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A brief history of Black entrepreneurship in Canada

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February is Black History Month: an invitation to recognize, celebrate and honour the profound contributions Black workers have made to building Canada’s economy, politics and labour market.

For Black History Month 2024, we’re sharing a three-part series in which we outline some of the history of Black entrepreneurs in Canada, review what official data sources can tell us about the state of Black entrepreneurship, and speak to Black entrepreneurs about their experiences in the labour market.

This builds on our 2023 Black History Month series, in which we focused on the history of Black labour in Canada.

In a single word, entrepreneurship has meant freedom to the Black community. Freedom to command their own destinies, to serve their own communities, to live out their own dreams through entrepreneurship, and the freedom to free enslaved people. 

(Rogers, 2022, p.1) 

According to Statistics Canada (2022), small businesses employ more than 10 million people in Canada—almost two-thirds (63.8%) of the total labour force.

Entrepreneurship is vital in driving Canada's economy and generating employment opportunities, particularly through the contributions of small and medium-sized enterprises (Nimoh, 2022). Canada is one of the most entrepreneurial nations in the world and is acknowledged for having the highest level of “intentions to initiate a business” among G7 economies. More than half of Canadians know an entrepreneur personally, nearly 50% believe in their own business-starting skills, and 23% have plans to enter into entrepreneurship.

For Black History Month, LMIC is embarking on a journey to spotlight Black entrepreneurs in Canada,1 beginning with a brief introduction to the early history of Black entrepreneurs in the country.

Part 1: A brief history of Black entrepreneurship in Canada

In the United States, the emergence of a Black entrepreneurial class can be traced back to the "internal slave economy" that changed the dynamic of the American plantation trade systems (Jones, 1999, p. 198, as cited by Knight, 2019). However, the formation of an early Black entrepreneurial class in Canada is significantly more complex to examine.

This difficulty arises from the scarcity of research on the subject (Knight, 2019). What research does exist is rooted primarily in Nova Scotia and Ontario.

Black entrepreneurship in Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia, boasting the longest-standing Black presence among Canadian provinces and territories, witnessed a significant increase in Black refugees from 1750 to 1820, when more than 2,000 individuals of African descent migrated to Atlantic Canada. They came from various parts of the world, but mainly through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.  

During this period, due to the scarcity of work, resourceful women sold crafts to help their families survive (Hamilton, 1994). They made and sold brooms, baskets, barrels, firewood and wreathes, illustrating remarkable resourcefulness in establishing entrepreneurial endeavours (Knight, 2004).  

By 1867, Petty Officer William Hall, the first Black person, first Nova Scotian, and third Canadian to receive the British Empire's highest award for bravery, had settled in Halifax and started a successful shipbuilding business.  

Sources note that business ventures among Black Nova Scotians in the early to mid-1900s were largely "limited to barber shops, beauty parlours, taxi-business, trucking, shoe-making, a newspaper and one co-operative store" (Backhouse, 1994, p. 312). But by 1937, Viola Desmond, a businesswoman and pioneering entrepreneur, had founded three successful businesses in Halifax. These included a beauty salon, which she expanded to encompass diverse product lines, as well as a mail-order sales business and a beauty training school (Williams, 2021).

Black entrepreneurship in Ontario

Meanwhile, Ontario emerged as a dynamic economic and cultural centre during the transformative era of the Underground Railroad (1834 to 1865), particularly in Toronto and Chatham, and advocacy for Black Canadians began to thrive.  

In Chatham, families of African descent first established residences along McGregor's Creek in the small municipality of Chatham during the early 1800s in an area then known as "the Forks". Eventually, the Forks evolved into a sanctuary for African Americans escaping enslavement. By 1850, one-third of its population was Black.  

Meanwhile in Toronto, many Black people settled in St. John's Ward, a district located in the city's core. As Knight (2019) notes, the city's first Black contractors had opened a road from Yonge Street westward as early as 1799.  

By the mid-1830s, Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, a couple who had escaped slavery in the United States, had established Toronto's first taxi service with a four-passenger, one-horse carriage known as "The City."  

In the late 1840s, Mr. T. F. Carey and Mr. R. B. Richards started the first icehouses in Toronto. They later grew their enterprise to four icehouses, a barbershop and a bathhouse (Gooden, 2008). 

Other Black entrepreneurs of the period included T. Smallwood, who owned and operated a hardware store, and Mrs. M.O. Augusta, the only Black female to own her own shop during this period. She owned and operated an imported dry goods store as well as a dressmaking boutique. In 1850, there were more than a dozen Black-owned businesses along King Street.  

By the 1880s, Toronto had a well-established Black community and Black-owned businesses that included barbershops, shoe-making shops, hotels, restaurants, dress shops and livery stables (McFarquhar, 2007; Knight, 2019).

Black entrepreneurship elsewhere in Canada

While records documenting the rise of an early Black entrepreneurial class in Canada are notably sparse, with the majority of existing sources focusing on Ontario and Nova Scotia, this does not mean there were no early Black entrepreneurs in other provinces and territories. 

For instance, in Alberta, Black entrepreneurs have been documented since the 1870s, with Southern Alberta serving as home to one of the province's earliest Black entrepreneurs: John Ware, a cowboy and rancher who started his own ranch near the Red Deer River. 

Quebec's early Black settlements were mainly home to African Americans during the rise of railway companies in the 19th century—the beginning of the era of Black sleeping car porters. As early as the 1820s, Black people freed by the Canadian Slavery Abolition Act worked alongside American fugitive slaves who had arrived via the Underground Railroad.  

In British Columbia, the late 19th century saw continual Black migration from various regions, leading to the establishment of vibrant communities like Hogan's Alley in the east end of Vancouver during the first half of the 20th century.  

Notably, the early 20th century brought many African Americans to Western Canada. Despite facing discriminatory anti-Black policies, these settlers courageously formed their own institutions, cultivated rich social lives, and established thriving farming communities that contributed to the diverse tapestry of Canadian history. 

Today, Black business owners make significant contributions to this country's cultural, social and economic fabric, with the percentage of Black-led businesses in Canada growing. In 2018, there were an estimated 66,880 Black business owners in Canada, accounting for 2.1% of all business owners.


1 We conducted a series of 10 qualitative interviews with self-identified Black entrepreneurs, employing a purposive snowball sampling approach. This involved leveraging personal connections and reaching out to individuals (via LinkedIn) who, in turn, facilitated introductions to others. To uphold confidentiality, we have altered the names of all participants. When necessary, we have also modified business details to prevent the disclosure of potentially identifiable information.


Backhouse, C. (1994). Racial segregation in Canadian legal history: Viola Desmond's challenge, Nova Scotia, 1946. Dalhousie LJ, 17, 299. 

Gooden, A. (2008). Community organizing by African Caribbean people in Toronto, Ontario. Journal of Black Studies, 38(3), 413-426. 

Hamilton, S. (1994). Naming names, naming ourselves: A survey of early Black women in Nova Scotia. We’re rooted here and they can’t pull us up: Essays in African Canadian women’s history, 13-40. University of Toronto Press. 

Jones, J. (1999). American work: Four centuries of black and white labor. WW Norton & Company. 

Knight, M. (2019). Black women’s small businesses as historical spaces of resistance. Working Women in Canada: An Intersectional Approach, 203. 

Knight, M. (2024). Black Canadian Self-Employed Women in the Twenty-first Century: A Critical Approach. Canadian Woman Studies/les cahiers de la femme. Special Issue: Women and the Black Diaspora, vol. 23, no. 2. 

McFarquhar, C. (2007). Blacks in 1880s Toronto: The search for equality. Ontario History, 99(1), 64-76. 

Nimoh, G. (2022). The Experiences and Challenges of Black Entrepreneurs in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, Nova Scotia, Accessed 2024.  

Rogers, S. S. (2022). Successful black entrepreneurs: Hidden histories, inspirational stories, and extraordinary business achievements. John Wiley & Sons. 

Williams, K. S. (2021). Finding Viola: the untrue, true story of a groundbreaking female African Nova Scotian entrepreneur. Culture and Organization, 27(5), 365-385.


Dr. Suzanne Spiteri is a sociologist with several years of experience in both qualitative and mixed-methods data analysis. She leads labour-related projects that explore labour market tightness and the labour market outcomes of under-represented groups.

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