and composer from North Buxton, Hettie Rhue Hatchett, wrote what would ultimately become the Canadian military's official marching song, "That Sacred Spot," for the troops during the war.

By the Second World War, hundreds of Black Canadians fought alongside whites on the battlefields of Europe. On the home front, Black Canadians were employed across the country in jobs of various kinds, filling the gap in labour left by Canadians serving in the military. It was during this time that many Black workers joined labour unions for the first time, including the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters that organized in 1942. In 1945, it became the first all-Black union to sign a collective agreement with Canadian Pacific Rail.

After the Second World War, young Black Canadians returned home from overseas with a renewed awareness of their inherent right to be treated with dignity. In 1948, Hugh Burnett and fellow Blacks from Dresden, Chatham and Buxton organized the National Unity Association to combat discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation in Ontario. In response to the lobbying and protest efforts of the Association, along with other Black and labour organizations, the Ontario Government passed the Fair Employment Practices Act in 1951 that outlawed discrimination in employment based on race, creed or national origin.

The National Unity Association also played an instrumental role in the campaign for a Fair Accommodation Practices Act in Ontario. Active lobbying combined with acts of resistance resulted in the passage of the act in 1954 that made it a statutory offence to discriminate in public places on the grounds of race, colour, creed, ancestry or nationality. The act ensured that complaints about discrimination in public places would receive investigation and conciliation and, where applicable, charges would be laid.

These legislative accomplishments were largely the result of lobbying and resistance on the part of Blacks in Ontario. They laid the foundation for more institutionalized forms of political participation in the 1960s and beyond. In 1962, the Ontario Human Rights Code – the first of its kind in Canada – was enacted and Dr. Daniel Hill became the first Director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission formed one year earlier to administer the code. In 1963, Leonard Braithewaite became the first Black Canadian to hold a seat in a provincial legislature when he was elected Liberal member for Etobicoke. And, in 1968, Lincoln Alexander became the first Black Canadian to be elected to the House of Commons in Ottawa, representing Hamilton West. He subsequently became the first Black person to hold a vice-regal position in Canada when he was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Ontario in 1985. Today, he is the Chairman of the Ontario Heritage Trust.

These and other significant accomplishments on the part of Black Canadians continue into the 21st century. Such achievements mark important points throughout the ongoing journey toward freedom from discrimination and oppression.