Black History Month

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

February is Black History Month in Canada, and an opportunity to give credit to the many Black Canadians who have contributed to our society and cultures. Those contributions include advancements in the recognition and protection of human rights in Canada. In its inaugural exhibits, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights will explore how diverse individuals, groups and communities have advanced human rights, and acknowledge communities who have previously been excluded or under-represented in historical narratives.

Slaves escaping by carriage

Eleven slaves, including children, escape by carriage. 
Mention: Still, William. The Underground Railroad. Philadelphia: Porter and Coates, 1872.


Historians have written books that are hundreds of pages long about Black Canadians. In this short post, I only have room to describe one, so I’d like to focus on someone whose passion for history and commitment to human rights I find personally inspiring.

Daniel Hill was born in Missouri in 1923 and moved to Toronto as a student in 1950.  After finishing his Ph.D. in sociology in 1961, Hill became the first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.  The commission was established to administer the Ontario Human Rights Code, which at that time prohibited discrimination on the basis of a person’s race, faith, nationality, ancestry or place of origin.  The Ontario Human Rights Code was the first of its kind in Canada.  Although it was pre-dated by the Saskatchewan Bill of Rights and the Canadian Bill of Rights, it differed from them because it could be enforced. If a person felt they had been discriminated against on any basis prohibited by the Code, such as race, he or she could file a complaint with the Human Rights Commission. 

Book of Negroes

A page from the Book of Negroes, a document British naval officers used to record which Black Americans would be transported to Canada after the American Revolutionary War as a reward for their loyalty to Britain.  Daniel Hill’s son, Lawrence Hill, wrote an award-winning novel that shares the same name.


As director of the commission, Hill promoted human rights education and was involved in receiving complaints from people who felt they had been discriminated against.  It was an important step in challenging pervasive social biases and making Canada a more inclusive society.  Hill was passionate about his work. “I feel that no one should suffer indignity and depravation in silence,” he wrote. 

After Hill resigned from the commission in 1973, he worked as a consultant on human rights issues and then as the Ombudsman for the Province of Ontario.  At the same time, Hill wrote about the history of Black people in Canada, hoping to raise their profile in Canadian history.  For Hill, an important component of racial equality in the present was greater recognition of the contributions of Black Canadians in the past.  He described early Black migrants from the United States as “freedom-seekers” who were shaped, not only by experiences of slavery in the United States, but also by their dreams for freedom and new opportunities. 

As the first director of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, Daniel Hill had a lasting impact on its vision and values. The commission itself was used as a model for human rights commissions and tribunals in other provinces, and Hill continued to work in the area of human rights even after he resigned.  His contribution to the advancement of human rights in Canada, and the contributions of other Black Canadians to human rights both in Canada and internationally, can be felt every day, but Black History Month reminds us to acknowledge their impact and value. 

Visit the online exhibit detailing his story.

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