Former Metro Toronto councilor Bev Salmon had every reason to have more of an interest than most at the launch of a Black art exhibit last week at the Ontario Science Centre (OSC).
Both her father and husband – Canadian trailblazers – are featured in the Northern Lights: African-Canadian Stories exhibition curated by historian Dr. Sheldon Taylor. The unique exhibit, which honours the past while celebrating the present, runs until March 2.
Dr. Douglas Salmon, who passed away in September 2005 at age 81, was Canada’s first Black surgeon and the first African-Canadian president of a hospital medical staff. He was also an accomplished athlete, sculptor, pianist and one of the 1942 Race Discrimination Committee’s lead protestors who fought for the rights of Blacks to enter Palais Royale Ballroom to see such jazz greats as Count Basie, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington.
Salmon was spurred into action after he and some friends were refused entry to the popular dance hall and big band venue, because of their skin colour, to hear Earl “Fatha” Hines – considered the first modern jazz pianist – play.
Bev Salmon’s father – Jamaican-born Herbert McLean Bell – enlisted in the West Indies Regiment before he was 18. When his parents found out, he was de-enlisted and sent to Boston to study engineering. He however wanted to serve in the military and he came to Canada and joined the First Depot Battalion New Brunswick regiment in 1917.
Bell was later transferred to the 260th Battalion in Siberia during the First World War where he was wounded and sent back to a Halifax hospital to recuperate. Leaving the Army as a decorated war hero, he ran a business in Toronto for 25 years before passing away in 1953.
“My father and my husband were the two most special and remarkable gentlemen in my life,” the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s first Black female commissioner said. “I had a wonderful dad who never failed to provide for his children. He was also very involved in the Canadian Legion which made him an honorary captain and he gave back immeasurably to his church and local organizations. Doug, on the other hand, was a wonderful man who adored his family and was devoted to his profession.”
Married for 49 years, their union produced four children.
The exhibit showcases 55 period artifacts and photos tracing Canada’s earliest Black families back 10 generations. The display includes vintage wedding gowns depicting different eras in the city’s history.
“I was looking for a fashion cutter to add to the exhibition and (former Justice of the Peace) Arthur Downes recommended Stan Crowley who had a place on Spadina Avenue,” Taylor recalled. “I knew of Stan and Arthur arranged for me to meet him for the purpose of getting a photo for Northern Lights. “Stan and Dorothy (his wife) introduced me to Dalyce Newby (niece) who provided me with not only information on fashion cutting, but wedding gowns from 1882, 1918 and 1942 and numerous photos.
“The 1960s immigration inundation, particularly from the Caribbean, is one of the main reasons why the stories of the Crowleys and Newbys are not well known. They are part of the ‘old-line’ families who were structured differently in terms of the various churches and lodges they were associated with. Their stories were drowned out for a long time, but they didn’t stop doing what they were doing. They continued to raise their families and tell their stories and that’s why, in 2010, we have such a wonderful story of the Crowleys and Newbys.
“They have longstanding linkages in Ontario and Toronto and know that they too were part of the founding of Canada and shared in its growing pains as the country moved from being a colony to one of becoming an aspiring nation.”
Tourism Toronto and the OSC have collaborated to stage the exhibition in the Procter & Gamble Great Hall.
“We are delighted that our visitors will get a chance to learn the stories of some of the remarkable families that are part of Toronto’s rich history,” said the OSC’s chief executive officer Lesley Lewis. “Through this exhibition, our visitors will get a better understanding of our city’s past and its social context and learn about one of the founding communities that has made Toronto the vibrant city it is today…By presenting this exhibition, the Ontario Science Centre is continuing to expand its reach and its relevance.”
Tourism Toronto will provide bus transportation for school groups to attend the exhibit.
“The richness of Toronto’s story is part of what enables us to attract a wide range of visitors, including professional groups that want to hold their meetings and conventions here,” said Toronto Tourism president and chief executive officer David Whittaker. “We are recognized as a place that embraces multiculturalism and opportunity.”
The OSC is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and entrance to the exhibition is included in the admission price.”