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Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad was a secret network of abolitionists (people who wanted to abolish slavery). They helped African Americans escape from enslavement in the American South to free Northern states or to Canada. The Underground Railroad was the largest anti-slavery freedom movement in North America. It brought between 30,000 and 40,000 fugitives to British North America (now Canada).

This is the full-length entry about the Underground Railroad. For a plain language summary, please see The Underground Railroad (Plain-Language Summary).

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Lui Passaglia

Lui Passaglia, football player (born 7 June 1954 in Vancouver, BC). Lui Passaglia is regarded as one of the best kickers in Canadian Football League (CFL) history. He played 25 straight seasons with the BC Lions (1976–2000) and won three Grey Cups (1985, 1994, 2000). He holds both the CFL and professional football record for most points scored (3,991). He is also the CFL’s all-time leader in seasons, games played (408), field goals made (875) and converts made (1,045). He has been inducted into the BC Sports Hall of Fame and Museum, the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum, the BC Football Hall of Fame and Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame. His No. 5 has been retired by the Lions, with whom he works as a community relations ambassador.

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Komagata Maru

The SS Komagata Maru was a chartered ship featured in a dramatic challenge to Canada’s former practice of excluding immigrants from India. This challenge took place in the spring and summer of 1914, on the eve of the First World War. It proved to be a bitter and tragic experience for the passengers, first in an unsuccessful and eventually physical confrontation with officials, police and the military at the Port of Vancouver, and then in a deadly encounter with police and troops near Kolkata on the passengers’ return to India.

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Thornton and Lucie Blackburn

Thornton and Lucie (Ruthie) Blackburn, freedom seekers, entrepreneurs, anti-slavery activists and community benefactors (Thornton, born c. 1812 in Maysville, Kentucky; died in 1890 in Toronto, ON. Lucie, born c. 1803, possibly in the West Indies; died in 1895 in Toronto). After a dramatic flight from Kentucky slavery, their recapture in Detroit two years later in 1833 resulted in the Blackburn Riots. Demands for their extradition prompted Upper Canada to establish its first refugee reception policy (see Refugees to Canada). Settling in Toronto, the Blackburns devoted their time and considerable wealth to anti-slavery and African Canadian community causes. (See also Anti-Slavery Society of Canada.) Childless, and having never learned to read or write, their story was nearly forgotten until archaeologists (see Archaeology) unearthed the site of their former home in 1985. The Blackburns’ former property was the first Underground Railroad site ever dug in Canada.

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Molly Sclater

Mary Lindsay "Molly" Sclater, teacher, author, organist-choirmaster (born 28 December 1912 in Edinburgh, Scotland; died 31 March 2002 in Jackson's Point, ON). ATCM 1938, ACCO ca 1938, B MUS (Toronto) 1939. 

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David Suzuki

David Takayoshi Suzuki, CC, OBC, geneticist, broadcaster, environmental activist (born 24 March 1936 in Vancouver, BC). A Canadian of Japanese parentage, Suzuki was interned with his family during the Second World War and later became one of Canada’s most popular scientists and media personalities. He is known for his career as a broadcaster (including the CBC TV series The Nature of Things) as well as his work as an environmental activist.

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Hide Hyodo Shimizu

Hide Shimizu (née Hyodo), CM, educator, activist (born 11 May 1908 in Vancouver, BC; died 22 August 1999 in Nepean, ON). The daughter of Japanese immigrants, Shimizu was instrumental in organizing education for interned Japanese Canadian children in British Columbia during the Second World War. For this, she was awarded the Order of Canada in 1982. She was also an activist, lobbying the Canadian government for the enfranchisement of Japanese Canadians in the 1930s and, in the 1980s, for redress for the suffering and loss of interned Japanese Canadians.

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Rose Johnstone

Rose Mamelak Johnstone, FRSC, biochemist (born 14 May 1928 in Lodz, Poland; died 3 July 2009 in Montreal, QC). Rose Johnstone is best known for her discovery of exosomes, a key development in the field of cell biology. These tiniest of structures originating in all cells of the human body are vehicles that transport proteins, lipids and RNA from one cell to another. A pioneer of women in science, Johnstone was the first woman to hold the Gilman Cheney Chair in Biochemistry and the first and only woman chair of the Department of Biochemistry in McGill University’s Faculty of Medicine.

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Edith Clayton

Edith Clayton (née Drummond), basket weaver (born 6 September 1920 in Cherry Brook, NS; died 8 October 1989 in East Preston, NS). Using dyes from the Mi’kmaq community and a style that originated in Africa, Edith Clayton weaved traditional baskets that were admired across Canada and around the world. She was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977. Her baskets were prominently displayed at the Canadian pavilion at Expo 86 in Vancouver. In 1989, she was featured in a National Film Board film titled Black Mother Black Daughter.

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Bessie Starkman

Besha (Bessie) Starkman (Perri), organized crime boss (born 14 April 1889 or 21 June 1890 in Poland; died 13 August 1930 in Hamilton, ON). During the Prohibition era she became known as Canada’s first high-profile female crime boss. With her common-law spouse, mobster Rocco Perri, she ran a bootlegging and drug-smuggling enterprise. Starkman was gunned down in the garage of her home and her murderers were never caught. Her funeral was one of the largest ever seen in Hamilton.

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Order-in-Council P.C. 1911-1324 — the Proposed Ban on Black Immigration to Canada

Order-in-Council P.C. 1324 was approved on 12 August 1911 by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier. The purpose of the order was to ban Black persons from entering Canada for a period of one year because, it read, “the Negro race…is deemed unsuitable to the climate and requirements of Canada.” The order-in-council was the culmination of what researcher R. Bruce Shepard has called Canada’s “campaign of diplomatic racism.” Though the order never became law, the actions of government officials made it clear that Black immigrants were not wanted in Canada (see Immigration).

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Alfonso Gagliano

Alfonso Gagliano, politician (born 1942 in Italy; died 12 December 2020). Alfonso Gagliano was the Member of Parliament for the Montreal neighbourhood of Saint-Leonard from 1984 until 2002. Following the 1997 election, he served as Minister of Public Works and Government Services in the cabinet of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien. He was also chair of the electoral commission of the Liberal Party in Quebec. Gagliano resigned from cabinet and the House of Commons to accept a position as ambassador to Denmark. He was fired by Prime Minister Paul Martin in 2004 for his role in the sponsorship scandal.

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Mary Ann Shadd

Mary Ann Camberton Shadd Cary, educator, publisher, abolitionist (born 9 October 1823 in Wilmington, Delaware; died 5 June 1893 in Washington, DC). Mary Ann Shadd was the first Black female newspaper publisher in Canada. Shadd founded and edited The Provincial Freeman. She also established a racially integrated school for Black refugees in Windsor, Canada West. She played an important role in giving Black people a voice and advocating for women’s rights. In 1994, Shadd was designated a Person of National Historic Significance in Canada.

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Dominique Gaspard

Dominique François Gaspard, physician and community builder (born 22 December 1884 in New Orleans, Louisiana; died 6 February 1938 in Montreal, QC). Gaspard was a respected doctor and a trailblazer in Montreal’s Black district. After serving with distinction at a field hospital during the First World War, he devoted himself to medical practice in Montreal. He also worked to create social and intellectual outlets for Black men in the city. A bilingual Catholic, he was unique in the city’s early-20th-century anglophone  Protestant Black community. His story speaks of a complexity of language, ethnicity and migration not often explored in narratives of Quebec’s English-speaking and Black communities.

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Grand Duchess Olga

Her Imperial Highness Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna of Russia, watercolour artist and farmer (born 13 June 1882 in St. Petersburg, Russia; died 24 November 1960 in Toronto, Ontario). Grand Duchess Olga was the sister of the last czar of Russia. She and her family fled to Denmark following the Russian Revolution of 1917 and then to Canada after the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of Russians immigrated to Canada in the first half of the 20th century. They included industrial and agricultural workers and members of the former Russian aristocracy.

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Black Canadians

Black Canadians, or African Canadians, are people of African or Caribbean ancestry who live in Canada. According to the 2016 Canadian census, 1.2 million Canadians (3.5 per cent of the population) identified as being Black.

This is a summary of Black history in Canada. For more detailed information, please see our articles on  Black History in Canada until 1900Black History in Canada: 1900-1960 and Black History in Canada: 1960 to Present..

See also African Canadians and Caribbean Canadians.

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War Measures Act

The War Measures Act was a federal law adopted by Parliament on 22 August 1914, after the beginning of the First World War. It gave broad powers to the Canadian government to maintain security and order during “war, invasion or insurrection.” It was used, controversially, to suspend the civil liberties of people in Canada who were considered “enemy aliens” during both world wars. This led to mass arrests and detentions without charges or trials. The War Measures Act was also invoked in Quebec during the 1970 October Crisis. The Act was repealed and replaced by the more limited Emergencies Act in 1988.

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Heather Reisman

Heather Maxine Reisman, OC, entrepreneur, business executive (born 28 August 1948 in Montreal, QC). Reisman is best known as the founder and chief executive officer (CEO) of Indigo Books & Music, Canada’s largest book and specialty toy retailer, and the co-founder of Kobo, a top global e-reader maker. She holds honorary doctorates from several universities and a bachelor’s degree in social work from McGill University.