Hugh Burnett and the National Unity Association

On July 31, 2010, the Ontario Heritage Trust unveiled a provincial plaque – as part of the Emancipation Day celebrations at Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Dresden, Ontario – to commemorate Hugh Burnett and the National Unity Association.

The bilingual plaque reads as follows:


    Between 1948 and 1956, the National Unity Association (NUA) of Chatham, Dresden and North Buxton, under the leadership of Hugh R. Burnett, waged a campaign for racial equality and social justice. Their efforts led to the passage of Ontario’s Fair Employment Practices Act (1951) and Fair Accommodation Practices Act (1954), and laid the groundwork for subsequent human rights legislation in Ontario and across Canada. Traditional Anglo-Canadian rights, such as freedom of association and freedom of commerce, had historically been interpreted to permit discrimination on grounds of race, colour or creed in providing services to the public. The NUA inspired recognition of freedom from discrimination as a fundamental principle; this led to a revolutionary change to the course of Canadian law and Canadian history. Hugh Burnett and the NUA were early pioneers in the articulation of equality rights for all Canadians, now constitutionally inscribed in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.


    Entre 1948 et 1956, la National Unity Association (NUA) de Chatham, Dresden et North Buxton, sous la direction de Hugh R. Burnett, fait campagne pour l’égalité raciale et la justice sociale. Leurs efforts combinés mènent à l’adoption en Ontario de la Fair Employment Practices Act et de la Fair Accommodation Practices Act, respectivement en 1951 et 1954. La démarche permet de préparer le terrain pour une législation sur les droits de la personne en Ontario et dans l’ensemble du Canada. Historiquement, l’interprétation des droits anglo-canadiens traditionnels, tels que la liberté d’association et la liberté du commerce, autorise la discrimination fondée sur la race, la couleur de peau ou la croyance religieuse dans le cadre de la prestation des services au public. C’est grâce à la NUA que l’abolition de la discrimination est reconnue comme un principe fondamental : une mesure révolutionnaire qui change le cours de l’histoire, de même que les lois canadiennes. Hugh Burnett et la NUA sont des pionniers en matière de formulation des droits à l’égalité pour tous les Canadiens, droits qui sont dorénavant inscrits constitutionnellement dans la Charte des droits et libertés.

Historical background


Dresden, Ontario has twice served as a beacon of hope and freedom in Canada – the first time during the 19th century when thousands of formerly enslaved African Americans sought refuge there through the Underground Railroad.1 The second occurred in the decade following the Second World War, when descendants of those fugitives launched a campaign to establish their own equality and in the process achieved a civil rights revolution that affected all parts of Canada.

Racial discrimination

The Canadian society that emerged from the Second World War was still enmeshed in racial restrictions. Many businesses declined to serve African Canadians, and employment discrimination was rife. This practice was sustained by the traditional British freedoms of association and commerce, which were interpreted to mean that a proprietor had the right to decide who to serve and who to hire. The situation that prevailed in Dresden was therefore not unique. As Maclean’s magazine reported in 1949, the town’s restaurants, barbershops and recreational facilities barred Black people, most of whom were relegated to poorly paid jobs.2 What made Dresden different were the tenacity and leadership skills of Hugh Burnett and the passionate dedication of his colleagues in the National Unity Association (NUA) of Chatham, Dresden and North Buxton.3

Hugh Burnett

Hugh Robert Burnett was born and raised in Dresden, where he developed a conviction that the racial discrimination he experienced in everyday life was contrary to the standards of Canadian democracy.4 In July 1943, Burnett wrote to federal Justice Minister Louis St. Laurent, informing him that even in uniform a Black man could not be served in any Dresden restaurant. He was shocked to receive a reply from the Deputy Minister that racial discrimination was not illegal in Canada.5 At that time, Burnett was living in Windsor. But after the war, when his uncles William, Percy and Bernard Carter formed a group to address the problem of racism in their town, Burnett moved with his family back to Dresden so that he could participate. In Dresden, he established a flourishing carpentry business, eventually employing five or six men.6

Burnett’s presence galvanized the emerging movement. He participated in the birth of the NUA during a meeting of about 30 people in the fall of 1948, held at the home of Bernard Carter. Percy Carter was elected president, Fred Robinson vice-president, and Burnett took the position of secretary. The NUA’s first project was to canvas business and civic leaders, circulating a petition to determine whether they approved of discrimination. Of the 118 business owners and local politicians presented with the petition, 115 signed that they were opposed to discrimination.7

Convinced that discrimination was not genuinely supported by the local population, Burnett and the NUA executive developed a plan. They would ask the Dresden Town Council to pass a bylaw to make it illegal to discriminate in any business licensed by the municipality. On their first approach, in December 1948, they were politely advised that it was too late in the council’s term to embark on a major departure such as this, and that the delegation should return in the new year when a newly elected council could give it their consideration.8

Local efforts

The Black campaigners were conscious that a bylaw alone would not strike at the roots of prejudice. In early 1949, they drafted a constitution and an action plan for the NUA, whose purpose was “to promote interest in better group relations, equality, fellowship, goodwill and understanding among all people, regardless of race, creed, colour or religion.” The constitution added: “Social hate comes when people think of parts or sections of society and not of society as a whole.” The NUA looked forward to a world that would “judge people by their character … rather than by their national origin, colour of skin or religion.”9 But when they returned to council in early 1949, they were met with hostile resistance. William Carter presented the argument for a bylaw and the mayor, who had signed the petition opposing racism, challenged him. “If this was a socialistic state, and the restaurants were owned by the state we would have control, but how can you force any man to serve anyone he does not want to serve?” Only one councillor supported the delegation. The others doubted the authority of council to enact such a law, and claimed that it was undemocratic to tell citizens how to run their own businesses. A councillor suggested that this was too big an issue for council to decide on its own; the democratic solution was to take it to the people in a referendum.10

Over the next several months, NUA delegations returned to council six more times, urging the cancellation of the referendum and asking council to exercise its own mandate in the spirit of Canadian democracy.11 There were, obviously, two different perspectives on the meaning of “democracy.” Tempers flared, especially as the provincial press picked up local stories about racial discrimination being put to the vote in an Ontario town. Resentful townspeople blamed the NUA for the bad publicity, and both William Carter and Hugh Burnett received death threats in the mail.12 After one postponement, the referendum was finally held on December 5, 1949 when Dresden voters were asked: “Do you approve of the council passing a bylaw licensing restaurants in Dresden and restraining the owner or owners from refusing service regardless of race, colour or creed?” The results were astounding, drawing headlines across the country. Of 1,250 eligible voters, 625 cast ballots: 108 said “yes,” and 517 said “no.” Only 17 per cent supported the bylaw and 83 per cent opposed, generally reflecting the ratio of Blacks to whites in the town.13

Broader horizons

The publicity surrounding the referendum brought the NUA an offer of assistance from a coalition of Toronto reformers who were urging the provincial government of Premier Leslie Frost to pass fair practices legislation. Because of a prevailing attitude that racism was an American condition and not really a problem in Canada, the coalition needed a stark example to illustrate the existence of racial disadvantage at home. Dresden served this purpose admirably.14 NUA members joined a delegation to Queen’s Park in January 1950, seeking provincial legislation against discrimination. The premier, however, declined to promise any action, insisting that education was the proper cure for racial bias.15 A widespread campaign awakening Ontarians to the discrimination issue, in which Dresden featured prominently, convinced the premier to introduce the Fair Employment Practices Act (FEP) in February 1951.16 As soon as the bill was announced, Burnett wrote to Premier Frost: “We beg of you Mr. Premiere [sic] to include in your fair practise bill a clause covering public service.”17 At that time, fair employment regulations had been passed by several American states, but none included “service.” Burnett was suggesting an innovation for which there was no precedent. The letter was acknowledged, though the premier ignored the appeal.

Disappointed, Burnett and two other NUA members travelled to Ottawa in May 1951 to make their case to the federal government. They met Prime Minister St. Laurent, members of Parliament representing their region, and bill-of-rights proponent Senator Arthur Roebuck. All of them received the NUA delegates warmly, promising that when the time was right, they would support appropriate legislation to curb discrimination.18

Legislative success

Although the FEP had a positive benefit for the Black people of Dresden, the NUA continued to agitate for the kind of reform that would win them equal access to all places where the public was normally admitted. They invited prominent speakers to their annual meetings, attracting press reports on their issues. They sponsored Brotherhood Week each February as a focal point for the discussion of racism. As secretary of the NUA, Burnett wrote letters to editors of regional newspapers, keeping discrimination in the news. He established contact with other organizations across the province with a similar agenda.19 Then, in May 1953, NUA executive member Alvin Ladd was refused service in the William Pitt Hotel in Chatham. A complaint was launched with the Liquor Licensing Board of Ontario, and a hearing was set for December. Burnett and other NUA members attended the hearing and gave evidence of the discriminatory practices still taking place in the area. This reawakened the public conscience, creating headlines in the metropolitan dailies, and the Toronto coalition re-engaged with the NUA for another attempt at provincial legislation.20

Following an urgent campaign of publicity and resolutions calling for an anti-discrimination bill, a huge delegation of labour, church and civil society organizations approached the premier in March 1954. Included was a group from the NUA – the leading speaker that day was Hugh Burnett. Their case was presented not just to the premier but to the entire cabinet, assembled for that purpose. As reported in the Globe and Mail, “… after the delegation left, Premier Frost remarked to his cabinet colleagues that he had been most impressed by Mr. Burnett’s presentation and the time had come to take some action.”21 Five days later, Premier Frost introduced the Fair Accommodation Practices Act (FAP).

Return to the barricades

As soon as Ontario’s FAP took effect in June 1954, NUA members began seeking service in Dresden restaurants and barbershops. The proprietors, however, continued to exclude them. The NUA had to design a new strategy. They would enter a discriminatory business, ask for service and remain there when refused. Details would be recorded and an official complaint could then be lodged with the Department of Labour, responsible for enforcing the FAP.22 Anger among certain members of the white majority erupted. The lives of Burnett and his family were threatened in crude, anonymous letters. One night, there was even an attempt to burn down the Burnett home. Burnett obtained a gun for self-defence, an alarming fact that generated more headlines across the country.23 There were also serious attempts to discredit Burnett, claiming that he was a Communist agitator. Burnett denied the charge emphatically, saying, “You don’t have to be a Communist to demand your rights,” and he slyly turned it to his advantage by adding that Communists had “not yet” penetrated the NUA.24

Obstinate proprietors soon adopted a counter-strategy. When they saw NUA members approaching to test their compliance with the new law, they would lock their doors and declare the establishment closed for business. This occasioned an offer from Sid Blum, executive secretary of the Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights, to arrange for mixed groups of Black and white “testers” to travel from Toronto. They would be unfamiliar to local proprietors and would be able to enter their premises without suspicion. If the white parties were served and the Black parties refused, Blum could submit a detailed complaint to provincial officials. A genius for publicity, Blum arranged for Toronto journalists and photographers to accompany his testing teams, so that reports of the events in Dresden could be spread across the front pages the following day.25

Journalists from as far away as Vancouver were attracted to witness the dramatic events in Dresden. National magazines carried the story. Burnett was invited to appear on CBC radio and television to report on the NUA’s valiant attempt to overcome racial barriers in their community. The vehicle that perhaps brought most notice to the conflict was a National Film Board documentary produced in the fall of 1954 entitled, “Dresden Story.” Besides interviewing numerous ordinary citizens, the narrator chaired two panel discussions where Black and white representatives answered the same set of questions. Though recorded separately, the two panels were spliced together in the film, illustrating the profound differences in perspective between them.26

A new civil right

Intense pressure was placed on the provincial government to undertake prosecutions under the FAP, but the premier and his Labour Minister were reluctant, hoping that the mere existence of the act would have an educational effect. It was still considered unusual in Canada to punish a private business owner for racial discrimination. All this public attention, however, proved too much for Premier Frost. He insisted that the Labour Minister press charges against two of the most blatant restaurant owners.27 Found guilty by a local magistrate in January 1955 and fined $50 for violating the FAP, the restaurateurs appealed their conviction to County Court. Judge H.E. Grosch issued his decision in August: the complainants had not been expressly “denied” service and even if they had, the prosecution failed to prove that it was because of their “race or colour” as stipulated in the act.28

The NUA, sometimes with their Toronto allies, ran new tests, accumulating additional evidence so that charges could again be laid. Once more, a local magistrate found the two proprietors guilty, but this time the appeal was heard by Judge Harold Lang and he upheld the conviction in May 1956. The attorney for the defence had argued that his clients had not broken the law, and in any case the FAP could properly be considered criminal law and therefore was constitutionally beyond the jurisdiction of the provincial parliament. Judge Lang was convinced by the carefully gathered evidence that service had been denied, and he dismissed the constitutional argument with a telling phrase: the FAP had not inaugurated “a new crime,” he maintained. It had “created a new civil right.” For the first time in Canada, racial equality was declared a civil right, and racial discrimination was confirmed as illegal.29

In November 1956, an NUA delegation was quietly served in the restaurants that had excluded them for years. Hugh Burnett, however, was not present to celebrate this symbolic victory. Angry whites had organized a boycott against his independent carpentry operation, driving him out of business and forcing him to seek employment elsewhere. He gave up his post as secretary in March 1956, but remained active with the NUA and continued to involve himself in anti-discrimination endeavours in Ontario for the rest of his life.30

The last regular meeting of the NUA was in April 1958. Hugh Burnett died on September 28, 1991, the perfect Canadian hero: unpretentious, unrewarded and unsung.

The Ontario Heritage Trust gratefully acknowledges the research of James W. St.G. Walker from the Department of History at the University of Waterloo in preparing this paper.

© Ontario Heritage Trust, 2010

1 Among them was the Rev. Josiah Henson, who founded the Dawn Settlement for fugitive slaves just outside where Dresden now stands. A legend in his own right, Henson gained international attention as the alleged model for the character “Uncle Tom” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous 1852 novel. In the period under discussion Henson’s home was a privately owned tourist attraction called Uncle Tom’s Cabin Museum.

2 Sidney Katz, “Jim Crow Lives in Dresden”, Maclean’s, 1 November 1949, 8-9, 51-52, sub-titled “Uncle Tom sleeps uneasily in Ontario’s Dresden where all men are not born equal, where his descendants can’t get a store haircut, a permanent wave, or a restaurant meal.”

3 Chatham was then the administrative centre for Kent County. Dresden is about 30 kilometres to the north, and North Buxton about 15 kilometres to the southwest of Chatham . The 1941 census showed a total of 1,633 “Negroes” in Kent County, Census of Canada, 1941, Vol. II, Table 31. According to contemporary reports, Dresden itself had a population of 2,000, of whom 350 (or 17 per cent) were African Canadian.

4 Burnett was born on July 14, 1918. In the records relating to the NUA, Burnett usually signed his last name as Burnette. By the later 1950s, having discovered that his first ancestor to arrive in Canada spelled it as Burnett without the final “e”, he adopted that style and asked me to use it in anything I might write about him.

5 Buxton National Historic Site and Museum, National Unity Association Papers (NUA Papers), F.P. Varcoe, Deputy Minister of Justice, to Hugh Burnett, 3 August 1943, replying to Burnette to St. Laurent, 17 July 1943.

6 Toronto Telegram, 19 June 1954.

7 Ontario Jewish Archives, MG8 S, Joint Community Relations Committee Papers, Box 3, File 12, “Dresden Case” (OJA, “Dresden”), Hugh Burnette to Ben Kayfetz, 2 and 22 April 1949; Katz, “Jim Crow”, 51. Unfortunately, the first volume of NUA minutes has not been preserved. Volume 2 begins with the meeting of 14 November 1952. There are other dated documents in the NUA Papers in the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum. Some of them, however, pertained to those early years, and many others whose dates can be discerned by context or as a result of personal interviews. One undated fragment describes that inaugural meeting, listing the executive board.

8 Dresden Times, 16 December 1948, “Group Asks Council for Special By-Law”; Dresden Town Hall, Minute Book of Town Council, 13 December 1948.

9 NUA Papers, National Unity Association Constitution and General By-Laws, 1949. Note the similarity in language between the 1949 NUA document and Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I have a dream” speech, where he looked for a world where people “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

10 Minute Book of Town Council, 14 March 1949. The most colourful account of NUA delegations to the Dresden Council is Chatham Daily News, 5 April 1949, ‘Tempers Flare; Curses Fly. Dresden to Hold Vote on Racial Split.”

11 Minute Book of Town Council, 4 April, 19 April, 2 May, 7 June, 12 July, 8 November 1949. There were many press reports, e.g., Toronto Telegram, 6 April 1949, “Color Bar Splits Uncle Tom’s Haven Town;” London Free Press, 7 April 1949, “Dresden ‘Haven for Slaves’ in Uproar on Racial Problem;” Toronto Star, 7 April 1949, “Discrimination Charged as Restaurants Bar Negroes at Dresden Village where ‘Uncle Tom’ Took Refuge;” Time Canada, 18 April 1949, “On the Color Line;” Windsor Star, 3 May 1949, “Dresden Delays Race Vote Owing to ‘Bad Publicity;’” Montreal Standard, 7 May 1949, “Color Controversy”.

12 Quoted in Chatham Daily News, 3 May 1949: “Go easy Mr Carter, or you and Hugh Burnette will be destroyed. Bring on your riots. We are ready for you. Bring on Jehovah’s Witnesses too. We will fix you quick and don’t forget to come.” Signed with a skull and cross-bones. Michael Fry, the only councillor to support a by-law, also received death threats.

13 Dresden Times, 8 December 1949.

14 OJA, “Dresden”, Ben Kayfetz to Hugh Burnette, 29 April 1949; Statement issued by the Association for Civil Liberties, 6 December 1949, reported by Canadian Press; Personal interviews with Kalmen Kaplansky, 15 and 16 July 1988, Ben Kayfetz, 24 July 1989, Irving Himel, 28 July 1989, and Vivien Mahood Batke, 30 July 1989.

15 Globe and Mail, 24 January 1950, “Brief from 70 groups asks wider legislation to fight discrimination;” Toronto Star, 24 January 1950, “Got Frost Brush-Off Over Discrimination - Delegation Disgusted”. William Carter was one of the speakers in favour of legislation.

16 Statutes of Ontario 1951 c. 24. Mr Frost’s papers in the Archives of Ontario, RG3, Box 48, File 87-G, “Letters re: FEP Act” (AO, “Frost”), contain numerous letters, petitions and resolutions from Ontario groups mentioning Dresden and supporting legislation to prevent discrimination, e.g ., Petition from “The Co-ordinating Committee of Canadian Youth Groups,” 17 March 1950: “We call upon the government of Ontario to pass legislation to curb the type of discrimination in the use of public places that has arisen in such places as Dresden.”

17 AO, “Frost”, Hugh Burnette on behalf of the National Unity Association to Premier Leslie Frost, 6 February 1951. E.J. Young, executive assistant to the premier, replied on 8 February that “this subject is receiving very careful attention.”

18 Chatham Daily News, 12 May 1951, “Unity Delegates Say Hopes Bright for Bill of Rights.”

19 E.g., London Free Press, 28 March 1950, “Dresden Hears Rabbi Propose Bill of Rights”; Dresden Times, February 1953, Hugh Burnette to editor; Windsor Star, 25 December 1953, Hugh Burnett to editor; Windsor Star, 27 February 1954, “Brotherhood Week in Dresden”; NUA Minutes, 14 February, 20 March and 9 October 1953.

20 NUA Minutes, 4 and 19 December 1953; Toronto Telegram, 10 December 1953, “Discrimination ‘Not Illegal’ in Ontario,” adjacent story, “Reserve Decision in Color Bar Case,” and 15 December 1953, “Treatment of Negro ‘Blot on Democracy;” Globe and Mail, 11 December 1953, “Can’t Even Buy Cup of Coffee in Dresden, Negroes Ask End to Discrimination;” Windsor Star, 11 December 1953, “Charge Hotel Shows Discrimination.” The case against the William Pitt Hotel was dismissed: Windsor Star, 12 February 1954, “Hotel in Chatham Cleared of Being Unfair to Negroes.”

21 Statutes of Ontario 1954 c. 28. Section 2 read: “No person shall deny to any person or class of persons the accommodation, services or facilities available in any place to which the public is customarily admitted because of the race, creed, colour, nationality, ancestry or place of origin of such person or class of person.” On the delegation to the premier: NUA Papers, Board of Directors Report, 1954; NUA Minutes, 21 March, 9 April 1954; Toronto Star, 24 March 1954, “Discrimination protest heard by Frost, Cabinet.” The Globe and Mail later reported (25 June 1954): “Mr Burnett headed a delegation which appeared before Premier Frost and the cabinet appealing for legislation which would help fight racial discrimination. After the delegation left, Premier Frost remarked to his cabinet colleagues that he had been most impressed by Mr Burnett’s presentation and the time had come for the Government to take some action. The Fair Accommodations Act was presented to the Legislature a few days later and passed.”

22 NUA Minutes, 14 May, 11 June 1954; Personal interview with Grant McCorkle (the first NUA member to enter a restricted restaurant after the act came into effect), 10 July 1989.

23 Two such threatening letters are in the NUA Papers, both undated, filed with May 1954; Toronto Telegram, 19 June 1954, ‘Dresden Negro warned, gets gun for safety.’ Burnett described the tensions in a letter to the Deputy Attorney-General, Library and Archives Canada, Ontario Labour Committee for Human Rights Fonds, MG28 I 173, Vol. 12, File, “Dresden, 1953-1956, Correspondence, Notes, Reports,” Hugh Burnette to Clifford Magone, 28 June 1954. It was with this gun in hand that Burnett confronted a mob threatening to burn down his house in July 1954.

24 Windsor Star, 23 March 1954. “Sees Red Hand in Dresden;” London Free Press, 4 April 1954, “Dresden Negroes deny any link with communists, US gangs.” There is an exchange on this subject in the NFB film “Dresden Story,” mentioned below, where Burnett says, “I think it’s very silly to even accuse me of being a Communist because I stick up for my rights … The more discrimination we have in the country the more there is for the Communists to work on.”

25 Personal interviews with Bromley Armstrong, 25 July 1989, and Elaine McFadden (an employee in one of the restaurants), 14 August 1990. The best descriptions of the “tests” organized by Sid Blum are the articles by Gordon Donaldson in the Toronto Telegram, 2 September 1954, “Race Law Fails, Negroes Insulted,” 3 September, “Fear martyr atmosphere if prosecutions in Dresden,” and his later reflections in “I lived through race hatred in a Canadian town,” Liberty Magazine, December 1955.

26 Maclean’s, 1 September 1954, editorial, “Racial Prejudice and the Law;” Saturday Night, 18 September 1954, editorial; Irving Himel, “Dresden,” Canadian Forum, No. 35, October 1955, 148-149; E.L. Homewood, “Race Discrimination,” The United Church Observer, 1 February 1956, 8-10, 15 February 1956, “The Dresden Story,” 8- 9, 26; Vancouver Sun, 28 September 1954; National Film Board of Canada, “Dresden Story,” directed by Julian Biggs, 1954. Two of the “testers,” Bromley Armstrong and Ruth Lor, return to Dresden in another NFB documentary, “Journey to Justice,” directed by Roger McTair, 2000. Both these films are available on DVD.

27 Toronto Star, 2 November 1954, “Frost sends Dresden ultimatum,” 3 November, “Daley consents to charge Dresden restaurant man.”

28 113 Canadian Criminal Cases (CCC) 56, Regina v McKay, and 113 CCC 69, R v Emerson, Kent County Court, Judge Grosch, 31 August 1955.

29 115 CCC 104, Regina ex rel. Nutland v McKay, Kent County Court, Justice Lang, 23 May 1956, also reported in Ontario Weekly Notes [1956] 564, 5 Dominion Law Reports (2d) 403, and 24 Criminal Reports 71.

30 NUA Minutes, 21 November, 1956, 8 March 1957; Toronto Telegram, 24 December 1956, “Peace and Goodwill Come to Dresden;” NUA Papers, Report of the Toronto Joint Labour Committee for Human Rights, 26 July 1954, Hugh Burnett to Alex Maxwell, Toronto Labour Committee for Human Rights, 30 June 1958, Hugh Burnett to Bill MacDonald, education director, United Auto Workers, 21 August 1958; Personal interviews with Alvin Ladd, 10 July 1989, Donald “Gummer” Spearman, 11 July 1989, and Donna Hill, 20 July 1989.