How Canada’s first Black woman newspaper publisher is inspiring my journalism

Mary Ann Shadd Cary. Image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada / C-029977.

The schools in the conservative Vancouver suburb where I grew up taught me nothing about Canadian Black history.

Except for the few lessons that glossed over how European colonists stole land from Indigenous peoples, our history books and social studies classes were packed nearly exclusively with dead white men (and a few white women). It was as if people of colour didn’t exist at all beyond a smattering of footnotes.

It’s why I later was so appreciative as I discovered the rich histories of Indigenous, Black and racialized people in Canada. I’ve been especially inspired by those who stood up against injustices and fought for better futures.

As a journalist, the story of Mary Ann Shadd Cary resonates powerfully with me.

Telling our own stories.

Creating community-powered journalism that centres and celebrates Black, Indigenous and communities of colour in Canada. 

On this day in 1853, Mary Ann Shadd Cary published the first edition of the Provincial Freeman. She was the first Black woman to publish a newspaper in North America, and the first woman to publish a newspaper in Canada. She was also an anti-slavery activist, a teacher, and the first Black woman to attend law school in the U.S.

It’s her words that have loosely inspired the name of our publication, The Resolve: at 25, she wrote a letter to the famous Black abolitionist Frederick Douglass advocating for less rhetoric and more action: “we have made but a little progress considering our resolves … We should do more and talk less.”

Shadd Cary was frustrated by the endless conversations and debates over injustice, noting that very little had actually improved for Black people.

“The fact that somebody is displeased is no evidence that we are wrong.”

Mary Ann Shadd Cary

She also wasn’t afraid to openly criticize the racism and paternalism of many white abolitionists and reformers, an example that I find ever relevant today.

“Many of the questions about rights and freedom that she raised more than a century ago are still contested issues,” wrote Jane Rhodes in her 1998 book, Mary Ann Shadd Cary: The Black Press and Protest in the Nineteenth Century.

“She devoted her life to using public discourse to advance a range of political and social reforms. In the process she became a consummate communicator who thrust herself into a public sphere where few people of color, especially women, dared to tread.” 

Her determination and willingness to challenge power and the status quo continue to inspire my resolve. 

A scanned image of an 1853 edition of the Provincial Freeman newspaper.
The Provincial Freeman newspaper. Image courtesy INK – ODW Newspaper Collection

One hundred and sixty-nine years after Shadd Cary made history publishing her first newspaper, the need for independent Black, Indigenous and racialized-led media is as strong as ever. Despite the periodic naive declarations from legacy media of a “post-racial Canada,” this country is still coming to terms with its racist past and present.

In the coming weeks, stay tuned for more details as we launch our founding members campaign, and ask for your support.

We’re counting on readers like you

The Resolve creates community-powered independent journalism centring and celebrating Black, Indigenous and communities of colour in Canada. If you think this work is important, join us and become a founding member of The Resolve. 

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