This year, the Canadian Government’s theme for Black History Month is “February and Forever: celebrating Black History today and every day”. Yes.
The history of Black people in Canada cannot be segmented and filed away into the month of February alone. The scale and intensity of the Black experience in the United States often overshadows the Canadian narrative, to the point where Black history taught in schools here is often American history. But the history of Black people in Canada is unique, deep, impactful, and sometimes uncomfortable.
There is much to explore, learn and reflect upon, but it can be difficult to know where or how to start. At Notable, we are passionate about people. Here is a quick introduction to four people in Canadian History that are definitely notable. We hope this inspires you to learn more and keep exploring Black Canadian history.
OLIVIER LE JEUNE
Very little is known about Olivier Le Jeune, but the few key moments that were recorded in his life give us a compelling and important look into Canadian history.
In 1629 a British privateer sold an enslaved African boy, estimated to be 6-7 years old, to a French clerk in the colony of New France that we now call Quebec. This transaction is the first record of an African slave in New France. We Canadians tend to pat ourselves on the back for being a haven for people fleeing slavery in the US, but the brutal reality is that, beginning with this young boy in 1629 and lasting more than two hundred years, there are over four thousand Indigenous and African people documented as enslaved within the land we call Canada.
The child was passed from the French clerk to prominent French Colonist, Guillaume Couillard. Under Couillard’s ownership he was educated at a school established by Jesuit Priest Paul Le Jeune, which marks him as the first Black student in Canada. In 1633 he was baptised Olivier Le Jeune. As a teenager, Olivier became the first documented Black prisoner in Canada, spending twenty-four hours in chains for defamation.
Olivier Le Jeune died in 1654. Burial documents list occupation as servant. It is unknown whether Couillard had set him free or kept him enslaved for the duration of his life.
Most of Chloe Cooley’s life is a mystery, but in one horrific moment her defiant spirit proved to be the catalyst to bringing a legal end to slavery in Canada.
Chloe Cooley was enslaved by loyalist soldier and farmer, Adam Vrooman, in the Niagara region in 1793. The attitudes to slavery were changing in Upper Canada and Vrooman was likely worried he would be forced to set Cooley free. Instead of taking a loss on his “property” he decided to sell her across the river to an American in New York, where slavery was still entrenched.
Chloe Cooley vehemently objected to being sold and fought against being taken across the river. Vrooman and two other men beat her, bound her, and violently dragged her into the boat and she was sold into the American slave trade.
No witnesses intervened. However, two witnesses brought the news of Chloe Cooley’s plight to the Executive Council of Upper Canada. Peter Martin, a formerly enslaved Black Loyalist, had been alerted by Cooley’s agonizing struggle and witnessed the whole event. William Grisley, a white man, was employed by Vrooman and was aboard the boat that carried her across. The two men’s detailed account of the incident moved Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe to introduce a law to abolish slavery in Upper Canada. At the time, almost half of the members of government held enslaved people and Simcoe’s plan was resisted. However, he persisted and was able to broker a compromise with the Act Against Slavery, 1793 which began the legal dismantling of slavery in Canada.
It is unknown what happened to Chloe Cooley after she was sold by Vrooman. It is likely she lived the rest of her life enslaved, with no idea that her futile screams in that solitary moment would be the catalyst for important changes to the entire country.
In 1855 Robert Sutherland became the first Black lawyer in Canada (then, British North America). The name Robert Sutherland may be familiar to you if you have recently studied at Queen’s University, through Robert Sutherland Hall, or the various prizes, bursaries, fellowships, and scholarships that honour him. When he died in 1878, he left his entire estate to Queen’s University which, at the time, was in a financial crisis and on the verge of being annexed into the University of Toronto. His endowment essentially saved the institution in which he received his education, and where, he stated, he had “always been treated as a gentleman.”
His education itself was significant, as Robert Sutherland was the first Black person to study at, and graduate from, University in Canada. He was an exemplary student, winning multiple academic awards and graduating with honours. He proceeded to become the first Black man called to the bar in British North America, and had a successful career as a lawyer. He also worked in municipal politics, and was a facilitator of the Underground Railroad.
Robert Sutherland’s legacy at Queen’s went largely unnoticed for over a century after his death. In the mid-nineties, Greg Frankson, the first Black president of the Alma Matter Society, instituted the Robert Sutherland Task Force to seek a space to appropriately memorialize Sutherland and his contribution. The task force was successful in attaching his name to a room on campus with a plaque, and a few student awards and programs. Finally, in 2009, the School of Policy Studies building was renamed Robert Sutherland Hall, and will stand as a statement of the importance of Robert Sutherland in the history of Queen’s University.
This month, Toronto radio station Flow 93.5FM was bought, shuffled, merged and rebranded as Flow 98.7FM. This change brought unrest and uncertainty of what this means for Black music on the Canadian airwaves. The passionate response speaks to the significance of Flow 93.5FM to Toronto, Canada, and even the world. It is Canada’s first Black-owned and operated radio station and is credited with birthing the career of Drake and many other Canadian hip hop, R&B, and reggae artists. The man who began it all is Denham Jolly.
Denham Jolly was born in Jamaica and came to Canada for University. He studied at University of Guelph, Dalhousie, and graduated from McGill in 1960 with a science degree. He worked in science related fields early in his career and, in the late sixties, turned his talents to business. Over the next two decades he found tremendous success as an entrepreneur with businesses from hotels, to nursing homes to medical laboratories and more. In addition, he established himself as an advocate for social justice and civil rights with a strong desire to give a voice to the Black community. The fight for a voice led him to acquire the newspaper, Contrast, and eventually to the creation of Flow 93.5FM. But, getting a Black music radio station on-air in Canada was not easy. It took three separate applications over a twelve-year period before Jolly was able to secure the 93.5 FM frequency. In 2001, Flow 93.5FM was launched and quickly became an integral thread in the fabric of North America’s 4th largest metropolis. The radio station brought music the city was hungry for to the mainstream, and gave local artists a platform to launch their career, including Jully Black, K-Os, Kardinall Offishall and, of course, Drake. Flow 93.5FM would speak loudly, not only to the Black community, but to a wide population of Canada’s most diverse city.
In the era of music streaming and media conglomerates, the radio broadcast industry is looking much different than when Jolly first endeavoured to secure a frequency. How the recent changes at Flow FM will play out is history-in-the-making. What we know is that Flow 93.5FM is an important part of musical and cultural history in this country, and we have Denham Jolly to thank for that. There is much more to learn about this man, we recommend you check out his memoir, In The Black, winner of the 2017 Toronto Book Award.
ALSO CHECK OUT:
Trailblazers: The Black Pioneers Who Have Shaped Canada
Written by Tiyahna Ridley Padmore Ilustrated by Merryl-Royce Ndema-Moussa
This is a children’s book, beautifully illustrated, providing the story of forty Black Canadians who have shaped the country’s history. Each story is written in rhyme to engage and delight the reader, while giving them the historical education they are likely missing in school curriculums. Kids and adults will both benefit from this book!
The Canadian Encyclopedia – Black History In Canada
A good online resource to start exploring Black History in Canada, with bios of notable people, timelines, quizzes, and videos.
The Government of Canada’s official Black History Month Campaign. Visit for digital toolkits, videos, articles, and links to statistics.