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Group Photo
Standing left to right: Dr. Valin Marshall, Jean Howell, Dr. Frank Robinson, Menziwe Mbeo, Clyde Griffith Seated: Emery Barnes

Emery Barnes was born in New Orleans in 1929 and moved to Canada in 1957. He graduated with a social work degree from U.B.C. He was elected as one of the first two Black members to the Legislative Assembly in 1972, (the other was Rosemary Brown) in the riding of Vancouver Centre and subsequently re-elected four times. Barnes was an outstanding athlete excelling particularly in high jump, track and field and football. His life was dedicated to helping the disadvantaged. He was a strong advocate for worldwide human rights and raised the profile of Black people in BC.

Reflections on Emery Barnes

Based on a conversation with Barnes' good friend Clyde Griffith
by Lorraine Murray

HUMANE WAS EMERY BARNES' OUTSTANDING QUALITY. Humane and modest. Emery was a big man, not only in stature, but in his dedication to others. For example, when his party was still in the opposition and Emery was working, he began to realize how difficult life was for many of the people of his riding, many of them welfare recipients. So he moved downtown to East Vancouver and decided to limit himself to living on an amount equal to that received by welfare recipients. He found it almost impossible to survive.

It was Dave Barrett who encouraged him to move into politics. The first time he ran for the BC Legislature, Emery was not elected. At that time, the city of Vancouver was not as culturally diverse as today so he had less chance of success. Emery did not talk much about the barriers he faced even though, particularly during his childhood in New Orleans, he had suffered harassment which prompted his family's move to the West Coast.

The BC Black History Awareness Society came into being in 1993, inspired by a man named Jonathan Johnson who wanted to do something to acknowledge Black History Month. Emery was able to get a government grant and rally some community support to form a committee. Black History Month was one of its mandates. Emery was instrumental in the Society's connection with the provincial government and the Greater Victoria School Board in the development of a curriculum resource guide. He went on to help create a Society to build a cultural community centre in Vancouver for the community as a whole but especially to serve people of African heritage. The BC Black Cultural Association was formed; Emery was its first president. Afterwards he involved himself with fundraising for the Association but it was about that time his health deteriorated. His vision of a cultural centre first began during his involvement with the National Coalition for Coloured People in the 1960's.

Emery was appointed Deputy Speaker and then again elected Speaker, unanimously. There had never been a Speaker like Emery. His election had a positive impact that spread far beyond the borders of BC. The premier of one of the provinces of South Africa came here with some of his cabinet to meet Emery. A black man in BC is elected Speaker of a white legislature! That became world news.

Such was Emery Barnes - a man, bigger than life, who uplifted the lives of others.

Lorraine Murray is a Programme Coordinator at VIRCS and a periodical writer.

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