Tour puts spotlight on Toronto’s black pioneers

In commemoration of Emancipation Day in Canada, Mackenzie House, located at 82 Bond St., is offering people the opportunity to learn about prominent blacks in Victorian-era Toronto.

A two-hour walking tour, “In the Footsteps of Black Victorians”, which happens twice a year, takes place around August 1. Participants will learn about black individuals who made great contributions to society, despite the inequality that was prevalent in Toronto during the Victorian era.

“What we hope to accomplish, is to get more people to be aware of how sizable the black population (about 1500) was in Victorian Toronto. We want to really highlight some of the people who made contributions to the city,” Mackenzie House employee, Rita Russa said.

“Because a lot of our history tends to focus on white males, this (the tour) is a good way for us to show that there were a lot more black individuals during that time, doing really good things.”

The tour takes participants on a walk showing various landmarks. People have the opportunity to learn about individuals such as Henry Bibb, a black publisher; Mary Ann Shadd Cary, the first female editor in Canada and William Peyton Hubbard, an early Toronto alderman

Despite the rarely-publicized significance of these people, Mackenzie House is not the first to publicly recognize pioneers such as Hubbard. In 1992, Ontario Hydro established an award in Hubbard’s honour, for black university and college students enrolled in an engineering program.

Since then, the company’s successor, Hydro One has continued the tradition, distributing scholarships twice a year. “This award is in recognition of the fact that William Peyton Hubbard was very passionate about public ownership of hydroelectricity,” Hydro One employee, Matthew Devine said.

Hubbard, born in Toronto in 1842, entered politics in 1893 and became the alderman for ward four in 1894. He was the first black politician elected. He served on the council for 20 years and to this date, holds the longest term in office. As a politician, he used his voice to help other minorities transition into society.

Hubbard pushed for public ownership of hydro-electricity

Hubbard is well known for his work with Sir Adam Beck, the founder of Hydro One and their perseverance for a publicly-owned hydro-electric company. In 1907, Hubbard saw this dream come to life with the birth of Hydro One.

Devine says that Hubbard’s commitment to a publicly-owned utility has played a vital role in the hydro industry today. “There was a great feeling that this is an industry that should be under public control and look at where we are right now. We have had a century of publicly owned electricity,” he said.

“We (Hydro One) are still technically owned by the government, so it is still in the public hand and I say that is his legacy.”

In addition to Hubbard’s political career, Mackenzie House recognizes him for his heroic actions reagrding an incident with George Brown (one of the Fathers of Confederation).

“He actually saved George Brown from drowning in the Don River when his carriage overturned. Brown hired Mr. Hubbard to be his personal driver and then later encouraged him to run for city council,” Russa said.

With organizations such as Hydro One and Mackenzie House’s “In the Footsteps of Black Victorians”, Barbara Young, 40, a past tour participant, became aware of people she never knew existed.

“I had no idea that there were so many prestigious blacks during that time. I never even knew there was such a high black population in Toronto in the late 19th century to early 20th century,” she said.

“All the years I went to school, I was never taught about any of this, so the tour really opened my eyes to how deep black history really goes in Toronto.”