Fifty years after the late Leonard Braithwaite made history by becoming the first Black elected to the Ontario legislature, Michael Coteau stood last week as one of only two Blacks in the province’s legislative assembly, introducing new Premier Kathleen Wynne at the Liberal Caucus’ annual celebration to mark Black History Month.
Ontario’s first female Premier promised that her government is committed to leveling the playing field and ensuring that no one has to fight against prejudices and low expectations.
“We know that people can achieve, no matter their background, the colour of their skin or the language they speak,” said Wynne. “We must lift each other up. I believe that Ontario is a place that could be a model for the world. That’s why, for me, government exists to make people’s lives better, to support people in realizing their dreams and to create the conditions for people to be great and to be able to achieve.
“We want to work with you to make sure our society is a fairer place to live. I want Ontario to be a place where everyone has the same opportunities and I want people to have the support they need. That’s what equity means. It means we have to create the conditions that will allow everybody to have that level playing field. Where it’s not level, we need to raise the floor up a bit.”
A former public school trustee, Coteau was elected to the provincial legislature in September 2011, when he won the Don Valley East seat for the Liberals. The Carleton University graduate is the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration in Wynne’s cabinet.
He noted that Ontario was the Canadian hub for the Underground Railroad that slaves used to secure their freedom.
“Many Ontario communities near the United States border played a prominent role in the arrival of Blacks fleeing slavery,” said Coteau. “For American Blacks, Ontario represented freedom, safety and hope for a better future and the contributions of the first courageous arrivals and succeeding generations of Black people have transformed that hope into a reality.
“The Black community in Ontario has contributed tremendously to the province and this country. When we speak of Black history in Ontario, we celebrate people like Mary Ann Shadd, Elijah McCoy, Dr. Anderson Abbott and William Hubbard, one of my favourite politicians.”
Facing a barrage of criticism from Black separatists for her racial integration beliefs, Shadd took the bold step to start a newspaper to promote temperance, moral reform and civil rights while attacking the racial intolerance faced in North America.
The Provincial Freeman, a weekly newspaper, was published out of an office at 143 King St. E. for most of its six years of existence before folding in 1859.
McCoy is credited with creating the automatic lubrication for oiling steam engines for which he secured the first of 47 patents; Abbott became Canada’s first Black physician in 1861 and Hubbard was the city’s first Black councillor. He successfully ran for public office at age 51 in the late 1890s and served as deputy and then acting mayor.
The son of a Virginian refugee, Hubbard was delivering bread on Don Mills Road when he noticed a pair of runaway horses dragging a carriage towards the Don River. He brought the horses under control and in the process saved the life of then Globe & Mail publisher, George Brown, who showed his gratitude by encouraging Hubbard to enter politics.
A visionary, Hubbard led the charge for publicly owned water supply and electric power that resulted in the establishment of Ontario and Toronto Hydro. He also persuaded the city to acquire the Toronto Islands.
Coteau and former cabinet Minister Margarett Best – who is a parliamentary assistant to the Minister of Education in Wynne’s cabinet – are the only two Blacks in the provincial legislature.