The history of black Canadians on Vancouver Island has long been largely unknown or under-discussed, but these Canadians have played crucial roles in the history not only of the island but of the province of British Columbia and the nation at large.
Shalema Gantt, the president of the Nanaimo African Heritage Society, notes that highlighting the contributions of black people in Canadian history is not just about the history of black Canadians––it’s about the history of all “residents of BC and Canada.”
One of the province’s most famous historical figures comes partly from African American parentage. James Douglas, who founded “Fort Victoria” (later the city of Victoria) was from a mixed-race family, his mother being a freed black woman from British Guiana. A man who is certainly less well-known, Mifflin Gibbs, was an African American immigrant from San Francisco who was partially responsible for bringing BC into Canadian confederation.
Not only were people of African heritage playing important roles in the shaping of Canadian society, but Christine Meutzner’s recent research into the Nanaimo Community Archives shows that there were, in fact, many more black Canadian inhabitants at the turn of the century than had previously been known. Prior to Meutzner’s discovery, Jimmy Caxton (born in 1892 and famed for being the first black baseball player of the 20th century) was the only black man known to inhabit the town of Wellington (now a neighbourhood of Nanaimo). What Meutzner’s research shows is that Claxton’s family was actually one of several black Canadian families in the small mining town, and that black Canadians––about 70 in all––made up six percent of the town’s population.
In addition to proving the existence of more black Canadian families, Meutzner’s work in the archives also shed light on the fact that Claxton’s parents were a mixed-race couple. This discovery, alongside James Douglas’ mixed parentage, suggests Canada’s diverse history, a history Meutzner hopes will emphasize Canada as a diverse nation both historically as well as in the present day.