Sylvia Hamilton

Sylvia D. Hamilton, filmmaker, writer, educator (born in Beechville, NS).
Sylvia D. Hamilton, filmmaker, writer, educator (born in Beechville, NS).

Sylvia Hamilton

Sylvia D. Hamilton, filmmaker, writer, educator (born in Beechville, NS). Sylvia Hamilton specializes in re-evaluating sanitized accounts of Canadian history and focusing on the perspectives of Black Canadians, particularly Black Canadian women. Her films include Black Mother Black Daughter (1989), the Gemini Award winner Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia (1993), the biographical documentary Portia White: Think On Me (2000) and The Little Black Schoolhouse (2007). In both her essays and films, Hamilton draws on collective experiences to document diverse and inclusive communities, bringing to light what previous historians have overlooked.

Early Years

Hamilton grew up in Beechville, Nova Scotia, a Black community outside Halifax founded by refugees from the War of 1812. Her mother taught at segregated schools, which Hamilton attended as a child. When she finally attended a non-segregated high school as one of only a few Black students in her school, she noticed that the depictions of Black people in textbooks and the media seldom reflected her experience. Hamilton became Beechville’s first high school graduate; and went on to receive a bachelor’s degree from Acadia University in 1972 and a master’s degree from Dalhousie University in 2000.

In 1975, Hamilton joined Halifax’s Reel Life Film and Video Collective, which encouraged self-representation for female filmmakers. She also worked for the secretary of state in race relations. In 1990, she co-created the New Initiatives in Film (NIF) program for the women’s unit of the National Film Board, Studio D. NIF served to provide accurate representations of women in the media, and to create filmmaking opportunities for Aboriginal women and women of colour.

Film Work

Hamilton’s first documentary, Black Mother Black Daughter (1989), co-directed with Claire Prieto, was the first film from the NFB’s Atlantic Canada branch with an all-female crew. This poetic, personal and inspiring film emphasizes the African tradition of oral history by inviting women to share their experiences. The film offers revealing accounts (including one from Hamilton’s mother), juxtaposed with rare photographs of Nova Scotia’s scant documentation of Black history, including its legacy of slavery and images of the former Africville. The film uses oral history to challenge recorded narratives that negated Black women’s history. The conversational and participatory nature of the film emphasizes an ongoing struggle.

Hamilton’s next film, Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia (1993), confronts failures in the education system to offer diverse representation and opportunities. The film features interviews with Black students cut together with an empowering reggae rhythm. The film won the Canada Award, a special prize for reflecting Canada’s racial and cultural diversity, at the 1994 Gemini Awards.

Told from the perspective of teachers, Hamilton’s documentary Little Black Schoolhouse (2007) examines Canada’s history of segregated schools and depicts how Black Canadians have historically been marginalized. The film suffered a serious setback after Hamilton’s original footage was destroyed in a fire at the NFB’s Halifax office in 1992. Hamilton released the film in 2007 following additional production that brought her, and other Black Nova Scotians, to sites of former segregated schools.

Her other film credits, produced through her company, Maroon Films (see Maroons of Nova Scotia), include No More Secrets (1999), Keep on Keepin’ On (2004), We are One (2011) and Portia White: Think On Me (2000), about the trailblazing Nova Scotia singer Portia White. Fittingly, Hamilton’s list of accolades includes the Nova Scotia Portia White Prize for her success in furthering cultural vibrancy and diversity.

Writing and Education

Hamilton writes and lectures extensively. Her experience as a mentor and educator includes positions with the Trudeau Foundation, Mount Saint Vincent University and the University of King’s College in Halifax. Like her films, her essays delineate the difference between experiential and recorded history, and draw on philosophy to convey what her documentaries capture in images.

Particularly significant is Hamilton’s essay “Stories from The Little Black Schoolhouse."The film visits historical remains that Hamilton calls “sites of memory.” She writes, “[T]here are generations of invisible stories embedded in these geographic sites and in the memories of the students, teachers, parents, and trustees who were the schools’ communities. The segregated schools were a direct legacy of the enslavement of Black peoples and the conscious and unconscious racist societal attitudes that are intertwined with that heinous system.”

Hamilton is also an accomplished poet. Her 2014 collection of poetry, And I Alone Escaped to Tell You, similarly engages with history and memory. It was shortlisted for the League of Canadian Poets’ Gerald Lampert Memorial Award and the JM Abraham Poetry Award.


National Film Board Kathleen Shannon Documentary Award (Black Mother Black Daughter), Yorkton Short Film and Video Festival (1990)

Rex Tasker Award for Best Atlantic Canadian Documentary (Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia), Atlantic Film Festival (1993)

Canada Award (Speak It! From the Heart of Black Nova Scotia), Gemini Award (1994)

Association for Media and Technology in Education Festival Award of Excellence (1994)

Maeda Prize, 21st Japan Prize, International Educational Program Contest, Japan Broadcasting Corporation (1994)

CTV Fellowship Award, Banff Television Festival (1995)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, Saint Mary’s University (1995)

Race Unity Award, Baha'i Community of Canada (1996)

Halifax Progress Women of Excellence Award, Arts and Culture Category (1996)

Honorary Doctor of Laws, Dalhousie University (2001)

Honorary Diploma, Nova Scotia Community College (2002)

Nova Scotia Portia White Prize (2003)

Silver Prize (Little Black Schoolhouse), Africa World Documentary Film Festival (2009)

Best Film – People's Choice (Little Black Schoolhouse), African Diaspora Film Festival (2009)

Honorary Doctor of Letters, Acadia University (2010)

Further Reading

  • Sharon Morgan Beckford, “We're Standing at the Shoreline: Sylvia Hamilton's Intervention in the Nova Scotian Discourse Belonging and Multicultural Citizenship,” Canadian Woman Studies vol. 27, nos. 2–3 (spring 2009).

    Shana McGuire and Darrel Varga, “Eradicating Erasure: The Documentary Film Practice of Sylvia Hamilton,” ed. by Brenda Austin-Smith and George Melnyk, The Gendered Screen: Canadian Women Filmmakers (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2010).

    Sylvia Hamilton, “Stories from The Little Black Schoolhouse,” in Cultivating Canada: A Reconciliation through the Lens of Cultural Diversity (Ottawa, 2011).

External Links