Celebrating the Black Leaders Who Made History in B.C.

Black history is deeply rooted on Vancouver Island and in B.C. at large with several standout leaders who paved the way for positive change.

Mifflin Gibbs was one of 600 African Americans who fled California and arrived on Vancouver  Island in 1858. He was instrumental in assisting with the negotiation of the terms that brought B.C. into Confederation in 1867.

This large group of African-Americans settlers were pivotal in discouraging American expansionists from coming farther north after annexing the Oregon territory. They were given the rights of British citizens by B.C.’s first governor Sir James Douglas, whose mother was black. Approximately half of the first settlers on Salt Spring Island were blacks who came from California, according to saltspringarchives.com.

James Douglas, who established Fort Victoria in 1843, was “remarkably dark of complexion, a matter often commented on, as indeed was his daughter Cecilia, later to become the wife of Dr. J.S. Helmcken,” wrote Derek Pethick, author of the 1964 book James Douglas: Servant of Two Empires. 

Canadian-born blacks have historically been and continue to be pioneers and innovators across sectors and industries. Here we honor the noteworthy individuals who paved the way in B.C.

Miflin Wistar Gibbs

Gibbs was the first Black to be elected and serve on Victoria City Council from 1866 to 1869, representing the James Bay district. He chaired the council’s Ways and Means Committee and occasionally acted as Deputy Mayor.

Emma Stark

The first Black teacher on Vancouver Island, Stark worked at the Cranberry-Cedar School near Nanaimo in 1874.

Grafton Tyler Brown

Brown was the first professional Black artist in the Pacific Northwest. He is recognized for his landscapes of Victoria, Esquimalt and the Gorge. The Royal B.C. Museum holds the largest  number and most significant of Brown’s Canadian works.

Barbara Howard

Howard was the first Black woman to represent Canada in an international competition, participating in the 1938 British Empire Games in Australia. She was also the first visible minority to be hired as an educator in 1948.

Eleanor Collins

Collins was Canada’s first woman and North America’s first person of colour to have their own nationally broadcast television show on CBC in 1955; a year before the Nat King Cole television show aired in the U.S. Hailed as “Canada’s First Lady of Jazz,” Collins is a celebrated jazz singer with an extensive career. She is also a civic leader and pioneer in the development of British Columbia’s music industry.

Rosemary Brown

Policitian, feminist, writer, educator and lecturer, Brown was the first woman of African descent to serve in a provincial legislature in Canada. She was elected in 1972 and served until 1986. In 1975, she ran for the leadership of the Federal NDP Party. In 1956, Ms. Brown helped in the founding of the British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (BCAACP). The BCAACP worked to open up housing and employment to Black people in British Columbia, and for the introduction of human rights legislation in the provincial parliament.

Justice Selwyn Romilly

The first Black to serve on the British Columbia Supreme Court. Romilly made significant contributions to judicial and legal education contributing to the development of the law in British Columbia and Canada.

Emery Barnes

Barnes was elected to the British Columbia Provincial Legislature in 1972, and went on to become the first Black Speaker of the House in B.C. He was re-elected in 1975, 1979 and 1983. In 1986 after Lauk’s retirement, Emery was joined by Mike Harcourt. In 1991, he was elected to the revised single-member riding of Vancouver-Burrard. At that time he was appointed Deputy Speaker of the Legislature. In March of 1994, he became the first Speaker in B.C. to be elected by a secret ballot of the MLAs.