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The Great <i>Black</i> North: B.C. Tweets Black History

03/01/2013 03:03 EST | Updated 05/01/2013 05:12 EDT
Canada Post

As the 2013 edition of Black History Month started, a series of tweets invited Canadians from coast to coast celebs and non-celebs to give a shout out to their favourite black Canadian historical figure. The initiative was meant to incite the Canadian Twitterverse to think about black history in the Canadian context.

The annual observance originates in the United States, but it has grown in Canada. While the 1995 parliamentary motion made Black History Month official in this country, many still don't really know much about the presence of blacks in Canada which dates back to Samuel de Champlain's maiden voyage to Canadian shores.

A new twitter hashtag, #cdnBHM, allowed for the parsing of American Black History tweets from the leaner Canadian content. The singular query was "Who is your favourite black Canadian historical figure?"

MP Libby Davies aced the test when she cited Emery Barnes who played for the CFLs B.C. Lions in the 1960s before transitioning to provincial politics.

Montreal jazz pianist Oscar Peterson garnered salutes from Victoria blogger and former political insider Norman Spector and Quebec MP JamieNicholls. Smithers, B.C.'s own Nathan Cullen recalled seeing the legendary musician perform when he was 10 years old. The MP tweeted "Never going to forget the power and grace of that man, Oscar Peterson."

Liberal leadership hopeful Joyce Murray saluted the first black woman in a federal Cabinet, Jean Augustine. Her Liberal party colleague Dr. Hedy Fry mentioned Mathieu DaCosta, first documented black person in Canada in 1604.

It is surprising that only one of the B.C. personalities who answered the tweet chose the founder of their province, Sir James Douglas, as a favourite. Douglas was born in a British colony in South America to a black mother and a Scottish father. Provincial NDP Leader Adrian Dix was the only one to salute the man who is known as the Father of British Columbia.

Sandy Wakeling used Twitter to shed some light on the black pioneers who helped shape Nanaimo's history and kept B.C. from American annexation.

NDP MPs Kennedy Stewart and Niki Ashton both gave praise to the first black female to seek the leadership of a federal party, Rosemary Brown. Ms. Brown, who had served as an MLA from 1972 to 1986, finished a strong second to Ed Broadbent in 1975's NDP leadership race.

Just this week, Vancouver finally acknowledged the historical neighbourhood where its black population was segregated until the '60s. Hogan's Alley, as it was colloquially known, was a four-block strip in Strathcona that for half a century was the cultural centre of Vancouver's black community. The neighbourhood was destroyed in 1970 with the building of the Georgia Viaduct.

Earlier this month, Canada Post issued a stamp for the man Vancouver crowned "Citizen of the Century," a black immigrant from the Caribbean named Seraphim Joe Fortes. Joe Fortes likely didn't realize it when he arrived on the shores of Vancouver in 1885, but he was soon to become one of the city's most loved and celebrated citizens, as well as its first official lifeguard.

As the fog around black Canadian history dissipates, a clearer picture emerges: there is no need to revert to African-American historical heroes because we have our own crusaders. Black Canadians pioneered B.C.'s very foundation, and they still contribute to the cultural fabric of the province to this day.