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Celebrating Black Canadians


iStock.com/suteishi

By Nikitha Fester (she/her), BCTF staff


Joy is an act of resistance! – Toi Derricotte

 

Happy Black history and futures month! Black History Month was first recognized in Toronto in 1979, and a decade later it was observed in Nova Scotia. Finally, it was officially recognized by the House of Commons in 1995, following a motion introduced by Dr. Jean Augustine. In February 2008, the first Black male senator, Senator Donald Oliver, introduced a motion to recognize the contributions of Black Canadians during Black History Month. More recently, in 2022, the BC government, thanks to the hard work of the Ninandotoo Society, proclaimed Black Excellence Day. Black Excellence Day provides us with an occasion to reflect on the positive and important contributions of Black Canadians and Black British Columbians to the success of the province. The continued activism of Black folks in the country demonstrates that Black excellence is not fossilized in our past but very much alive and present today.

 

The contributions of Black Canadians have been shaping Canada’s heritage and identity since the early 1600s. Many of us learned of the Halifax explosion during the First World War, however few of us learned of Dr. Clement Ligoure, a hero of this event. He was born in Trinidad and moved to Canada to study medicine at Queen’s University in the early 1900s. He graduated in 1916, and two years later the institution banned Black students until 1965. Dr. Ligoure moved to Halifax to join the war effort, but he was refused entry and was also denied hospital privileges. Therefore, he set up a private clinic in his home, a short distance away from where the explosion occurred on December 6, 1917. On this day, Halifax’s hospitals were overwhelmed by patients, so Dr. Ligoure and his housekeeper worked tirelessly over three weeks helping those injured by the explosion. Records show that by December 28, 1917, three weeks after the explosion, the doctor had assisted nearly 200 people per day! His home on North Street has since been awarded heritage status. In addition, the Dr. Clement Ligoure Award in recognition of exemplary service during a medical crisis was created in 2021 and awarded to Dr. Robert Strang, Nova Scotia’s chief medical officer of health, that same year.

 

While the Black population in BC is small, Black excellence can be found here as well. For example, Eleanor Collins, who lived in Burnaby, was the first Black television host in North America. Her variety show, The Eleanor Show, debuted in 1955 and she is known as Canada’s “first lady of jazz.”

 

Separately, Barbara Howard, a Canadian sprinter and educator, was the first Black woman to represent Canada at an international sports competition. She grew up in East Vancouver’s Grandview neighbourhood and attended Britannia Secondary School, and her grandfather even owned a barbershop in Gastown. After her sporting career, she became an educator in Port Alberni. Later she was the first racialized teacher to be hired by the Vancouver School Board. She taught at Hastings, Henry Hudson, and Trafalgar elementary schools and remained a teacher for 43 years.

 

Before Barbara, there was John Craven Jones, the first Black teacher on Salt Spring Island in 1859. He would travel eight kilometres a day between schools, where he taught Black, Indigenous, and white children. From 1867 onwards, he taught reading, writing, math, geography, geometry, Latin, and Greek, all without pay. In 1869, public funding for schools was established and he earned a monthly salary of $40. In 1875, he retired to his farm on Salt Spring and then moved back to Ohio in 1882. John’s brother William, commonly known as “Painless Jones,” was BC’s first dentist. He lived and served in Barkerville, BC. Painless Jones would extract or gold-fill a tooth for a nominal fee of $5.

 

Want to learn more?

 

Watch

Afro-Canada This French series documents the presence of Black Canadians from slavery to forced displacement and exile, and the resilience and resurgence of Black communities in Canada.

 

African Renaissance: When Art Meets Power Journalist Afua Hirsch explores how different African countries shed their colonial pasts to emerge as cultural and artistic powerhouses.

 

Secret Vancouver: Return to Hogan’s Alley Return to Hogan’s Alley is a short documentary exposing the rich Black community that existed in Downtown Vancouver up until the late 1960s.

 

Listen

Oscar Peterson, “Hymn to Freedom” Born in Montréal and considered one of the greatest jazz pianists of all time, Oscar Peterson won seven Grammy awards and a lifetime achievement award. His discography includes features by Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Louis Armstrong, and Duke Ellington, among others.

 

Lido Pimienta, “Eso Que Tu Haces” Afro-Indigenous-Colombian Canadian queer powerhouse, Lido Pimienta has worked with the likes of The Halluci Nation (formerly A Tribe Called Red). Her album La Papessa won the Polaris Prize in 2017. Additionally, she became the first racialized woman to compose a score for the New York City Ballet.

 

The Rascalz, “Northern Touch” Vancouver talent that put Canada’s hip-hop scene on the map, long before Drake, with the Canadian hip-hop anthem “Northern Touch.” The Rascalz shocked Canadian music fans when they refused to accept their Juno Award in 1998, as the urban music category was not televised.

 

Teach

See below for lessons on Grafton Tyler Brown, a Black artist who found fame in Victoria. This lesson is art-focused and appropriate for Grades 2 and 3 but can be adapted as needed. The lesson is complete with links, a biography, prompts, and extensions. A high school print-making lesson is also posted below. This one is appropriate for Grades 8 and 9. Similarly, this lesson includes links, step-by-step process, background information, and prompts. Some materials are required.

 

In addition to the BC-focused art lessons, check out Kayak, a free downloadable PDF workbook all about Black Canadian history, assembled by Dr. Natasha Henry, Black Canadian historian and curriculum developer.


Grafton Tyler Brown. Image A-08775 courtesy of the BC Archives.

Grafton Tyler Brown:

Canning label art project

Note: This lesson is to be embedded within a unit on the salmon life cycle.

 

Historical figure/event:

Grafton Tyler Brown

Grades: 2–3

Subject: Art

 

Curricular competencies

  • Create artistic works collaboratively and as an individual using ideas inspired by imagination, inquiry, experimentation, and purposeful play. (Grade 2) 

  • Explore personal experience, community, and culture through arts activities. (Grade 2)

  • Reflect on creative processes and make connections to other experiences.

  • Explore relationships among cultures, communities, and the arts. (Grade 3)

  • Connect knowledge and skills from other areas of learning in planning, creating, and interpreting works of art. (Grade 3)

 

Objectives

  • For students to learn about the art of Grafton Tyler Brown.

  • For students to understand the connection between the salmon life cycle, canning, marketing, and consumption.

 

Extensions

  • Connect to the idea of marketing and why advertisements are designed a certain way.

  • Explore other examples of Brown’s work; compare to other well-known local artists, e.g., Emily Carr.

  • Write a story explaining why Brown stopped painting.

  • Discuss why Carr is renowned but Brown is lesser known.

  • Learn about canning in BC; is it still a big industry? Visit the Gulf of Georgia Cannery to learn more about the process.

 

Materials

 

Grafton Tyler Brown biography

  • Born February 22, 1841, in Pennsylvania.

  • His parents were free Black Americans.

  • He had two brothers and one sister.

  • Left Pennsylvania at 17 for California and worked as a porter and hotel steward.

  • He began painting in California and his work caught the attention of local newspapers.

  • He then moved to San Francisco and was hired by a German printer, Kuchel, here he was sent around the west to draw views of towns for Kuchel to turn into lithographs.

  • When Kuchel died, his wife gave the business to Brown—he was now one of 55 lithographers in the United States.

  • During this time, various governments were doing census work, and Brown was classified as mulatto (having one Black parent), quadroon (having one Black grandparent), and white by different census takers.

  • In 1870, John Sullivan Deas, a Black cannery owner in BC, hired Brown to paint his canned salmon labels.

  • By 1882, Brown moved to Victoria and began his life as a professional painter.

  • In Victoria, Brown was thought to be a white man.  

  • In Victoria, he joined a geological survey party and travelled the province painting vistas.

  • After this, he set up a studio in the Occidental Hotel at the corner of Wharf and Johnston streets in Victoria.

  • He was well known, and the British Colonist newspaper encouraged folks to see him for their painting needs.

  • Brown was converting his sketches from his survey tour into paintings.

  • In June 1883, he held his first exhibition, and the British Colonist promoted the event.

  • A year later, in 1884, he left Victoria and moved to Tacoma, Washington, where he sold his paintings of Mount Tacoma, Mount Hood, Mount Baker, and others.

  • He then moved to Portland in 1885 and began mentoring amateur painters.

  • Four years later, he moved to Montana where he met his partner, Albertine, a French woman.

  • In 1892, Brown stopped painting and began working as a draftsman for the US Army Corp. He retired in 1916 and died in 1918.

 

Pre-activity 1: Salmon canning

Time: 5–10 minutes, depending on level of engagement of students

Materials: different canned fish, e.g., tuna, salmon, sardines, etc.

 

Have students sit in a circle or at their desks and build the connection between the salmon life cycle, fishing, and people eating salmon. Below are questions you can use to guide the conversation.

 

  1. We have learned about the salmon life cycle, and we know that adult salmon live in the ocean and then come back to the rivers and streams where they were born. Who can remember what happens once they go back to their home rivers and streams? (Students developing recall skills.)

  2. That is right, they go and spawn. Do all salmon make it back to spawn?

  3. Why do you think that is?

  4. Yes, you’re right: because we eat salmon! Who has tried salmon before? Smoked salmon? Sushi? Candied salmon? Let them brainstorm.

  5. Ask students if they have heard of canned salmon. Explain what canned salmon is.

  6. Show students cans of canned salmon. Pass them around in the circle and ask students to describe what they notice about the labels, and how do they think the labels got there? When they say a machine put them there, ask them to think back to before we had machines; how were the labels made? 

 

Pre-activity 2: Who is Grafton Tyler Brown?

Time: 20 minutes

Materials: images of Brown, his work, and Deas label; projector to watch video clip

 

  1. Explain to students that they are going to learn about Grafton Tyler Brown, who designed can labels for a cannery located in Richmond, BC. Emphasize that both Brown and John Sullivan Deas (cannery owner) were Black men, and it was very rare that they would be successful in art and canning because of racism in Canada.

  2. Highlight for the students aspects of Brown’s life that you feel comfortable sharing and discussing. Be sure to highlight that he was a professional artist and held his own exhibition. 

  3. When you begin talking about his life as a painter, circulate images of his work or show on a PowerPoint. Ask students to share what they notice, what they like, if they have seen artwork like this before? Ask them where they can go to look at artwork like this? Tell them they can go to the Royal BC Museum, in Victoria, where Brown lived, to see his work.

  4. Show the image of the can label that Brown designed for John Sullivan Deas, ask students what they notice about this label. How is it different from the other examples they saw earlier? Why do they think this one looks different?

  5. Watch video clip on Brown to make sure students understand who he is.

 

Extension

Write the major events of Brown’s life on index cards and tape to students’ shoulders. Have students line up in order of Brown’s life events and tell you his biography.

 

Activity: Designing a can label

Time: 60–75 minutes or more

Materials: art supplies, paper, cans if using

 

  1. Have students look more critically at the label by Brown. What information is included? What is the image of?

  2. Explain to students that they will design their own can label. Emphasize that their label does not have to look exactly like Brown’s, but the purpose of the label is to encourage a customer to buy that brand of canned salmon.

  3. Inform the students of the material they will get to use and encourage them to think about their idea first.

  4. Distribute materials and let students begin their projects.

  5. Once all students have completed their labels, put them into groups and have them share what they like about their label (can also be done as a large group discussion).

  6. If you opted to buy empty cans, have students glue their labels on their can and make a display for your classroom or school.

 

Extension

Journal prompt: Why did Brown stop painting? Write a one-page story explaining his reason for stopping.

 

Accommodation

Use larger paper for labels for students who have fine motor skill difficulty.

 

Bibliography

BC’s Curriculum, Arts Education 2, Accessed April 27, 2023: https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/curriculum/arts-education/2/core 

 

BC’s Curriculum, Arts Education 3, Accessed April 27, 2023: https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/curriculum/arts-education/3/core  

 

Claudia Laroye, “How a Black Pioneer Turned Fish into Gold,” The Saturday Evening Post, February 17, 2021: https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2021/02/how-a-black-pioneer-turned-fish-into-gold/  

 

John Lutz, “About G.T. Brown,” The Missing British Columbia Paintings of Grafton Tyler Brown, University of Victoria, Accessed April 25, 2023: https://web.uvic.ca/~hist66/gtbrown/gtbrown.html 

 

Royal BC Museum, “This Week in History - Season 10 Episode 22: Grafton Tyler Brown,” YouTube, March 23, 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkROucI3tEw 

 

Grafton Tyler Brown: Print-making lesson

Historical figure/event: Grafton Tyler Brown

Grade: 9

Subject: Art

 

Curricular competencies

  • Create artistic works collaboratively and as an individual using ideas inspired by imagination, inquiry, experimentation, and purposeful play. 

  • Demonstrate an understand and appreciation of personal, social, cultural, historical, and environmental contexts in relation to the arts.

  • Explore the relationships between identity, place, culture, society, and belonging through artistic experiences.

  • Select and combine elements and principles of the arts to intentionally create a particular mood, effect, or meaning.

 

Objectives

  • For students to learn about the art of Grafton Tyler Brown.

  • For students to explore a variation of print making.

 

Extensions

  • Explore other examples of Brown’s work; compare to other well-known local artists, e.g., Emily Carr.

  • Discuss why Carr is renowned but Brown is lesser known.

 

Materials

 

Grafton Tyler Brown biography

  • Born February 22, 1841, in Pennsylvania.

  • His parents were free Black Americans.

  • He had two brothers and one sister.

  • Left Pennsylvania at 17 for California and worked as a porter and hotel steward.

  • He began painting in California and his work caught the attention of local newspapers.

  • He then moved to San Francisco and was hired by a German printer, Kuchel, here he was sent around the west to draw views of towns for Kuchel to turn into lithographs.

  • When Kuchel died, his wife gave the business to Brown—he was now one of 55 lithographers in the United States.

  • During this time, various governments were doing census work, and Brown was classified as mulatto (having one Black parent), quadroon (having one Black grandparent), and white by different census takers.

  • In 1870, John Sullivan Deas, a Black cannery owner in BC, hired Brown to paint his canned salmon labels.

  • By 1882, Brown moved to Victoria and began his life as a professional painter.

  • In Victoria, Brown was thought to be a white man.  

  • In Victoria, he joined a geological survey party and travelled the province painting vistas.

  • After this, he set up a studio in the Occidental Hotel at the corner of Wharf and Johnston streets in Victoria.

  • He was well known, and the British Colonist newspaper encouraged folks to see him for their painting needs.

  • Brown was converting his sketches from his survey tour into paintings.

  • In June 1883, he held his first exhibition, and the British Colonist promoted the event.

  • A year later, in 1884, he left Victoria and moved to Tacoma, Washington, where he sold his paintings of Mount Tacoma, Mount Hood, Mount Baker, and others.

  • He then moved to Portland in 1885 and began mentoring amateur painters.

  • Four years later, he moved to Montana where he met his partner, Albertine, a French woman.

  • In 1892, Brown stopped painting and began working as a draftsman for the US Army Corp. He retired in 1916 and died in 1918.


Pre-activity 1: Lithography  

Time: 10 minutes, depending on level of engagement of students

Materials: video on lithography, information from encyclopedia, depending on familiarity with the process.

 

  1. Present Lithography to the students.

  2. Engage in a conversation around the process  and why they think it is still used today.

  3. Show the video on lithography.

 

Pre-activity 2: Who is Grafton Tyler Brown?

Time: 20 minutes

Materials: images of Brown, his work, and Deas label; projector to watch video clip

 

  1. Explain to students that they are going to learn about Grafton Tyler Brown, who owned a lithography business in the United States and painted can labels for a cannery located in Richmond, BC. Emphasize that Brown was a Black man, and it was very rare that he would be successful in art because of racism in Canada.

  2. Highlight for the students aspects of Brown’s life that you feel comfortable sharing and discussing. Be sure to highlight that he was a professional artist and held his own exhibition. 

  3. When you begin talking about his life as a painter, circulate images of his work or show on a PowerPoint. Ask students to share what they notice, what they like, if they have seen artwork like this before? Ask them where they can go to look at artwork like this? Tell them they can go to the Royal BC Museum, in Victoria, where Brown lived, to see his work.

  4. Show the image of the can label that Brown designed for John Sullivan Deas; ask students what they notice about this label. 

  5. Watch video clip on Brown to make sure students understand who he is.

 

Activity: Intaglio print-making  

Time: 3–5 blocks of art, depending on speed of students

Materials: art supplies, paper

 

  1. Have students identify an image they would like to turn into a print. If the students are in photography, they could use a photo they shot and developed.

  2. Trace the photo onto the shiny side of the tetra pack.

  3. Retrace with carving needle.

  4. Remove large areas carefully.

  5. Brush with sandpaper to create shades and tone, if desired.

  6. Cut out print if not using the entire tetra pack.

  7. Place print on drop sheet and cover with layer of ink.

  8. Use the back of a spoon to ensure ink is in all crevices of print.

  9. Use rag/ squeegee to remove excess ink.

  10. Place print paper over your print in your press.

  11. Press and reveal your print!

 

Bibliography

BC’s Curriculum, Arts Education 9, Accessed April 27, 2023: https://curriculum.gov.bc.ca/curriculum/arts-education/9/core  


 

Claudia Laroye, “How a Black Pioneer Turned Fish into Gold,” The Saturday Evening Post, February 17, 2021: https://www.saturdayeveningpost.com/2021/02/how-a-black-pioneer-turned-fish-into-gold/  


John Lutz, “About G.T. Brown,” The Missing British Columbia Paintings of Grafton Tyler Brown, University of Victoria, Accessed April 25, 2023: https://web.uvic.ca/~hist66/gtbrown/gtbrown.html


National Museums Liverpool, “How to make a lithographic print,” YouTube, 2020, Accessed November 21, 2023: https://youtube.com/watch?v=G0So4M7Tbis


C. Parrott-Sheffer (Ed.), “Lithography,” Brittanica, November 28, 2023: https://www.britannica.com/technology/lithography  


Royal BC Museum, “This Week in History - Season 10 Episode 22: Grafton Tyler Brown,” YouTube, March 23, 2022: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JkROucI3tEw 

 

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