Black people have been present in Canada since the earliest days of European settlement; however, the stories and achievements of Black people in Canada have often been overlooked or forgotten. Black History Month is an opportunity to highlight the achievements and contributions of Black Canadians, and to recommit ourselves to working to dismantle anti-Black racism and build a more just and more equal society for all Canadians.
In the mid-19th century, many free and formerly enslaved Black persons migrated to Ontario as refugees from slavery and anti-Black violence in the United States, including Wilson Abbott and Ellen Toyer. The Abbotts, as “Free People of Colour“, had owned a general store in Mobile, Alabama, but left the city in 1834, when they learned a racist mob was planning to ransack the store. Settling in Toronto, Wilson Abbott reestablished himself in business, eventually owning nearly 50 properties, and would later win election to city council in 1840.
Mr. Abbot sent his son Anderson Ruffin Abbott to the Buxton Mission school, a racially integrated school near Chatham, Ontario, and one of the few schools at the time that offered Black students an academic course of study similar to that offered white students. After leaving the Mission School, Anderson Abbott would study at Oberlin College in Ohio, University College, University of Toronto, and the Toronto School of Medicine (later part of the U of T).
In 1861, after completing a supervised placement with Dr. Alexander Augusta, himself the son of Free Black parents, Anderson Abbott received his medical licence from the Upper Canada Board of Medicine, becoming the first Canadian-born Black person to be licensed to practice medicine.
In 1863, Dr. Abbott travelled to Washington, where he served with distinction as a surgeon with the U.S. Corps of Coloured Troops. As one of the few Black surgeons serving with the Union Army, Dr. Abbott was reputed to have a friendly relationship with President Lincoln and was one of the doctors to attend the president on his deathbed after he was fatally shot at Ford’s Theatre on April 15, 1865.
Dr. Abbott returned to Toronto and his medical studies in 1866. In 1871, Dr. Abbott was enrolled in the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario. That same year, Dr. Abbott married and moved with his new wife back to Chatham, where he was appointed Chief Coroner for Kent County, the first Black person in the position.
Throughout his career, Dr. Abbott was a staunch opponent of segregated schools and an advocate for Black education. In 1894, Dr. Abbott accepted an appointment as surgeon-in-chief of Provident Hospital in Chicago, a training hospital for Black nurses. In 1897, he resumed his private practice, returning to Toronto, where he would spend the rest of his life. Dr. Abbott died in Toronto in 1913 and is buried in the Toronto Necropolis.
Although Canada’s first nursing school opened in 1874, it was not until 1948 that Ruth Bailey and Gwennyth Barton became the first Black Canadians to earn their nursing diplomas in Canada, graduating from the Grace Maternity School of Nursing in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Until the late 1940s, Black Canadian women were barred from attending Canadian nursing schools. Black women either had to travel to the U.S. to attend nursing schools like Provident Hospital in Chicago or give up their aspirations to join the profession. One such young woman was Bernice Redmond.
Ms. Redmond was born in Toronto but, because she could not enroll in nursing school at home, she received her nursing degree from St. Philip Hospital Medical College in Virginia. Ms. Redmond returned to Canada in 1945 and became the first Black female nurse to work for the Department of Health in Sydney, Nova Scotia. Ms. Redmond would go on to be the first Black woman appointed to the Victorian Order of Nurses in Canada.
By breaking the colour barrier in nursing, Ms. Redmond became a trailblazer for Black women in her profession.
Lillie Johnson (O. Ont.) was already a trained nurse, midwife and teacher when she emigrated to Toronto in 1960. To appease her father, Ms. Johnson initially followed her parents’ footsteps to teaching college. But in 1954, she followed her dreams to Scotland, where she trained as a nurse and midwife, working in both Scotland and England before returning to Jamaica.
In 1960, Ms. Johnson moved to Toronto to work for the Canadian Red Cross, first at St. Joseph’s Hospital, then at the Hospital for Sick Children. Ms. Johnson also returned to school as both a student and teacher, receiving a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing from the University of Toronto, and teaching courses in Child and Maternal Health at Humber College. Her experiences as an educator and healthcare professional would lead her to become the first Black Director of Public Health in Eastern Ontario, as the Director of Nursing Services for Leeds-Grenville and Lanark Health Unit (Eastern Ontario) before her retirement in 1988.
It was Ms. Johnson’s work as a public health advocate that led her in 1981 to found the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario, and her advocacy was instrumental in having Ontario’s Ministry of Health add Sickle Cell Disease to newborn screening in 2006.
In retirement, Lillie Johnson fulfilled a promise to herself and returned to Jamaica as a volunteer nurse with Cuso International. For her passionate commitment to improving public health for the people of Ontario, Lillie Johnson was awarded the Order of Ontario in 2010.
Today, Ms. Johnson lives quietly in a retirement home in Scarborough, Ontario. In honour of her 100th birthday, the Sickle Cell Disease Association of Canada established the Lille Johnson Excellence in Nursing Award, a patient-nominated award ward given to nurses who best embody “everything that Ms. Johnson has come to represent in the Sickle Cell community and beyond.”
Federated Health Charities (FHC) recognizes how structural anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism and health inequities lead to poorer health outcomes for Black and Indigenous communities. This structural racism can take the form of decreased access to funding, lack of awareness of health issues facing Black and Indigenous communities, fewer supports available to combat health concerns, and a lack of Black and Indigenous voices involved in community health decisions.
FHC and its charity members recognize the need for additional work to ensure our membership is as diverse as the province we serve. To learn more about our commitment to diversity and equity at FederatedHealth.ca/diversity-and-equity.