This Black History Month we want to celebrate the important contributions Black Canadians have made to the advancements of healthcare.

In spite of systemic racism and unequal opportunities, these Black Canadians broke barriers and became firsts in their respective fields. Their contributions to Canada’s healthcare system helped paved the way for future generations. 

But even with the advancements of Black healthcare workers, Canada’s healthcare system as a whole still has a way to go. Black Canadians continue to face health barriers and inequities in the healthcare system, and are more likely to have their pain overlooked. It is important that healthcare providers and medical institutions continue to address racism and bias, and work towards improving access to care for everyone. 

To that end, here are three Black historic healthcare trailblazers to celebrate this Black History Month.

Anderson Ruffin Abbott: First Canadian-born Black doctor

Dr. Anderson Ruffin Abbott was the first Canadian-born Black doctor in the country, earning his medical degree from the Toronto School of Medicine — a school later affiliated with the University of Toronto. 

Born in Toronto in 1837, Abbott worked with other barrier-breaking figures; he completed a placement under U.S.-born Dr. Alexander Augusta, the first Black med student in Canada West. 

After earning his license to practise medicine in 1861, Abbott went to the U.S. and served in the Civil War and was recognized for his duty as one of eight Black surgeons in the army

Abbott moved back to Canada and settled in Chatham, Ont., becoming a coroner for Kent County, before moving around Southern Ontario as a physician. He later returned to the U.S., this time to take a job as the medical superintendent of Provident Hospital — the first Black hospital in Chicago, Illinois. Abbott came back to Toronto in the late 1890s where he continued to work and write for various publications about topics including Black history and medicine. He died in Toronto in 1913.

Bernice Redmon: First Black nurse to practise in public health

Toronto-born Bernice Redmon wanted to be a nurse but was denied entry into Canadian nursing programs. So, Redmon earned her nursing diploma in the U.S. in 1945, and then came back to Canada to work. She got a job at the Nova Scotia Department of Health, becoming the first Black nurse to practise in public health. 

It wasn’t until the late 1940s did Canadian nursing programs first allow Black students to enroll. 

Redmon later became the first Black woman to be appointed to the Victorian Order of Nurses in Canada. 

Lillie Johnson: First Black director of public health in Ontario and founder of the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario

Now in her late 90s, Lillie Johnson continues to advocate for sickle cell anemia education. Johnson emigrated from Jamaica to Canada in 1960 after training as a nurse and midwife in Jamaica and the U.K. She earned her bachelor of science in nursing at the University of Toronto and became the first Black director of public health in the province’s Leeds-Grenville and Lanark district. 

In 1981 Johnson founded the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario and lobbied the government to add the disease on its newborn screening list.

Her list of recognitions is incredibly long and impressive, and includes the Toronto Public Health Champion Award, the Black Health Alliance Legacy Award and Ryerson University’s Viola Desmond Award. Johnson is also the 2010 recipient of the Order of Ontario. 

On her 97th birthday in 2019, she said: “As I look around me now, it seems as if I have done a special thing for so many young people to be around me, and I enjoy them. So, that for me is a real accomplishment.”