Racial Segregation of Black People in Canada (Plain-Language Summary) | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Racial Segregation of Black People in Canada (Plain-Language Summary)

Racial segregation means keeping people of different races separate. It often relies on skin colour and other physical differences. It leads to unfairness. Racial segregation has existed in Canada. Black people were segregated in Canada for a long time. Black people were kept separate from white people. Black people did not have equal opportunities. They also did not have equal access to services. Segregation was legal throughout much of Canada’s history. (See Racism.)


Segregation was practised in schools. In some places, white people stopped Black children from going to school. Most schools in Canada were not segregated. The last segregated school in Nova Scotia closed in 1983.

Black people faced much unfairness at universities too. It was very difficult for Black people to enter medical school for a very long time. (See Racial Segregation of Black Students in Canadian Schools.)

Housing and Home Ownership

Access to property has been limited for Black Canadians. In the 18th century, white Loyalists received land in Nova Scotia and Ontario. Many Black Loyalists were not. And much of the land they were given was poor. Later, Black Canadians had a difficult time buying property. The same was true for other minority groups. White Canadians did not want to sell homes to Black Canadians. Black Canadians also found it harder to rent property.

Employment and the Military

Black Canadians did not have equal access to jobs. Many white businesses did not want to hire Black Canadians. Some government agencies did not want to hire Black Canadians either. Black Canadians with jobs could not join worker unions.

Black Canadians were often not allowed to join the military. For instance, many Black men were turned away during the First World War. (See Black Volunteers in the Canadian Expeditionary Force.) This soon changed. Black Canadians called on the government to create an all-Black unit. And it did. (See No. 2 Construction Battalion.) However, they were not allowed to fight the Germans. Some white soldiers did not want to fight alongside them. They believed it was a “white man’s war.” Instead, Black soldiers did non-combat support work.

Discrimination in Public Places

Black Canadians often had to sit in separate sections of theatres. Sometimes, they were not even allowed in theatres. Viola Desmond challenged these practices in Nova Scotia. Many now consider her to be a Canadian hero.

Barber shops often refused service to Black Canadians. This also happened at restaurants, hotels and bars. Some places had separate areas for Black clients. In 1936, a Black Canadian man named Fred Christie sued a bar in Montreal. The bar had refused to serve him. Unlike Viola Desmond he lost in court in the end. (See Fred Christie Case.)

Some public spaces like swimming pools and skating rinks did not allow Black Canadians. Certain public transportation also had racial segregation. After death, Black Canadians were also forced to segregate from whites. At some cemeteries, Black Canadians had to be buried in a different section from white Canadians.

Did you know?
In the early 20th century, many white Canadians wanted a white-only country. The government made it hard for non-white immigrants to come to Canada.

Challenging Segregation and Equality under the Law

Viola Desmond and Fred Christie are not the only Black Canadians to challenge segregation. Black Canadians fought against segregation in Canada. They fought for more rights and freedoms. They did so by filing lawsuits. Furthermore, they did public protests and petitions. And they also created organizations to fight on behalf of Black Canadians. In time, victories were won. One especially important victory was the passing of Ontario’s Racial Discrimination Act in 1944. This stopped businesses from having signs that stated Black Canadians would not be served. Provinces enacted laws that made it illegal to discriminate against anyone based on race. Ideas like these were the focus of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. It guaranteed that, under law, no Canadian can be treated as a second-class citizen.