Black History Month – Rosemary Wedderburn Brown

Canada Post honours Rosemary Brown

Canada Post honours Rosemary Brown

Many Canadian politicians have passed through McGill’s gates. Our University can be proud of its contribution to public life in Canada. During Black History Month, one politician in particular stands out, not only for her contribution as a politician, but for strength in the face of the racism and sexism she faced as Canada’s first black woman to hold public office.

Rosemary Wedderburn was born in Kingston, Jamaica on June 17, 1930. Her family had always been politically minded, and her interest in social welfare was clearly demonstrated when she emigrated to Canada in 1951 to pursue her post-secondary studies in social work at McGill University and UBC. Canada in the 1950s was a challenging place for a young black woman, and Ms. Brown was met with both racism and sexism at every turn, whether looking for housing, employment or simply trying to fit into university life.

After graduating from UBC, Rosemary Brown joined two social groups that would help to lead her toward her career in politics: the British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and Voice of Women. During the activism of the 1960s, she became a political advocate against racism and sexism. Given her unique qualifications to speak on behalf of both women and minorities, Ms. Brown took on the role of Ombudswoman and founding member of the Vancouver Status of Women Coucil (VSW).

In 1972, with the support of the VSW members, Rosemary Wedderburn Brown entered BC provincial politics as an NDP candidate and was elected on August 30th of that same year.  She retained her seat as MLA for 14 years.  During her time in office, she worked on many social issues including removing sexism from educational material and forming the commission on the family.

In 1973, the United Nations awarded her the United Nations’ Human Rights Fellowship.

In 1975, Rosemary Brown ran for leadership of the federal NDP. Her slogan was “Brown is Beautiful”. Her candidacy broke the colour barrier in the federal political arena when she ran a close second to Ed Broadbent.

Ms. Brown retired from the BC provincial legislature in 1988, but remained active in social advocacy for many more years. In 1993, she was named chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and in 1996, she was awarded the Order of Canada.

Rosemary Wedderburn Brown died in Vancouver, BC on April 26, 2003.

The McGill Faculty of Medicine Research and Graduate Studies Office offers a prize named in honour of Rosemary Wedderburn Brown.  Read about the Faculty Prize here.

Read more about this extraordinary woman here and here.

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