Looking Back to a Time When Canadians Wanted Black Immigrants Banned
Donald Willard Moore devoted his life to fighting for the rights of immigrants, Black Canadians, and the dream of multiculturalism.
Now and Then explores the stories behind Toronto’s historical plaques and monuments.
Donald Willard Moore, the man who became known as “Uncle Don,” was born on November 2, 1891, at Lodge Hill, St. Michael Parish, Barbados. He moved to New York at 21, and arrived in Montreal shortly after. He may have been already trained as a tailor, but many occupations were closed to Black people in early 20th century Canada. Moore took a job as a sleeping car porter with Canadian Pacific, a job many Black men were recruited for.
He saved money to study dentistry at Dalhousie in 1918, but after catching tuberculosis, he left his studies and returned to Toronto. Moore spent the rest of his long life as a pillar of the community and an activist for the rights of Black people and immigrants in Canada.
Moore arrived in Canada in 1913 and was met by a country that rarely welcomed immigrants that looked like him. In fact, many people in Canada at the time called for a ban on Black immigration. Two years earlier, in August 1911, Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier had signed an Order-in-Council to ban Black immigrants. It was never formally invoked or included in the Immigration Act, and was repealed in October. But it was written and approved in a political climate that was hostile to non-white immigrants. In March 1911, the Edmonton chapter of the Imperial Order Daughters of the Empire had petitioned the minister of the interior, Frank Oliver, to ban Black immigrants, and they weren’t the only ones to call for this. Common arguments were that Black people couldn’t survive in Canada’s cold climate or that American racial politics would be imported north. In 1923, the Canadian government passed the racist Chinese Immigration Act, which banned Chinese immigration.
While there was never an official act banning Black immigration, Canadian officials made the road as hard as they could for African-Americans hoping to move to the Great White North. They refused to send written material on how to immigrate and would tell Black immigrants that life in Canada wasn’t better, only colder. They refused to provide documentation showing that Black people were farmers, who were considered the best settlers, and charged them full price, rather than discounted settler fares, to travel on the train. They also forced Black immigrants into tough medical exams at the border, with some medical examiners bribed to fail them, and hired African-American agents to spread anti-Canada propaganda.
Even non-American immigrants and British subjects, such as Moore, faced difficulties. Canadian authorities often required arrivals from the West Indies or India to have a continuous journey from point of origin to Canada or to arrive with more money in hand. Canadian officials also prioritized immigrants they believed would be the easiest to assimilate, meaning white. British farmers were recruited while all others faced discrimination.
As Moore’s story shows, when Black immigrants arrived, they were sometimes forced into jobs that nobody else wanted. Sleeping car porters, including Moore, were expected to be on call to tend to the whims of passengers on 72-hour shifts with low pay and no sleeping quarters provided. Many sleeping car porters had university degrees or job training, but were blocked from work in their field. Moore left the railway and was hired at a laundry in 1920, which he later bought and worked at until 1975.
Moore founded and was director of what became the Negro Citizenship Association in 1951 to push for changes to immigration laws that discriminated against people from the Caribbean, and the incarceration of people waiting to be deported.
On April 27, 1954, Moore led a delegation of 34 members of the Negro Citizenship Association and representatives from unions, labour councils, and community organizations to Ottawa to protest the restrictive immigration policies. One of the unions was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, another member of which, Stanley Grizzle, was the secretary for the Negro Citizenship Association.
The group presented a brief about the unfair immigration rules to minister of citizenship and immigration, Walter E. Harris. In a victory for human rights, the laws were relaxed. Moore also arranged partnerships with the governments of Jamaica and Barbados to bring young women to Canada to work as domestics or nurses who could gain permanent residency after a year. On November 3, 1955, the day after Moore’s birthday, the first 18 girls arrived.
In 1956, Moore and two friends bought a house on Cecil Street and turned it into a West Indian community centre, called the Donavalon Centre. It housed the Negro Citizenship Association, the United Negro Improvement Association, and held community events and activities. The City of Toronto plaque dedicated to Moore in 2000 now stands outside the former community centre at 20 Cecil Street.
“Uncle Don,” as he was affectionately known, died in 1994 at age 102, spending his later years, after his retirement in 1975, gardening, as an award-winning member of the North York Horticultural Society, and doing photography. During his life he received many awards and honours, including the Order of Canada, Order of Ontario, the Order of Barbados, Bicentennial Medal of Ontario, the Harry Jerome Award, and the City of Toronto Award of Merit.
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