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First Canadian-born black lawyer to receive Order of New Brunswick

Friday, October 18, 2019 @ 1:35 PM | By Terry Davidson

There is hope the posthumous awarding of the Order of New Brunswick to the first Canadian-born black lawyer will increase awareness and national attention when it comes to history’s colour lines.

On Oct. 30, the province’s highest honour will be bestowed upon Abraham Beverley Walker, born in August 1851, in Belleisle, N.B., and called to the bar in June 1882, becoming the first native-born Afro-Canadian lawyer.

But, given the times, it was not easy for a black person to reach such heights.

Abraham Beverley Walker

Walker, a father of five, was dogged by racial prejudice, resulting in professional exclusion, a struggling private practice and at least one instance where a Queen’s Counsel designation was pulled out from under him. 

It is widely thought that Walker, a descendant of loyalists who settled on the Kingston peninsula in 1786, received his early education from an Anglican clergyman who taught shorthand transcription.  

Young Walker then worked as a stenographer for phrenologist Orson Squire Fowler, the travelling lecturer who preached the long-discredited science of determining one’s mental capabilities through examining the size and shape of their skull.

Walker left to study law at National University in Washington, D.C. and returned to New Brunswick to complete a studentship as a stenographer at a Saint John law firm. He was admitted as a solicitor by the Supreme Court of New Brunswick in 1881 and called to the bar the following year.

Aleta Cromwell, president of the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers’ (CABL) Nova Scotia chapter, hopes that granting Walker the Order of New Brunswick will lead to greater knowledge and recognition of an overlooked “trailblazer.”

“I … grew up in New Brunswick, and I knew nothing about him, so I think that is quite telling when it comes to the education system,” said Cromwell. “I think it is important we all learn about the trailblazers who have paved the way for the rest of us. … I think over time people forgot, and I think [when it comes to] history and what is taught in school, sometimes we forget about the racialized and Indigenous trailblazers. That doesn’t always get taught, so I hope that this honour for him is going to prompt (the) New Brunswick government and other governments to start speaking and teaching about these individuals. I think they are an inspiration, from my perspective. I think [he was] a trailblazer who has allowed me, for example, to be in the position I am in.”

Peter Little, amateur historian

The road to the present began just over two years ago, when amateur historian Peter Little began researching Walker’s life for the New Brunswick Black History Society.

“During the course of my research … I found out that he had twice been promised the Q.C. and twice it was denied him at the last minute,” said Little. “I thought, not only does nobody know about him around here … [but] I thought that was a gross injustice, to be denied the Q.C. because of your colour.”

According to the University of Toronto Press’ Dictionary of Canadian Biography, Saint John’s Afro-Canadian community in 1895 petitioned then-federal Justice Minister Sir Charles Hibbert Tupper to appoint Walker as Q.C. But despite being assured Walker’s name would be brought forward, nothing came of it.

According to Ontario’s Amherstburg Freedom Museum, a group of local lawyers vowed to renounce their own Q.C. titles if Walker was granted the appointment.

Walker complained of racial discrimination.

“As soon as it was rumoured that I was likely to be appointed, there was a fierce conspiracy … to prevent it, and the Ministry at Ottawa had not the courage and fairness to face it and do me justice and fair play,” Walker reportedly later said to Prime Minister Wilfrid Laurier.

In the course of his research, Little found other examples of overt racism.  

“One time, at a trial in Saint John, [Walker] was arguing a case and the opposing lawyer said, ‘Your Honour, it is an insult that a black man should even be arguing as a barrister in a court in New Brunswick.’ They got into a war of words and Walker said, ‘I’ve heard it said, your Honour, that this man has claimed that if I died tomorrow, he wouldn’t even come to the funeral.’ And the [opposing lawyer] quipped, ‘Your Honour, nothing would give me greater pleasure.’ That’s the kind of racism he faced, even amongst his peers.”

Walker also struggled after opening his own law firm in Saint John, where black people accounted for only a small percentage of the city’s population.

Undeterred, he would go on to publish letters in local newspapers, serve as librarian for the Saint John Law Society and, for a short time, publish a magazine.

Walker died of tuberculosis in 1909.

Little felt Walker deserved greater recognition as a significant part of Canadian legal history. He contacted New Brunswick Chief Justice Marc Richard about giving Walker the Queen’s Counsel posthumously. Little said Justice Richard phoned back and said there was no provision to do this.

“But he said you might want to think about a posthumous Order of New Brunswick. It hadn’t occurred to me. I got the application online and had to get three other people to write testimonials. … And, lo and behold, he got in.”

Little will accept the Order on Walker's behalf and present it to a descendant — a great-granddaughter from Michigan. 

Ralph Thomas, projects co-ordinator with the New Brunswick Black History Society

Ralph Thomas, projects co-ordinator with the New Brunswick Black History Society, said Walker set a positive example of perseverance in the face of racism.  

“I think he set the example in that, back then, you weren’t considered a person in those times. It showed that he could do it,” said Thomas. “I don’t believe in people saying today that because I’m black I can’t get here, I can’t get there. If you’ve got the ways and means and if you want to do it that bad that you will do whatever it takes … you can do it. … Our biggest thing that we’ve got to do is teach our folks — whether they are of colour or not — [is] that they can do it. If you’ve got the burn to do it and the smarts to do it, you’ve got people out there who can help you get there.”  

CABL’s Cromwell said that while much has changed since Walker’s time, barriers continue to exist for black people and members of other racialized groups wanting to enter the legal profession.  

“There continues to be systemic barriers to practising law,” Cromwell said. “When the economy is down, for example, it is very hard for those graduating from law school who are racialized or Indigenous to find an articling job, because when there is a scarcity of articling positions, they tend to go to the white student, because you have to look at who’s doing the hiring sometimes.”

The Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion’s Diversity by the Numbers: The Legal Profession 2016 report found black lawyers to be among those “underrepresented … when compared to the Canadian labour force.”

Black people made up 0.89 per cent of the legal profession, whereas they made up 2.62 per cent of the overall workforce, states the report. (A spokesperson confirmed this is the most recent report.)

As is still the case, Ontario had the largest number of lawyers of any province. According to Law Society of Ontario data from that year, black lawyers accounted for 3.2 per cent of the 42,434 in that province.

Photo of Abraham Beverley Walker by Special Collections, Vaughan Memorial Library, Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia