By: Christopher Séguin
Every February, Canadians across the country celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of Black Canadians who, throughout history, have played a significant role in making Canada the culturally diverse, compassionate and prosperous nation that it is today.
This annual month-long celebration in February is called Black History Month, and although it has been celebrated in Canada since 1976, it was officially recognized by the House of Commons in December 1995 thanks to a motion introduced by the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Honourable Jean Augustine.
In honour of this tradition, the Niagara Host Society and Canada Games Council is looking back at the achievements of Black Canada Games athletes and coaches, who’s efforts and triumphs continue to be a source of inspiration for the next generation.
Despite being just 26 years of age, Andre De Grasse has arguably secured his place in history as one of the best Summer Olympians Canada has ever produced. More impressively, he’s managed to achieve this distinction despite having competed in just one Olympic Games to date.
It was there in Brazil, at Rio 2016, where De Grasse made history by becoming the first Canadian sprinter to ever win three medals in a single Olympics — a feat that bested the two-medal performances of Donovan Bailey (Atlanta 1996) and Percy Williams (Amsterdam 1928). De Grasse secured his three Olympic medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m events.
Prior to Rio 2016, the Markham, Ont., native was no stranger to taking home a trifecta of medals. At the Sherbrooke 2013 Canada Summer Games, De Grasse was untouchable. At just 18 years of age, the young Ontarian earned three gold medals in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m events in Sherbrooke, Que. De Grasse then broke out on the international scene in 2015 thanks to his double bronze performance at his first IAAF World Championships, and a pair of gold medals at the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games.
Born and raised in Winnipeg, Desiree Scott is arguably one of the best athletes to ever originate from the province of Manitoba. Nicknamed "the Destroyer" as a result of her aggressive play and tenacity on the pitch, Scott participated in the Regina 2005 Canada Summer Games, where she contributed to Manitoba’s fifth-place finish.
Following Scott’s graduation from the University of Manitoba, where she was twice named a first-team CIS All-Canadian (2008 & 2009), her stardom quickly grew internationally. After being called up to play for the Senior Women’s National Team at 22 years of age, Scott became a regular in the Canadian lineup by the end of 2011. She went on to play a critical role in helping Canada secure historic back-to-back bronze medals at the London 2012 and Rio 2016 Olympic Games. Most memorably, in London, she cleared a ball off the goalline to keep the score even at zero, which helped Canada secure its first Olympic medal in soccer in 108 years.
Her 156 international caps for the national team ranks fifth all-time in history, trailing only Christine Sinclair (296), Diana Matheson (206), Sophie Schmidt (199) and Rhian Wilkinson (181).
Lennox Lewis may have originally been born in London, England, but there’s no doubt that the future undisputed heavyweight champion of the world learned and developed his craft right here in Canada. After moving to Kitchener, Ont., Lewis took up boxing in 1978 and soon his newfound passion would become his singular focus, which culminated in a memorable 1983 season, that was highlighted by his participation at the Canada Winter Games in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean. It was here, in Quebec, that a 17-year-old Lewis won the gold medal in the 81-kilogram class for Ontario.
Building off that success, Lewis placed first at the 1983 Junior World Boxing Championships in the Dominican Republic, before winning the first of five straight all-Canadian super heavyweight titles. Despite suffering a defeat in the quarter-finals at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, Lewis was back on the Canadian Olympic team four years later in Seoul, and this time, he wasn’t going to be denied. The rising star defeated American Riddick Bowe to secure Canada’s first Olympic gold in boxing in 56 years. As recognition for achieving this feat, Lewis was selected as Canada’s flag bearer for the Games’ closing ceremony.
In 1992, he won the World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight title, making him the only boxer to have ever represented Canada at the Summer Olympics and subsequently won a professional world title. Lewis would later become the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world by defeating Evander Holyfield in November 1999.
Just like Lewis, Angela Bailey was born across the pond in England, but the future speed queen of Canada moved to the Great White North in 1974, and took up track as a high school student. By the time she was 16, she had already become the Canadian junior national champion in the 100m, competed at the 1977 Canada Summer Games in St. John’s, Nfld., and had represented her nation on the international stage, winning silver in the 4x100 metre relay at the Edmonton 1978 Commonwealth Games.
Although she seemed poised to attend her first Olympics in 1980, Bailey was unable to participate due to Canada’s boycott of those Summer Games in the Soviet Union (now present-day Russia). However, Bailey eventually was able to fulfill her Olympic dream in 1984, when she participated at the Summer Games in Los Angeles. Although she came in sixth in the 100m, she managed to take home Olympic silver with Canada’s 4x100m team. A year later, she put together her most successful season on the national stage by becoming the Canadian champion in both the 100m and 200m distances.
In the years that followed, Bailey competed at her second Olympics in Seoul, and she also set the Canadian record in the 100m with a time of 10.98 seconds — a mark that still stands today, along with her national record time of 23.32 seconds for the 200m indoor.
Bruny Surin’s path to becoming one of the fastest men on the planet was unlike any other. Having immigrated from Haiti to Quebec when he was just seven years old, Surin first took an interest in long jump and triple jump. It was that interest that brought him to Saint John, N.B., for the 1985 Canada Summer Games, where he finished fourth in the triple jump. Two years later, he made his debut for Team Canada at the Pan American Games, placing fifteenth in the long jump, a result that he would more or less repeat in his first Olympic appearance in 1988 (14th).
However, after competing in Seoul, Surin was persuaded by Italian coach Franco Barucci to move away from his favoured long jump event to the 100-metre dash. A transition that proved to be life-changing for the Haitian Canadian, as Surin went on to become the 11th fastest sprinter of all-time, thanks to his a second-place finish at the 1999 World Championships with a time of 9.84 seconds in the 100m — a national record that he still shares with Donovan Bailey to this day.
Although the four-time Olympian was crowned Canada's 100m national champion six times, Surin’s biggest accomplishment came at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, when he won a gold medal in the men’s 4x100 metre relay alongside Bailey, Glenroy Gilbert, Robert Esmie and Carlton Chamber.
Born and raised in Montreal, Que., Jennifer Abel followed in her brother’s footsteps by taking up diving at the age of five, setting her down a path that would eventually see her become one of Canada’s most-decorated divers. At 13 years of age, she competed for her home province of Quebec at the 2005 Canada Summer Games in Regina, and little did she know that in just three years, she’d be making history on the world’s biggest stage.
By qualifying and competing at the 2008 Summer Olympics, Abel became one of Canada's youngest Olympic divers, and was the youngest member of the Canadian delegation in Beijing. Despite falling short of the podium in China, Abel succeeded in her next Olympic appearance in 2012, when she secured Canada’s first medal of the Olympic Games in London with a bronze in the 3m synchronized springboard alongside partner Émilie Heymans .
Now a three-time Olympian, Abel has scored Pan American and Commonwealth Games crowns over the course of her career. And maybe, most impressively, she has won a Canadian record ten medals (six silver, four bronze) at the FINA World Championships — two more than her closer counterpart, Alexandre Despatie, who is also a former Canada Games athlete (Brandon 1997).
Russell Martin may have been born in East York, Ont., but he spent most of his upbringing growing up in Chelsea and Montreal, Que. His growth as a baseball player in ‘La Belle Province’ is what carried him to the London 2001 Canada Summer Games, where he helped Team Quebec secure a fifth-place finish. His experience in London, Ont., came one year after he was selected in the 35th round of the 2000 MLB draft by the Montreal Expos.
Despite the unique opportunity, Martin decided not to sign with his hometown club. He passed on that chance so he could go to college, but it wouldn’t take long for him to find a place in the major leagues. Just two years later, he was selected in the 17th round by the Los Angeles Dodgers, and went on to become their everyday catcher after making his MLB debut in 2006. Martin played five years in LA, before making stops with the New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, and of course, the Toronto Blue Jays.
Over the course of his career, Martin was a four-time MLB all-star, earning both Gold Glove and Silver Slugger Awards in 2007. The Montreal-native also had the privilege of competing for this country on numerous occasions. In addition to helping Canada qualify for the 2004 Olympics, he also played for his country at the 2009 World Baseball Classic, where he hit a memorable home run against the United States at the Rogers Centre in Toronto.
Known as ‘the Wayne Gretzky of women’s hockey’, Angela James is arguably one of the greatest players that Canada has ever produced. Born and raised in Toronto, James started her pro hockey career in the Central Ontario Women's Hockey League (COWHL) as a 16-year-old high-school student. She’d later play defense at Seneca College, where she set Ontario Colleges Athletic Association (OCAA) records with 80 goals and 128 points in 32 career games (including 50 goals in 14 games in 1984–85). Following that, James continued her pro career in the COWHL and later the National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL). While leading her teams to numerous championships during her pro career, James was an eight-time scoring champion and a six-time most valuable player.
The Toronto-native also shined on the international stage. While representing Canada at the first-ever World Women’s Hockey Championship in 1990, she tallied 11 goals in five games and helped her country secure a gold medal — the first of four she’d earn over her career. Today, James remains the only Black player to ever be captain of a Canadian team at the senior international level.
Her passion for the game also led her to become an official and coach. The latter is what brought her to Corner Brook, N.B., for the 1999 Canada Winter Games, where she was an assistant coach for Ontario’s female hockey team that won gold. 11 years later, James would make history by becoming one of the first two women, the first openly gay player, and the second Black athlete to ever be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2010.
Born in Somalia, but raised in Toronto, Abdi Fatah Dini’s growth as an athlete saw him develop into one of Canada's most consistent wheelchair basketball players. At just 12 years old, amidst a civil war, Dini left his home country. Having been struck by a stray bullet during school recess, his parents Mahamoud and Anab decided to place their son on a plane to Toronto, so he could live with his uncle, while seeking better health care and a brighter future in Canada.
Once in the ‘Six’, it didn’t take long for him to grow as a basketball player. Just one year after he started playing the game, a 16-year-old Dini led Canada to a first-place finish at the inaugural 1997 Men’s U23 World Championship, where he was named the most valuable player. In 1999, as part of Team Ontario, Dini took home gold at the Canada Winter Games in Corner Brook, N.B., and would later add a Canada Games bronze to his resume in 2003.
Dini officially joined the Senior Men's National Team in 2006 and was a member of the squad for 10 years. As a three-time Paralympian, he wound up winning silver with Team Canada in his first Paralympic experience at Beijing 2008, before later helping his country go undefeated en route to a gold medal at London 2012. On top of these experiences, Dini also earned a pair of Pan American Games medals with the national team, winning bronze at Guadalajara 2011 and a silver at Toronto 2015.
Although she was born in Atlanta, Georgia, Karina LeBlanc spent most of her childhood in Dominica, before eventually moving to Maple Ridge, B.C., when she was eight years old. It was there, in Canada, that the future Hall of Fame goalkeeper began playing the game that she’d become famous for. By the time she arrived in Brandon, Man., for the 1997 Canada Summer Games, she was already identified by USA Today as one of the top-20 NCAA Division I recruits.
After leading Team BC to Canada Games gold, LeBlanc went off to the University of Nebraska, where she became one of their most decorated goalkeepers in program history. The All-American netminder was named a finalist for the Hermann Trophy in 2000 and she still holds school records at Nebraska for career wins and shutouts. While in college, LeBlanc also made her debut with the Canadian women’s national team in 1998, marking the beginning of a stellar international career. In total, she won 110 caps for Canada, collecting six CONCACAF and two Pan American Games medals.
Leblanc is also a two-time Olympian, having been a part of Canada’s team in Beijing, before later helping Canada win a historic bronze at London 2012. By the end of her career in 2015, she had become the first Canadian to participate in five editions of the FIFA Women’s World Cup and had set national team records for most clean sheets in a season (eight in 2010), and career (47). In 2018, LeBlanc became the Head of Women's Football for CONCACAF and its 41 countries — a position she still holds today.
Born in Barbados, but raised in Canada, Ryan Thorne learned to play the game of basketball in Montreal’s LaSalle and Pierrefonds boroughs. After a successful collegiate career as a player, that saw him attend Bishop’s University and win a National CIAU (now U SPORTS) Championship, Thorne made the transition to coach. He earned his stripes as an assistant for two years under bench boss Lisen Moore (a four-time Canada Games alumna) with the McGill University Martlets before being elevated to head coach in September 2003.
Thorne was in that role for 17 seasons, before recently being appointed the new head coach for McGill’s men’s program in June 2020. While leading the Martlets, the Montreal-native guided them to more wins than any other hoops coach in school history (277), an unprecedented seven straight RSEQ league banners (2012-2018), and seven appearances at the U SPORTS Final 8 Women’s Basketball Championships — which, in 2017, saw the program earn its first-ever national title.
Outside of McGill, Thorne coached Team Quebec at the PEI 2009 Canada Summer Games, leading his home province to a fourth-place finish. He has also been part of the Canada Basketball Women's High Performance program for the past five years, serving as an assistant with the senior development team and the junior program. Thorne has also done his part to give back to his community. Using his platform at McGill, he created the first annual Black History Month Game in order to raise funds to assist Black youth with the financial burden of university studies in Canada.
Born into a family that goes back at least seven generations in Canada, Raymond Downey developed into one of Canada’s greatest amateur boxers. Born and raised in Halifax, he grew up in a Nova Scotia family affectionately called the "Boxing Downeys" or “Fighting Downeys”. Raymond started the sport as a 10-year-old kid at the Citadel Boxing Club, where he followed in the footsteps of his father Dave Downey, who held the Canadian middleweight title for nearly eight years and was elected to the Canadian Boxing Hall of Fame in 1976.
Nicknamed ‘Sugar Ray’, the younger Downey competed at the 1987 Canada Winter Games in Nova Scotia — winning the gold medal, while serving as his home province’s flag bearer. Within a year of his Games experience, Downey went on to win the Canadian Senior Boxing Championships at 71 kg, the first of three he’d win over his career. In 1988, Downey travelled to Seoul to take part in his first Olympics, and wound up winning the light-middleweight bronze medal.
Two short years later, he’d win silver at the Commonwealth Games, before fighting at one last Olympics in 1992. Although Downey never won a major pro title, he retired in 2000 with an impressive professional record of 16-2-1. At the same time, during his 15-year career as an amateur boxer, he won 160 bouts and lost only 20.
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