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10 Indigenous Firsts

Indigenous peoples have contributed greatly to Canadian society, culture and politics. Despite facing discrimination, racial segregation and policies of assimilation, Indigenous peoples have fought to make this country a better place for all, and to protect their own Indigenous cultures. From leaders in the fields of medicine and law, to war veterans, chiefs and politicians, many Indigenous peoples have risen to the top of their respective fields, championing a variety of causes. This list of 10 Indigenous “firsts” celebrates those trailblazers who were the first in their profession to make historic accomplishments in Canada.

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Kay Livingstone

Kathleen (Kay) Livingstone (née Jenkins), organizer and activist, broadcaster, actor (born 13 October 1919 in London, ON; died 25 July 1975). Kay Livingstone founded the Canadian Negro Women’s Association in 1951 and organized the first National Congress of Black Women in 1973. An established radio broadcaster and actor, Livingstone also devoted a great deal of her life and energy to social activism and organizing. Her tireless work to encourage a national discussion around the position of racialized people in society, particularly Black women, led Livingstone to coin the term visible minority in 1975.

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Ignace Bourget

Lartigue recommended Bourget to Rome and on 25 July 1837 Bourget was installed as his coadjutor with right of succession, which took effect at Lartigue's death on 19 April 1840.

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Marguerite Marie “Marge” Plante (Primary Source)

Marguerite Marie “Marge” Plante left Alberta to join the Women’s Division of the Royal Canadian Air Force, serving as a timekeeper and typist during the Second World War. Read and listen she describes her enlistment, the death of her brother in Italy, interacting with prisoners of war, and the V-E Day celebrations.

Please be advised that Memory Project primary sources may deal with personal testimony that reflect the speaker’s recollections and interpretations of events. Individual testimony does not necessarily reflect the views of the Memory Project and Historica Canada.

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Graeme Ferguson

Ivan Graeme Ferguson, filmmaker, executive (born 7 October 1929 in Toronto, Ontario; died 8 May 2021 in Norway Point, Ontario). Ivan Graeme Ferguson has been the recipient of numerous awards and acclaim for his contributions to the film industry, both in Canada and internationally.

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Marilyn Bell

Marilyn Grace Bell Di Lascio (née Bell), OOnt, swimmer (born 19 November 1937 in Toronto, ON). Marilyn Bell is a long-distance swimmer, best remembered for her 1954 swim across Lake Ontario, which brought her international fame at the age of 16. She won the 1954 Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year, as well as the 1954 and 1955 Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as the country’s top female athlete. She was also named the 1954 Canadian Press Newsmaker of the Year. In 1955, she became the youngest person to swim the English Channel. She also swam across the Juan de Fuca Strait in 1956. She was inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame and is a Member of the Order of Ontario.

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William Pearly Oliver

William Pearly Oliver, CM, minister, army chaplain and community organizer (born 11 February 1912 in Wolfville, Nova Scotia; died 26 May 1989 in Lucasville). Oliver was a social activist, educator and minister. He cofounded the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NSAACP) and the Black United Front (BUF). He was also instrumental in the creation of the Black Cultural Society and the Black Cultural Centre for Nova Scotia.

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Edward Patrick Roche

Edward Patrick Roche, Roman Catholic archbishop of St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador (born 19 February 1874 in Placentia, Newfoundland; died 23 September 1950 in St. John’s). Roche was a prelate in the Roman Catholic Church and served as archbishop of St. John’s from 1915 until he died in 1950. He is best known for his opposition to Confederation with Canada. Roche was also a strong supporter of Catholic education in Newfoundland and oversaw the construction of many new schools. As archbishop, he championed healthcare and established St. Clare’s Mercy Hospital in St. John’s.

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Bianca Andreescu

Bianca Vanessa Andreescu, tennis player (born 16 June 2000 in Mississauga, Ontario). Romanian Canadian tennis player Bianca Andreescu won 19 junior singles titles and 13 junior doubles tournaments between 2012 and 2017, when she turned professional. In August 2019, she became the first Canadian since Faye Urban in 1969 to win the Rogers Cup. Andreescu then won the US Open in September 2019, making her the first Canadian singles tennis player to win a grand slam title. In 2019, she received the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award as Canada’s female athlete of the year and became the first tennis player to win the Lou Marsh Trophy as Canada’s athlete of the year.

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Baffin Island Inuit

Baffin Island Inuit (also known as Nunatsiarmiut) are Indigenous peoples who live on Baffin Island, the largest island in the Arctic Archipelago and in the territory of Nunavut. According to the 2016 census, the total Inuit population in the Baffin region was 14,875.

Article

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls in Canada

Missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada (MMIWG) refers to a human rights crisis that has only recently become a topic of discussion within national media. Indigenous women and communities, women’s groups and international organizations have long called for action into the high and disproportionate rates of violence and the appalling numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada. Prior to the launch of the national public inquiry on 8 December 2015, these calls were continually ignored by the federal government. Described by some as a hidden crisis, Dawn Lavell-Harvard, former president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, refers to MMIWG as a national tragedy and a national shame. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada supported the call for a national public inquiry into the disproportionate victimization of Indigenous women and girls. The National Inquiry’s Final Report was completed and presented to the public on 3 June 2019.

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Douglas Jung

Douglas Jung, CM, OBC, politician, lawyer, soldier (born 25 February 1924 in Victoria, BC; died 4 January 2002 in Vancouver, BC). Douglas Jung was a member of Force 136, a group of Chinese Canadian soldiers who fought behind enemy lines in the Pacific theatre during the Second World War. After the war, Jung became a lawyer in British Columbia and was the first Chinese Canadian lawyer to appear before the BC Court of Appeal in 1955. On 10 June 1957, Douglas Jung was elected as the first Chinese Canadian member of Parliament.

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John Foote, VC

John Weir Foote, VC, Presbyterian minister, soldier, Member of (Ontario) Provincial Parliament, cabinet minister (born 5 May 1904 in Madoc, ON; died 2 May 1988 in Cobourg, ON). During the Second World War, Honorary Captain John Foote was the only Canadian chaplain to be awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), the highest award for bravery among troops of the British Empire.

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Indigenous Land Claims in Canada

Land claims seek to address wrongs made against Indigenous peoples, their rights and lands, by the federal and provincial or territorial governments. There are different types of land claims. Comprehensive claims (also known as modern treaties) deal with Indigenous rights, while specific claims concern the government’s outstanding obligations under historic treaties or the Indian Act. There are many ongoing comprehensive and specific claims negotiations in Canada.

Article

Har Gobind Khorana

Har Gobind Khorana, scientist (born 9 January 1922 in Raipur, India; died 9 November 2011 in Concord, Massachusetts). His mother was illiterate and his family impoverished. His first class was in the open on the edge of the Rajasthan Desert. Khorana's brilliance was obvious early and, with scholarships, he earned degrees in organic chemistry at Punjab University. He obtained a PhD at Liverpool (1948) and then spent three years studying proteins and nucleic acids at Cambridge. In spite of his ability, his race precluded him from appointment as a professor in Britain. In search of an outstanding young scientist, Gordon Shrum, a physicist from the University of British Columbia, hired Khorana to do organic chemistry at the British Columbia Research Council in Vancouver in 1952.

Article

Maude Abbott

Maude Elizabeth Seymour Abbott, cardiac pathologist, physician, curator (born 18 March 1868 in St. Andrews East, QC; died 2 September 1940 in Montreal, QC). Maude Abbott is known as the author of The Atlas of Congenital Cardiac Disease (1936), a groundbreaking text in cardiac research. Though Abbott graduated in arts from McGill University (1890), she was barred from studying medicine at McGill because of her gender. Instead, she attended Bishop’s College (now Bishop’s University), earning a medical degree in 1894. As assistant curator of the McGill Medical Museum (1898), and curator (1901), she revolutionized the teaching of pathology by using the museum as an instructional tool. Abbott’s work paved the way for women in medicine and laid the foundation for modern heart surgery. (See also Women in STEM).

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Helen (Ma) Armstrong

Helen (Ma) Armstrong (née Jury), labour activist, women’s rights activist (born 17 June 1875 in Toronto, Ontario; died 17 April 1947 in Los Angeles, California). Helen Armstrong was a labour activist who fought for the rights of working-class women throughout her life. She was the leader of the Winnipeg Women’s Labor League and a central figure in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike. She campaigned for unions, a minimum wage and social security, and against conscription. Armstrong was arrested for her activism at least three times, including twice during the Winnipeg General Strike. Historian Esyllt Jones described Helen Armstrong as “the exception in a male-dominated labour movement.”