I recently just got back from Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was my first time visiting this province so in honour of my trip, I decided to write a profile of one of the province’s first Black settlers. The Black population of the Canadian West grew quite slowly in the 19th and 20th Century, with most migrants coming from the United States. One of the first and best documented Blacks to migrate and settle in Manitoba was William S. A. Beal aka Billy Beal.
Billy Beal was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts on January 16th 1874, the son of Loretta H. Freeman and Charles R. Beal. Billy Beal grew up in Minneapolis, Minnesota where he graduated from high school. Minnesota was a region where the Manitoba government was focusing its immigration advertising at the time. Beal immigrated to Canada in 1906 where he worked in the Swan River area of Manitoba as a steam engineer at a saw mill. The area was mainly settled by Icelandic, Scandinavian and German immigrants. Beal describes life on a pioneer homestead in the region as follows (I have made spelling corrections to the original):
The idea of taking a homestead did not occur to me at that time. It was in the fall of 1906 that one of my acquaintances asked me to spend the winter on his homestead. That was in the district that is called Lancaster now. We went out there to fix up the house and things because he had a wife to share his good fortune with him. The scrub was so dense out there that we had to climb a tree to see much of his possessions. I had originally come from the city and I thought a man must have an awful grudge against a woman to take her out in the woods like that.
Unlike many other Black immigrants to the Canadian West, Beal was not initially interested in building a homestead, but he soon changed his mind under the influence of men at the sawmill and a book he read. He decided to settle in the Big Woody region. He writes:
Two years after at the sawmill where I worked most of the men were homesteaders and there was nothing but homestead talk every evening in camp. They would set around the table talked and joked each other about their braking and clearing. […] This and a book that I read that summer inspired me to try homesteading myself. So in the fall when the summer season at the mill was over, I applied at the land office in Swan River for a permit to file on a homestead. The only land then available near Swan River was ten miles North West of town some new land just opened for settlement. It was not then even included in the municipality and I was the first one to locate there. This was in 1908. It was very discouraging looking then, all heavy bush or rather dense trees like a forest and I had to clear and break fifteen acres in three years. There were no roads of course of any kind. Then too, there was the Woody River between it and town and no bridge. I had to cut a road in to haul material in to build my first shack.
But instead of focusing on clearing his land and farming, he started building a library. He collected catalogues from publishing houses and sent away for hundreds of books including the works of William Shakespeare, the Bible, Scientific Literature, Astronomy, and Philosophy. Unfortunately, Beal’s library was lost in 1911, burned to the ground in a spring fire which swept through the Swan River Valley. After this disaster, Beal focused on farming but gave it up in 1916 and returned to working for local lumber companies, just returning to his homestead on off seasons.
Beal was something of a renaissance man. Beal even built a homemade telescope out of lengths of stove pipe and rolled metal from tin cans. Some even believed he had medical training and he even assisted in giving inoculations in the diphtheria scare of 1915, the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the smallpox outbreak of 1920.
In 1912, he was involved in the formation of the Big Woody School District and was elected its first Secretary Treasurer, a position that he held for 37 years. Beal helped to establish a circulating library within the school system. He was the first secretary of the Big Woody Sunday School. He also formed a literary society and debating teams, directed plays, and organized poetry readings and musical concerts.
On top of all this he was also an amateur photographer. Most of his photographs are of people from the Swan River Valley, pictured in their homes of outside in natural settings so that the photographs do not look staged. A selection of his photographs were featured in the self-published 1988 amateur biography entitled Billy: The Life and Photography of William S. A. Beal Beal by Robert Barrow and Leigh Hambly.
Beal was a life-long bachelor. After he retired, he moved to the volunteer run Eventide home in the Pas in 1955. He died penniless on January 25th 1968 at 94 years of age. He was buried in an unmarked grave in The Pas Cemetery.
Very little is known about Beal’s life before he immigrated to Manitoba. Beal wrote an 8 page memoir in the 1950s but it begins, unlike most memoirs, with his immigration to Manitoba, not his birth. The memoir begins:
I came up to this country during Laurier’s land boom and effort was being made to settle the west by giving every man a “homestead” for $10.00, three years residence and fifteen acres cleared and broke. I did not come to this part of the country to homestead then but to follow my trade of engineer as there [were] many saw mills being operated.
Barrow and Hambly, who wrote Beal’s biography, interviewed neighbours, friends, and aquaintances of Beal’s in order to learn more about his early life. Much that they uncovered was only rumour and speculation as Beal didn’t tell many people about his past. According to Tom and Mary Barrow, two acquaintances of Beal’s, Beal immigrated because he was the dark-skinned child of a family that could pass as white, in an interview they state: “Well, he was a—he had Negro blood in him and it really came out in him, and his family, I guess, persuaded him to come up to this country so they wouldn’t be embarrassed having this fella who showed so much Negro in the family.”
Filmmakers Ernesto Griffiths and Winston Washington Moxam have written and produced a feature film about Beal’s life, entitled Billy. Griffiths stars in the film, playing Billy Beal, and Moxam directs. The film’s webpage on Telefilm Canada provides the following description for the film:
In 1967, a young journalist arrives at a retirement home to interview Billy, a 94-year-old black man. Billy tells him the story of his eventful life dating back to his early recollections of when he left the United States to move to northern Manitoba. He recalls his struggle as a homesteader, the racism he endured, his love of a woman, and his gift of photography.
Billy is the story of one man’s constant search for acceptance.
The filmmakers received the 2010 Human Rights Commitment Award of Manitoba for their film.
The Black Prairies: History, Subjectivity, Writing by Karina Joan Vernon (thesis available online)
Billy Beal: One of the First Black Pioneers in Manitoba by G. Siamandas (article available online)
Profile of Beal by The Manitoba Historical Society available online
Webpage for the film Billy on the Telefilm Canada website
Interview with Ernesto Griffith about the film Billy Beal available online
Trailer for the film Billy Beal available online
It is only fitting that the first Black Canadian Profile I write for my blog be that of the first Black Canadian I ever read about with any interest. During my Grade 10 history class, which I had with a wonderful visiting teacher who was originally from Scotland, I learned about William Hall (VC), the first Black person, the first Nova Scotian, and the first Canadian sailor to be honoured with a Victoria Cross.
William Hall was born in 1827 in Horton Bluff, on the Minas Basin, in Nova Scotia. He was the son of former American slaves Jacob and Lucy Hall who had fled to Halifax as refugees of the War of 1812. . He grew up in Hansport which was a thriving wooden shipbuilding area. Hall began his career building wooden ships but eventually joined the American merchant navy, then the British Royal Navy. His first service was a Able Seamen with the HMS Rodney. He spent two years in the Mediterranean and Black Seas during the Crimean War, during which he took an active part in a gun crew during the bombardment of Sebastopol (in present day Ukraine) and was captain of one of the Lancaster Guns on Green Hill. He received both British and Turkish medals for his efforts during this campaign.
Hall went on to join the crew of the HMS Shannon as Captain of the Foretop. Indian regiments with the British Army mutinied violently in resistance to the British occupation. In 1857, Hall volunteer to accompany a relief force bound for Lucknow where mutineers were besieging a British garrison. The army was required to breach the inner wall of the Shah Najaf mosque that was being used as a fortress by the mutineers.
According to the biography of William Hall written for the Nova Scotia Museum:
William Hall volunteered to replace a missing man in the crew of a twentyfour- pounder. The walls were thick, and by late afternoon the 30,000 sepoy defenders had inflicted heavy casualties from their protected positions. The bombardment guns from Shannon were dragged still closer to the walls and a bayonet attack was ordered, but to little effect. Captain Peel ordered two guns to within 20 yards (18 m) of the wall. The enemy concentrated its fire on these gun crews until one was totally annihilated. Of the Shannon crew, only Hall and one officer, Lieutenant Thomas Young, were left standing. Young was badly injured, but he and Hall continued working the gun, firing, reloading, and firing again until they finally triggered the charge that opened the walls. “I remember,” Hall is quoted as saying, “that after each round we ran our gun forward, until at last my gun’s crew were actually in danger of being hurt by splinters of brick and stone torn by the round shot from the walls we were bombarding.”
For this act of bravery, he was awarded the Victoria Cross on October 28th, 1859. The Victoria Cross (VC) is the highest military decoration awarded to those who have shown valour “in the face of the enemy”. It was introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856 to award soldiers who fought in the Crimean War.
William Hall (VC) retired from the navy in 1876, having reached the rank of Quartermaster. He went to live with his two sisters, managing a farm in Avonsport. He died of paralysis and was buried without military honours in an unmarked grave, His grave was neglected for some time until local community members launched a campaign in 1937 to have his valour recognized by the Canadian Legion. In 1945, his was reburied in a special plot in the cemetery of a Baptist Church in Hansport and in 1947 a memorial cairn was erected on ground obtained by the Hansport Branch of the Royal Canadian Legion. The inscription on the memorial reads as follows:
William Hall V.C. the first Nova Scotian, and the First Man of colour to win the Empire’s highest award for valour
A branch of the Canadian Legion in Halifax was also named in his honour.
William Hall’s medals were returned to Canada from England and were put on display during Expo ’67 in Montreal. They are now property of the province of Nova Scotia and are kept at the Nova Scotia Museum. Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp of William Hall in time for Black History Month in February 2010.
When I first learned about William Hall (VC), I remember feeling surprised, surprised that a Black person had been able to achieve what William Hall had achieved in the 19th Century. As a Black person, I feel that I have a complicated relationship with history. So much of the history that directly relates to my ancestors is not accessible to me and/or is deemed unimportant within mainstream Canadian society because it is considered to not be of any significant consequence to the more important history of Western Civilization. William Hall’s achievement of the Victoria Cross places him within the “important history of Western Civilization”. Both his involvement in the Crimean War and the Siege of Lucknow place him at key moments in the development and expansion of the British Empire. As Black people, we are often made to feel, or are even bluntly told, that we have not contributed anything of worth to Western Civilization. The life of a Black person like William Hall (VC) contradicts this belief and can be used effectively to help Black Canadian students feel that Black people like them have played a significant role in Canadian as well as British and Western history.
However, does celebrating the life of the first Black person to be awarded a Victoria Cross necessarily mean we need to celebrate his role in the expansion of the British Empire? You see, as I have grown older and learned more history, although I don’t doubt the heroism involved in William Hall’s actions during the Siege of Lucknow, I can’t agree that the British were right to be attempting to occupy India. Although British History often portrays the British army as victims of this mutiny, Indian history sees the mutiny as a struggle of resistance against Britain’s colonial ambitions and expanding occupation of the Indian sub-continent. Although there is no doubt that some of the mutineers were involved in unspeakable crimes against humanity, particularly the butchering of the families, mainly women and children, of British soldiers and settlers, Britain’s subsequent colonial take-over and occupation of the subcontinent could hardly be expected to be accepted without serious resistance from the Indians.
Much like African Americans who celebrate the history and achievements of Buffalo Soldiers as somehow “upping the race”, while ignorning that fact that many Native Americans and Filipinos may see these men as agents of American colonialism, we need to look at the achievements of William Hall (VC) as Indians might see them. We live in a very multicultural country and an increasingly globalized world. Far too often, we limit ourselves to seeing our achievements as Black people only in a Western, often North American context. This must change.
Nova Scotia Museum Biography of William Hall (VC)
Black History Canada: William Hall Profile
Canada Post Profile of Willam Hall (VC) and his Commemorative Stamp
I’m helping the daughter of an aunty of mine with her History Summative. It has to be on a Canadian Prime Minister. She chose John Diefenbaker. I was happy about this because since reading Canadian philosopher George Grant’s “Lament for a Nation“, I have been fascinated by John Diefenbaker and his involvement in promoting civil rights in Canada.
John Diefenbaker led the Conservative Party to victory in 1957. He was the Prime Minister of Canada from 1957 to 1963. Growing up, I absorbed some snippets of Diefenbaker’s history from TV, but like most Canadians my age, I didn’t learn much about Canadian history and frankly felt that our history was boring.
I knew about the Diefenbunker and wanted to visit there some day (I still haven’t managed to yet). I knew that Diefenbaker didn’t get along with President John F. Kennedy but I didn’t really know why. I knew that Diefenbaker had cancelled the Avro Arrow but didn’t know why. I also had come to my own conclusion that Diefenbaker was one of our ugliest Prime Ministers.
But while reading Grant’s Lament for a Nation I discovered that Diefenbaker was something of a progressive for his time, despite being the leader of the Conservative Party.
Diefenbaker once said “I am the first Prime Minister of this country of neither altogether English nor French origin. So I determined to bring about a Canadian citizenship that knew no hyphenated consideration.”- March 29, 1958, Maclean’s. Diefenbaker believed in promoting an “unhyphenated” Canadian identity, and that protecting the rights of all Canadians, regardless of race or national origin, was key in building the idea of Canada as “one nation”. However, this position make him quite unpopular among the Québecois.
Here is a list of some of the positions, decisions, and accomplishments of Diefenbaker that I think were pretty progressive and important for more Canadians to know about:
1) Diefenbaker opposed the internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II
While an MP in the Conservative Opposition, Diefenbaker was appointed to the House Committee on the Defense of Canada Regulations. This committee was an all-party committee responsible for examining the war-time rules related to arrest and detention without trial. When Mackenzie King’s Liberals sought to forcably relocate Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast and interned them, Diefenbaker was against such actions. I wonder how much this had to do with his background as a German. At the time, Diefenbaker was concerned about Canadians accusing German Canadians of disloyalty and during his early political career he had been called a “Hun” and faced harassment because of his obviously German last name. It should really be no surprise that redress for the internment of Japanese Canadians were made under the Conservative Government of Brian Mulroney, seeing as this had been an action that Conservatives like Diefenbaker had opposed.
2) Diefenbaker and First Nations’ Rights
On March 31, 1960, First Nations and Inuit peoples were given the right to vote in Canada by the Diefenbaker Conservatives. This allowed Registered Indians living On-Reserve the right to vote in federal elections for the first time. Before this, if a Registered or Status Indian wanted to vote, he had to renounce his Status.
Although Cree by birth, James Gladstone was adopted by the Blood/Kainai Tribe, a member of the Blackfoot Nation, because he was born on one of their reserves. He was President of the Indian Association of Alberta and was appointed to the Senate in 1958, two years before Status Indians were given the right to vote in federal elections. Gladstone’s presence in the Senate was key in pressuring Parliment to grant Status Indians their civil rights.
4) Diefenbaker’s Appointment of Ellen Fairclough, the First Woman Cabinet Minister
In 1957, Diefenbaker appointed the first woman federal cabinet minister, Ellen Fairclough. She held the posts of Secretary of State, and later Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. During her time in Parliment, she worked on issues related to the status of women, including private members bills pushing for equal pay for equal work for women.
5) The Canadian Bill of Rights
Taken from Diefenbaker’s Bill of Rights by Thomas Axworthy:
John Diefenbaker was a passionate advocate for the rights of the downtrodden, and as early as 1936 he had begun to draft a Canadian Bill of Rights. Elected to the House of Commons in 1940, Diefenbaker began to introduce annually a private member’s bill enunciating a made-in-Canada Bill of Rights. Becoming leader of the Conservative Party in 1956, Diefenbaker stunned Canada with an upset victory over the Liberal Party in 1957, and work on a Canadian Bill of Rights began immediately. Believing that Canada’s internment of the Japanese during World War II was a disgrace, he told the House of Commons that a Bill of Rights “would make Parliament freedom-conscious.” In August of 1960, his cherished Bill of Rights was proclaimed.
Mr. Diefenbaker made the strategic decision that his Bill of Rights would apply only to the federal jurisdiction. He did not believe that the provinces would agree to amend the Constitution. “Let us clear our own doorstep first,” he told critics who said he did not go far enough.
6) Diefenbaker and Aparteid South Africa
Taken from The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online:
Despite his vehement rejection of the South African policy of apartheid, Diefenbaker was hesitant to consider exclusion of South Africa from membership in the British Commonwealth on the ground that the association should not interfere in the domestic affairs of its members. Political pressure for action intensified after disorders and a police massacre of peaceful demonstrators in Sharpeville in March 1960. At a meeting of Commonwealth prime ministers in May Diefenbaker worked with Prime Minister Macmillan to avoid a split among the leaders along racial lines. They found their escape in convenient delay. The conference offered South Africa time to revise its policies by agreeing that in the event it chose to become a republic, it would have to request consent from other Commonwealth members for readmission to the association. When South Africa’s whites voted that October in favour of a republic, Prime Minister Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd announced that he would seek continuing Commonwealth membership at the meeting in March 1961. Diefenbaker arrived at that meeting carrying divided counsels on South Africa, some calling for its exclusion, some for renewal of its membership coupled with a Commonwealth statement on racial equality, and others for further delay. As the conference opened he was undecided, but at the suggestion of Bryce he advocated a declaration of principles to be adopted before a decision on South Africa’s readmission. The effect would be to force a choice on South Africa rather than on the other members. When Verwoerd called for additional wording which would exclude his country’s practices from blame, Diefenbaker sided with the non-white leaders in rejecting the proposal. Verwoerd withdrew the South African application and left the meeting. Following South Africa’s departure, the conference dropped the effort to adopt a declaration of principles, but Diefenbaker told reporters that non-discrimination was an “unwritten principle” of the association and that it was “in keeping with the course of my life.” He accepted the outcome as the least divisive one possible and received wide praise at home and abroad for his defence of the principle of non-discrimination.
Diefenbaker’s position negatively affected his relationship with British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, who already thought Diefenbaker was a nuisance because of his interference in Britain’s economic policies. Diefenbaker was the only one of the white Prime Ministers to take an unequivocal stand against aparteid and spoke of a Commonwealth that opposed racial discrimination. He had be well advised by Civil Servant and ardent Keynesian, Robert Bryce that if Aparteid South Africa, with British support, had been allowed to remain in the Commonwealth most of the Asian and African countries would leave, defeating the purpose of the Commonwealth and making it nothing more than a whites-only club.
Lament for a Nation by George Grant
Alliance and Illusion: Canada and the world 1945-1984 by Robert Bothwell (To learn more about Diefenbaker and the Commonwealth of Nations)