Rosemary Brown was the first Black woman to serve in a provincial legislature in Canada, and the first Black female candidate for the leadership of a federal political party in Canada.
Brown was born Rosemary Wedderburn in Jamaica on June 17, 1930. She grew up with her mother and grandmother as her father died when she was very young.
In her autobiography, Being Brown: A Very Public Life, she described her upbringing as safe and supportive, in a house ruled by women.
“It was [a] large place that was filled with the noise of women and children, with their laughter, their joy, their anger…The men who came and went, uncles, brother, cousins—did so quietly and with respect.”
Brown moved to Canada in 1950 to study at McGill University in Montreal. She was a 20-year-old woman suddenly stung by the racism and sexism in Canadian society.
She had a private dorm room because white students refused to be her roommate.
She also met rejections from potential landlords and employers.
Despite these obstacles, Brown earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from McGill in 1955.
That same year, Brown moved to Vancouver, B.C., and married William Brown.
The husband and wife team became founding members of the British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (BCAACP) in 1956.
The BCAACP worked to open up housing and employment to Black people in B.C., and towards the introduction of human rights legislation in the provincial parliament.
While involved with the BCAACP and other organizations, Brown studied at the University of British Columbia and earned a Bachelor degree in social work in 1962 and a Master’s degree in that field in 1967.
Brown’s political career began while she worked as the coordinator of the Vancouver Status of Women Council’s Ombudsoffice for Women. The council backed Brown in a bid for the British Columbia legislature, as part of a project to get feminist women elected to positions of power.
On August 30, 1972, Brown won her riding of Vancouver-Burrard as a member of the B.C. New Democratic Party. She became the first Black woman to serve in any Canadian legislature at the federal or provincial level. She continued to serve her constituents until 1986.
While sitting in the B.C. legislature, Brown introduced bills to curb discrimination based on sex or marital status and helped pass a law making seatbelts mandatory for children.
In 1975, Brown ran for the leadership of the federal New Democratic Party and became the first black woman to run for the leadership of a federal political party in Canada. She ran on the slogan, “Brown is Beautiful”; and finished second out of four candidates.
Brown remained highly active after she left politics.
She served as the Ruth Wynn Woodford Professor of the Endowed Chair in Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University from 1987 to 1988.
She also taught at the University of Victoria’s School of Social Work from 1986 to 1987 and at the School of Social Work at the University of British Columbia in 1988.
From 1993 to 1996, Brown served as the Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Among her many honours, Brown holds honorary doctorates of law from several Canadian universities including McGill, Toronto, Victoria, and the University of British Columbia.
In 1995, she was given the Order of British Columbia and the Ontario Black Achievement Award. She received the Order of Canada in 1996.
Brown died of an apparent heart attack on April 26, 2003. More than one thousand people attended her memorial service.
Brown’s strength in the face of the racism and sexism can best be summed up in a quote from a 1973 speech.
“To be black and female in a society which is both racist and sexist is to be in the unique position of having nowhere to go but up.”
SOURCES: BCBLACKHISTORY.CA, BLOGS.MCGILL.CA, ENCYCLOPEDIA.COM, ORDEROFBC.GOV.BC.CA, ROYALBCMUSEUM.BC.CA