An amateur historian in Canada has highlighted a forgotten story of racial injustice, and one of the country’s earliest segregation lawsuits, in hopes of bringing recognition to civil rights pioneers.
In 1914, Charles Daniels bought a pair of tickets to see King Lear at Calgary’s Sherman Grand Theatre, but when he attempted to take his orchestra-level seat, he was told by ushers to move up to the balcony level, where other black patrons were seated.
Theatre staff told Daniels that his presence made the white patrons uncomfortable. Daniels protested – refused offers of a refund, and left.
“The fact that this happened in 1914, in Calgary, Alberta, blew my mind. It broke the whole narrative that these kind of things only happen in the United States,” said Bashir Mohamed, a civil servant who has been scouring the provincial archives in Edmonton for the last two years, and wrote about Daniels’s case in an essay for the Sprawl, a Calgary journalism site.
Daniels’s story has re-emerged amid a belated recognition across Canada of past injustices that have been largely absent from the national conversation on race.
At the time, the incident at the theatre was widely covered in local papers, with one running the headline: “CALGARY ‘NIGGER’ KICKS UP FUSS — Wants to Attend Theatre With ‘White Folks’ But Management Says No.”
Daniels retained a lawyer, sued the theatre over its policy of segregation – and won the case.
He was awarded $1,000, worth more than $17,000 USD today. During the trial he had said: “I think the humiliation is worth that amount.”
Mohamed said he had started research the history of black Canadians after reading an online commentator claiming that Canada does not have the same history of racial discrimination as the US. “When I was going through school, I never learned about this black history. But I always assumed there was something there,” he said.
Since then he has documented Canada’s racist place-names, the extensive presence of the Ku Klux Klan in western Canada, the effects of segregation and the fights of early – but largely forgotten – civil rights activists.
“I think it’s very important work… because there isn’t as much written about people of African descent within Alberta,” Jennifer Kelly, a University of Alberta education professor, told the CBC.
Daniel’s story has been told before, over the years and in different publications. But few Canadians are aware of the pioneering theatregoer, whose successful fight against discrimination predated the broader civil rights movement by decades.
“We have photos of Martin Luther King being arrested. We have mugshots. We have photos of Rosa Parks sitting on a bus. We have photos of her mugshot too,” he said.
But in Canada, the victims of racism were often seen as secondary to the story, he said: in Daniels’ case, newspaper reporters spoke with theatre management, but never Daniels. No images of Daniels were ever published.
“We don’t see photos of the black-only sections of the theatre. We don’t see photos of black patients being denied care, even know we know all those things happened,” said Mohamed. “Because these photos don’t exist, it’s hard to see these things as real that affected real people.”
Other civil rights activists are only recently gaining mainstream recognition in Canada. Viola Desmond, a black woman who refused to leave a whites-only area of a movie theatre in 1946, is to become the first Canadian-born woman to appear on the country’s $10 bill.
Amid a broader debate about Canada’s colonial heritage, some cities have removed of now-controversial historical figures, such as John A Macdonald, the country’s first prime minister and a notorious racist.
“There’s been this resurgence across Canada and the United States of people reclaiming their history,” said Mohamed, pointing out that Edmonton’s Oliver neighbourhood is named after Frank Oliver, the former federal minister who championed policies barring black immigration to Canada and successfully lobbied for the forced removal First Nations from their treaty lands.
“It’s led to really critical discussions of who we celebrate. And who we’ve forgotten.”