By Neil Armstrong
Pridenews Contributing Editor
TORONTO, Ontario (Monday, July 17, 2023) — The passing of Beverley Salmon — the first Black woman elected to the municipal government of Toronto and the first Black female commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission — has many reflecting on the legacy she left Toronto. They described her as a trailblazer and a strong advocate for inclusivity.
Salmon, a former nurse, politician and prominent anti-racism and community activist, passed away on July 6 at the age of 92 at the North York General Hospital after a brief illness.
A celebration of her life will be held on July 20 at 11:00 a.m. at St. John’s York Mills Anglican Church, 19 Don Ridge Drive, North York, and will also be live-streamed. Visitations will be held on July 18 and 19 at York Funeral Home in Toronto from 2:00-4:00 p.m. and 6:00-8:00 p.m.
In a Facebook post announcing the funeral details, daughter, Leslie Salmon Jones, describes her mother as “a true earth angel, who led with unconditional love, courage, strength, determination, and justice for all people, from any and all walk of life.”
Salmon (née Bell) was born on December 25, 1930 in Toronto to a Jamaican father, Herbert McLean Bell Sr. — who was from Richmond, St. Mary and came to Canada to sign up for the First World War — and a fifth generation Canadian mother of Scottish/Irish descent, Violet Bryan.
She trained as a registered nurse in 1950 at Wellesley Hospital in Toronto and completed a Public Health Nurse certificate in 1954 at the University of Toronto’s Nursing School, where she graduated with the award for the “most outstanding nurse”. Salmon was the only Black woman in her class.
She then served for two years as a Victorian Order Nurse in Toronto, before beginning her nursing career in Detroit, Michigan, 1956-60. Salmon subsequently returned to Toronto to live and work, eventually leaving nursing in 1966.
During her studies, she met John Douglas Graham Salmon, a medical student, who was Toronto-born of Jamaican parents, and who would later become her husband, and was the first Black surgeon in Canada. They became the parents of four children: John Douglas Salmon Jr., Warren, Leslie and Heather.
While living in Detroit, where Douglas continued his training as a surgeon, Beverley was exposed to the civil rights movement museum and heard speeches made by Martin Luther King Jr. and Thurgood Marshall.
When she returned to Toronto in the sixties, she got involved in the Black Liaison Committee and worked with the Toronto School Board on anti-racism training for teachers, and incorporating more Black history into the curriculum.
In the 1990s, she co-founded the Black Educators Working Group with former school principal, MacArthur Hunter, to advocate for an inclusive curriculum, teacher training, and anti-racism policies.
In 1985, Salmon was elected to represent North York Centre – becoming the first Black woman elected to the municipal council in Toronto – and later elected to the Metro Toronto Council until she retired from municipal politics in 1997. Her first motion changed the title “alderman” to “councillor”.
While a city councillor, she was very involved in the efforts of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities to improve race relations in municipalities across the country.
“Bev Salmon was an amazing leader. She spent a number of years on Toronto City Council, where she basically fought for equality and for opportunities for everyone, particularly young people, Black young Torontonians, and so on. She was always very poised and very focused on bringing people together to do the right thing for the best interest of all. I spent a lot of time with her on some very contentious issues facing the city and she was always interested in looking at the best outcome and opportunity,” says Toronto city councillor Michael Thompson.
He described Salmon as a teacher and leader, noting that her family has lost a great leader and matriarch, who was an outstanding person. “It’s a great loss to the city,” added Thompson.
As the first Black female commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, she was credited with bringing to the attention of fellow commissioners the fact that many acts of discrimination were veiled, hidden under clever disguises, and that systemic discrimination was still rampant in society.
Salmon was a founding member of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations established in 1975, and a founder of the Black Heritage Program.
From as early as the 1970s, when there were concerns in some communities about the lack of response by the police to several attacks against Black and South Asian people, Salmon and a small group that included community stalwarts, Dr. Wilson Head, Bromley Armstrong, representatives of the Social Planning Council of Metropolitan Toronto, and others met to discuss the matter.
In 2014, when racial profiling and the carding of Black people by the Toronto Police Service were being discussed and challenged, Salmon was among the leading opponents of the practice.
“We’re deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Dr. Beverley Salmon. As Toronto’s first Black woman to become a City councillor and a founding member of UARR, Bev was an extraordinary trailblazer who tirelessly ignited social change & amplified marginalized voices in our community,” said the Urban Alliance on Race Relations on Twitter.
David Betty, president of the Jamaican Canadian Association, hopes her memory will inspire generations to come to embrace their roots and strive for a more inclusive world.
“In the graceful strides of Beverly Salmon, we find the unwavering spirit of resilience and the power of diversity. Her legacy as Toronto’s first Black female city councillor will forever shine as a testament to the strength of her Jamaican heritage and the boundless possibilities that arise from the fusion of cultures. We mourn the passing of a trailblazer, a woman whose life journey taught us the importance of breaking barriers and embracing our unique backgrounds,” he said.
Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, artistic director of Obsidian Theatre Company, said they are deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Salmon.
“Bev served on the Obsidian board for fifteen years. While on the board, she served as secretary, then chair, and supported the company through the tenures of three artistic directors. She was full of light and joy, a welcome presence in any space she walked into. She tirelessly advocated for Black art and Black artists. We are really going to miss her.”
A three-time recipient of the African Canadian Achievement Awards of Excellence (ACAA) — including its Lifetime Achievement Award — Salmon was invested into the Order of Ontario in 2016 for being a prominent anti-racism and community activist, and was awarded the Order of Canada on December 11, 2017.
The citation for the country’s highest honour described Salmon as an exemplary model of civic engagement, noting that as city councillor she advocated for more inclusive policies and practices within municipal government.
“Notably, she has been a dedicated champion for the social and educational well-being of Black communities in the city. Although officially retired, she remains an active volunteer, role model and mentor to members of her local community,” noted the citation.
Warren Salmon described his mother as strong, humble and courageous and someone who lived a life of service and advocacy.
Salmon was predeceased by her husband, John Douglas Graham Salmon — also a three-time recipient of the ACAA, including its Lifetime Achievement Award; and son, John Douglas Salmon Jr. She leaves behind three children — Warren Salmon, Heather Regal Salmon and Leslie Salmon Jones and five grandchildren: Tyler Boffa Salmon, Caitlyn Salmon, Jordan Boffa Salmon, Sierra Salmon, and Shakarri Salmon.
The City of Toronto will fly all flags at half-mast until after her funeral.