Humber River Black History Walk
February 4, 2021
Guest post written by Jacqueline L. Scott. Jacqueline is a PhD student at the University of Toronto, OISE, in the department of Social Justice Education.She is a hike leader with two outdoors clubs. Jacqueline leads Black History Walks in Toronto. She is the author of travel and adventure books, from a Black perspective.
With the arrival of fresh snow, I find myself heading into nature. Today’s walk was along Toronto’s Humber River, through the ravine, and down to Jean Augustine Park – this route combines my love of outdoor adventure with my search for Black history in natural spaces.
Jean Augustine, the first Black woman elected to the Parliament of Canada, in 1993, in the park named after her.
Leaving Old Mill subway station, I turned left, down the hill, crossed the bridge, and in about three minutes I was in the river valley. I paused under the bridge and checked if any salmon were in the river, swimming upstream to spawn. It was not the mating season, but still, I looked just in case there were any stragglers. They might have got confused by the unpredictable weather caused by the climate crises.
With the sun kissing my lips, I headed south in the valley and followed the river. A few cyclists were in the ravine, sharing the paved path with walkers, runners and strollers. Everyone kept their social distance.
The timeless and endless flow of the river allows the mind to wander and imagine this same place at other times – I can almost see Daddy John Hall canoeing that river in the early 1800s. In the winters he would have snowshoed in the ravine. Hall was Black-Indigenous and lived in the Humber Valley, fishing, hunting and trading with Indigenous people. When the USA invaded Canada in the War of 1812, Hall became a scout in the Canadian militia. He was just one among the many Black Canadians who fought in the war. They enlisted because they wanted to remain free. Hall was captured, and instead of being treated as a prisoner of war, he was taken and enslaved in the USA, in Virginia and Kentucky. He escaped after about 12 years and made the long trek home. Nothing was going to keep this man down! Hall later moved to Owen Sound where he is still a local legend due to his exceptionally long and storied life.
The life of John ‘Daddy’ Hall, a man of Mohawk and African-American descent who survived war, capture and slavery to become a pillar of the community in nineteenth-century Owen Sound, Ontario.
I wandered slowly, with no need to go fast on this sunny winter afternoon. A family played football over on the right. Dogs and their owners meandered along other trails in the park. Snow makes the ravine pretty. Yes, it was cold, but dressed in layers of clothes I was cozy. My hat was big enough to cover my dreadlocks and keep my head warm. Two layers of socks and boots with grips kept my feet toasty. And I had a flask of hot spice tea to sip.
There need to be more stories about Black people in nature. We have always been there, but so often our stories and our histories are erased. Knowing our nature stories, and walking with a friend, can make us feel safe when exploring the ravines. Being in nature is calming, it revives the body and the spirit. A walk in nature is one of the best ways of beating the winter blues and reducing the Covid-19 stress. Of course, we have to do so while following the lockdown guidelines. There are lots of stories about the white stuff and the Great Outdoors in Canada, it’s time to add stories about the black stuff too.
Wandering south, to the mouth of the river I’m awed by the expanse of Lake Ontario as I drift over to Jean Augustine Park. In 1993 Jean Augustine became the first Black woman elected to the Parliament of Canada. It is thanks to her efforts that February is now officially recognized as Black History Month in Canada. You can Listen to Sheldon Pitt, AKA Solitair Jean Augestine’s nephew on Metro Morning talking about how his aunt Jean Augustine inspires him. Every year we find more stories about our 400 years of history in this enchanting land of summer heat, and winter ice and snow.
I found a sunny bench overlooking the lake – I was physically tired, but mentally revived. I drained the last of the still-hot sweet spiced tea, with ginger and cinnamon. It hit the right spot. Mallards, swans and Canada geese bobbled in the water; ring-bill gulls circled overhead. Birdwatching and daydreaming, the minutes and the coronavirus stress floated away on the waves.