The RBC essay winners: Building Canadian Identity

By Matthew Samuels

Even before black loyalists were invited by the British government to establish settlements such as Birchtown in the Canadian Maritimes, blacks had been contributing to Canadian society.

The rich histories of African and Caribbean Canadians have been intertwined with the history of Canada to form a culture that has been strengthened by tradition and
heritage. Canada has become a multicultural nation and its culture and identity are described as mosaics characterized by perseverance and built by those who opposed prejudice.

Undoubtedly, black Canadians, through their contributions and efforts have added to that description. Blacks such as Elijah McCoy, through technological innovations, and Josiah Henson and Harriet Tubman, through aiding the escape of enslaved blacks, helped shape the face of not only Canada but of other countries as well. There are myriad African Canadians who may not have gained the same amount of recognition as those three but have aided in the shaping of Canada all the same.

Delos Davis was a black man who affected Canadian culture with his strong resolve. His family followed the Underground Railroad to freedom in Canada, settling in Colchester Township (Windsor, Ontario) where this influential Canadian was raised. Having studied law in Windsor, Davis became an eligible “notary public” by 1873, meaning that he was able to attest to and validate certain documents. The next few years in Davis’ life were a lesson in perseverance, as racist moods prevented the studious academic from finding a lawyer to study with in order to gain more experience.
Davis continually lobbied his local politician to introduce legislation that would enable him to act as a lawyer if he successfully met certain requirements.

Delos Davis’ perseverance paid off and a new act introduced by his local politician enabled him to take the Law Society of Upper Canada test. In passing it, he became the first black solicitor and then barrister of law. He proved that he had the ability to continue
to strive for what was deemed unreachable. In 1910, Davis surpassed even his own expectations, as he was appointed “King’s Counsel” (now known as “Queen’s Counsel”), or the King’s representative of law by the government of Ontario, effectively becoming the first black man to hold this position, not only in Canada, but in the United Kingdom as well.

Anderson Ruffin Abbott, a physician, hospital administrator and educator, among many other things, has a story much different from that of Delos Davis. While Davis hailed from a family of slaves and was forced to start a life in Canada with very little to his name, Anderson Abbott belonged to a family of free and wealthy blacks who left their home state of Alabama after their store was robbed. Although he was never forced into hard slave labour like Davis, the life Anderson Abbott led teaches lessons on remembering one’s heritage and rising to the occasion.

As a young man, Abbott studied with another black doctor and received his practicing license in 1861, becoming the first black Canadian doctor to be born in Canada. At this point in time, Anderson Abbott felt a strong urge to put his skills to use as a civilian surgeon in the American Civil War venturing off to give help where it was needed.

Instead of remaining distanced from the country that raised his parents and his prosperous family, Anderson Abbott dealt with the difficult situation of an American Civil War by supporting the Union Army, eventually having the honour of caring for the dying President Abraham Lincoln.

It is nigh impossible to dispute that black Canadians have had a powerful impact on Canadian identity, and they have helped to define precisely what it means to be a Canadian. Delos Davis became an instructor for Canadians on what it means to persevere and how not to be deterred by acts of racism and discrimination.

The life of Anderson Abbott teaches the importance of heritage and rising to the occasion, as he returned to his family’s homeland, putting his skills to use in the American Civil War. Many black Canadians have worked hard to attain their achievements, and often their successes and contributions are left unappreciated.

The identity of Canada has become strong because it is a combination of different heritages and traditions, including major influences from black Canadians.

1. “Black History Canada – Profiles.”
2. “Find A Grave• Millions of Cemetery Records and
Online Memorials.”
3. “Title Unknown.” DAVIS, DELOS ROGEST.