Skip to main content
The Globe and Mail
Support Quality Journalism.
The Globe and Mail
First Access to Latest
Investment News
Collection of curated
e-books and guides
Inform your decisions via
Globe Investor Tools
Just$1.99
per week
for first 24 weeks

Enjoy unlimited digital access
Enjoy Unlimited Digital Access
Get full access to globeandmail.com
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
Just $1.99per week for the first 24weeks
var select={root:".js-sub-pencil",control:".js-sub-pencil-control",open:"o-sub-pencil--open",closed:"o-sub-pencil--closed"},dom={},allowExpand=!0;function pencilInit(o){var e=arguments.length>1&&void 0!==arguments[1]&&arguments[1];select.root=o,dom.root=document.querySelector(select.root),dom.root&&(dom.control=document.querySelector(select.control),dom.control.addEventListener("click",onToggleClicked),setPanelState(e),window.addEventListener("scroll",onWindowScroll),dom.root.removeAttribute("hidden"))}function isPanelOpen(){return dom.root.classList.contains(select.open)}function setPanelState(o){dom.root.classList[o?"add":"remove"](select.open),dom.root.classList[o?"remove":"add"](select.closed),dom.control.setAttribute("aria-expanded",o)}function onToggleClicked(){var l=!isPanelOpen();setPanelState(l)}function onWindowScroll(){window.requestAnimationFrame(function() {var l=isPanelOpen(),n=0===(document.body.scrollTop||document.documentElement.scrollTop);n||l||!allowExpand?n&&l&&(allowExpand=!0,setPanelState(!1)):(allowExpand=!1,setPanelState(!0))});}pencilInit(".js-sub-pencil",!1); // via darwin-bg var slideIndex = 0; carousel(); function carousel() { var i; var x = document.getElementsByClassName("subs_valueprop"); for (i = 0; i < x.length; i++) { x[i].style.display = "none"; } slideIndex++; if (slideIndex> x.length) { slideIndex = 1; } x[slideIndex - 1].style.display = "block"; setTimeout(carousel, 2500); } //

Mifflin Gibbs poses in this undated handout photo.

HO /The Canadian Press

The first Black person elected in British Columbia was an American abolitionist and entrepreneur who won a Victoria city council seat in 1866 and played a role in Confederation.

In 1858, about 800 Black people left San Francisco for the promise of better lives on the colony of Vancouver Island.

Mifflin Gibbs was among the early arrivals to Victoria and nearby Salt Spring Island.

Story continues below advertisement

“He represents a hero,” said Silvia Mangue, president of the B.C. Black History Awareness Society. “For us he represents a role model of the person we all want to be. He left this legacy. He opened this path. That is powerful.”

Gibbs grabbed hold of the opportunity he didn’t have in the United States because he was Black and turned it to success in Victoria, she said.

He opened a downtown business selling tools, supplies and provisions to the thousands of people arriving in Victoria on their way to strike it rich at the Cariboo Gold Rush and he immersed himself in local politics, said Ms. Mangue.

“At the time the Victoria city budget was financially really bad and he fixed the budget of the community,” she said, describing him as a pioneer.

“The guy left a huge legacy.”

Gibbs was among the hundreds of Black people who arrived on Vancouver Island at the invitation of Governor James Douglas who promised them the freedom they had never known, said John Lutz, a University of Victoria historian.

“They found themselves officially welcomed in B.C.,” he said. “They had rights to testify in court and they weren’t going to be hauled off and accused as runaway slaves. They could own property, and if they naturalized as British citizens they had the franchise, the vote, which they didn’t have in California.”

Story continues below advertisement

But the invitation to the Black pioneers to settle on Vancouver Island contained an ulterior motive on the part of the colonial government, which looked to the new arrivals to help thwart local factions who supported joining the U.S., Prof. Lutz said

The new arrivals were subjected to paternalism by the British establishment, but they faced outright racism from many of the American gold seekers, he said.

“There was racism here but people like Mifflin Gibbs managed to rise above it and the racism was nothing like in California,” he said. “In many ways it was a better situation, but it certainly wasn’t perfect.”

Gibbs stayed near downtown Victoria, becoming politically active, running his business ventures and living in the James Bay neighbourhood with his wife and five children, while others left the city to establish communities north of Victoria on the Saanich Peninsula and on Salt Spring Island, Prof. Lutz said.

Gibbs also played a role in historic talks that ultimately saw the colonies of Vancouver Island and B.C. join Confederation in 1871, said Prof. Lutz.

Gibbs was one of the 26 delegates who attended the pro-Confederation gathering in Yale, B.C., in 1868, he said.

Story continues below advertisement

B.C. was in a deep recession following the Gold Rush and making debt relief one of the conditions to join Canada was a topic of debate at the convention, Prof. Lutz said.

“The convention did much to stimulate popular support for the union with Canada as a solution to the colony’s problems,” says a B.C. government plaque erected at Yale.

Mayor Lisa Helps said Gibbs was a symbol of Victoria’s history as an open city, but one with flaws that still exist today.

“He was a mover and a shaker at the time,” she said. “Even though, obviously, racism existed, just like it still does today, there was a certain sense of being a bit of a global city open to having people from around the world.”

The B.C. Black History Awareness Society website includes a letter Gibbs mailed to a San Francisco newspaper shortly after his arrival in B.C., highlighting his impressions.

“The country is certainly a beautiful one – a country good enough for me – and I am sorry to be so far behind. If either of us had arrived here two months ago, worth $1,000, we could have been worth $10,000 today.”

Story continues below advertisement

The city proclaimed Mifflin Wistar Gibbs Day on Nov. 16, 2016, in recognition of his election to city council on the same day in 1866.

A plaque honouring Gibbs, who returned to the United States in 1870 where he was elected a judge in Little Rock, Ark., and later appointed U.S. consul to Madagascar, was erected in 2019 in Victoria’s Irving Park near his former James Bay home.

Verna Gibbs, a great-great-grandniece of Gibbs, travelled from San Francisco in May, 2019, to attend the ceremony unveiling the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada plaque.

“After helping lead the exodus of 800 Black residents from San Francisco in 1858, Gibbs became the recognized leader of their community on Vancouver Island,” the plaque states.

“He strove to make these newcomers a force in colonial politics and, as a member of Victoria city council, he became the first Black person to hold elected office in B.C. This innovative entrepreneur, who invested in mining and trade, also encouraged the integration of Black settlers and advocated for their rights.”

We have a weekly Western Canada newsletter written by our B.C. and Alberta bureau chiefs, providing a comprehensive package of the news you need to know about the region and its place in the issues facing Canada. Sign up today.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

  1. Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
  2. Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.

Follow topics related to this article:

View more suggestions in Following Read more about following topics and authors
Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

If you do not see your comment posted immediately, it is being reviewed by the moderation team and may appear shortly, generally within an hour.

We aim to have all comments reviewed in a timely manner.

Comments that violate our community guidelines will not be posted.

UPDATED: Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies