The role of people of African descent in Canada began more than two centuries before the Confederation, and they have played a major part in building the economic, social, and cultural fabric of this nation. From the importing of slave labour for the economic and structural development of Canada, to the enrollment and involvement of Black soldiers in the protection of Canadian borders during the war of 1812, to the fight to end civic segregation and racial discrimination in immigration laws, Black individuals have made significant contributions in the growth of this country and its progress.
It likely began with Matthieu Da Costa, who was the first recorded black person in Canada, and was both an explorer and translator for early European explorers in their trading with Indigenous people in the early 1600s. Canada has its own history of slavery (the first recorded slave in 1628 being six-year old Olivier Le Jeune) which ended when Great Britain abolished slavery throughout the Empire in 1834. It then became the last stop of the Underground Railroad, providing a safe haven for people fleeing slavery from the United States.
Thornton and Lucie Blackburn were among the first group of escaped slaves to arrive in Toronto, and as entrepreneurs started the city’s first taxi cab company in 1837. They were also instrumental in creating a safe social network for other escaped slaves and freed Black individuals who settled in the Toronto area.
Toronto eventually became the home for many Black individuals and families, as they found support from a growing community of free and escaped slaves. In 1851, Frederick Douglass visited and addressed a crowd of 1200 at the historic St. Lawrence Hall on abolition. There was an emerging movement for abolition with many supporters including George Brown who founded the ‘Toronto Globe’ and used this newspaper to support emancipation movements. During this time, Toronto became a centre for abolition and was considered a safe place for meetings and organizing on this issue:
“In September 1851, members of Canada West’s Black community organized the North American Convention of Coloured People at St. Lawrence Hall. Fifty-three delegates from the United States, England and Canada gathered in Toronto because it was determined that it would be the safest location for a large meeting where the main discussions were the abolition of African American enslavement, improving the quality of life for Blacks in North America, and encouraging enslaved people to run away. The three day convention was chaired by Henry Bibb, J. J. Fisher, Thomas Smallwood and Josiah Henson, all freedom-seekers living in Canada West. The meeting closed with the decision that the best place for people of African descent (those wishing to flee enslavement, as well as free Blacks) to live in North America was Canada, because of its security and promises of freedom and opportunity.” 
In 1849, the small Southern Ontario town of North Buxton was established by and for Black individuals and escaped slaves. This community defied the odds and was so successful as a community of homes, schools and churches that during the American Civil War, American President Abraham Lincoln sent a delegation to study the town’s success as a model to emulate.
However, Canadian society’s full acceptance of its Black population has been a slow and painful journey. Viola Desmond (the Canadian equivalent to Rosa Parks) challenged entrenched segregation laws following her arrest for sitting in a “whites only” section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre. Stanley G. Grizzle fought for his country in the Second World War but upon his return had to fight against racial intolerance as a railway porter and led the delegations advocating for the end to racial discrimination in immigration policies in the 1950s.
A stark example of the challenges that faced Black individuals during this time could be found in the town of Dresden Ontario, (previously home to Josiah Henson, inspiration for Uncle Tom’s Cabin), where Black individuals made up one-fifth of the community but would not be served in local shops, restaurants, barbershops or hair salons. Bromley Armstrong (who went on to become the founder of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations and the Black Business and Professionals Association), staged ‘sit ins’ and ‘rent ins’ to draw legal and media attention to the discrimination that Black individuals faced in communities like Dresden and Toronto, efforts that led to the eventual adoption of anti-discrimination laws in Ontario.
More than 40 years ago, York University Professor Wilson A. Head conducted a landmark study of Toronto’s Black population to address perceptions and discrimination. In his report to the Ontario Human Rights Commission in 1975, he notes that there was a “constant concern with the alleged discriminatory treatment by the police, unfair immigration policies and practices, (and) discrimination in housing and employment…” according to Black specific media reports.
He further concludes that while the press often presents a subjective view of reports of discrimination and racism, “this by no means is the full story” and furthermore in order to address these issues he suggests it “requires a more complete analysis of the nature and extent of this phenomenon.” This study – an important precursor and inspiration to the Black Experience Project – involved interviews with 200 Black individuals about their experiences relating to employment, the role of Black leadership, attitudes towards community institutions, Black identity, perceptions of discrimination, housing and social relationships with other parts of Toronto society.