Roots of black history run deep on the Vancouver Island

Black History Month is marked in February but Shalema Gantt, president of the Nanaimo African Heritage Society, makes it clear that black history has been significant to B.C. for close to 160 years.

It’s a form of recognition that concerns not just black Canadians — whether they have roots in Jamaica, Somalia or the U.S. — but all Canadians interested in recognizing the contributions to the country made by people who were black.

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“I just want to make sure that all our young people and people in general understand that it’s not just black history — it’s our history as residents of B.C. and Canada,” Gantt said.

Gantt moved to Nanaimo via New York after growing up in South Carolina, and was surprised — and relieved — to discover how deep the roots of black history go on the Island.

It made her feel included, especially given the dearth of black people she encountered when she arrived in the mid-1980s, and galvanized her to make black history a cause.

She points out that it was a black man, Mifflin Gibbs, one of 600 San Francisco black émigrés fleeing California in 1858, who helped work out the terms that brought B.C. into Confederation in 1867.

These African-Americans settlers provided were necessary to dissuade American expansionists from coming farther north after annexing the Oregon territory and were given the rights of British citizens by B.C.’s first governor Sir James Douglas, whose mother was black. About half the first settlers on Salt Spring Island were blacks who came from California, notes the website

Charlotte Girard, a former University of Victoria professor who began researching the Douglas family tree in the 1970s, determined that Douglas’s mother was Martha Ann Telfer, a free coloured woman of mixed race living in British Guiana. His father was John Douglas, a white Scotsman.

James Douglas, who established Fort Victoria in 1843, was “remarkably dark of complexion, a matter often commented on, as indeed was his daughter Cecilia, later to become the wife of Dr. J.S. Helmcken,” wrote Derek Pethick, author of the 1964 book James Douglas: Servant of Two Empires. Helmcken House, next the Royal B.C. Museum, was the home of the pioneer doctor from the Hudson’s Bay Company, who also played a role in Confederation, notes Heritage B.C.

Canadian-born blacks have fought in wars, become famous musicians, won Olympic medals and election to Parliament and in 2005, Michaëlle Jean, a Haitian-born journalist, became Canada’s first black governor general.

Black History Month eveents

Victoria area

• Feb. 4 — Songs and Stories about slavery and the Underground Railroad with singer-songwriter Lonnie Glass

• Feb. 11 — Alexander Family and other Early Vancouver Island Pioneers, presented by descendant Karen Hoshal

• Feb. 13 — Heritage Day

• Feb. 21 — Ross Bay Cemetery Tour

• Feb. 27 — Victoria Black History Community Recognition Awards

• Feb. 28 — Shady Creek Church Service

• Feb. 29 — Blues, Jazz Concert and Tribute to Mifflin Gibbs with Maureen Washington Quartet and Justin Carter

For more information, go to or email

Nanaimo area

• Feb. 12 — Opening ceremony, 2-4 p.m., Nanaimo Downtown Library, 90 Commercial St., with acoustic guitarist Daniel Gerrard.

• Feb. 27 — Dinner and dance featuring Ezra Kwizera, Valerie Mason-John and Adelene da Soul Poet a.k.a. Bertha Clark at the Bowen Complex.

• Feb. 21 — Nostalgia Jazz and Gospel Concert, 3 p.m., at Brechin United Church, featuring the Watoto Fusion Dancers.

For more information, go to

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