Emery Barnes, Advocate and Canada’s First Black Speaker of a Legislative Assembly
*Throughout the month of February, the FSA is highlighting Black leaders and organizations that have contributed to the labour movement and progressive social change. In the first of our series, FSA member Peter Seidl remembers Emery Barnes.
“During Black History Month, and at other times of the year, I think about Emery Barnes (1929 — 1998), Olympic-level athlete, professional football player, social worker, human rights advocate, politician, and–most importantly–mensch.
Em, as he was known to many, served as a BC MLA for over twenty years, and as the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly from 1994 to 1996. He was the Keanu Reeves of provincial politics back in the day–respected and loved by all who had the honour of knowing him personally, regardless of their political affiliation. I am lucky that I was one of the many who had the opportunity to know him.
While he was an opposition party MLA, Em took up a challenge to live on the social assistance rate for one month. He did this (no other MLA joined him), and he received a great deal of media attention which brought public attention to how low the rate was.
But when the media went away, he continued to live on social assistance for an additional month. One day I was on a bus and I looked out the window and saw Em walking alone — with a distant look on his face — on a downtown street. I thought to myself then, and I sometimes reflect back on that moment, how ‘funny’ life is: if Em had stayed in his home country of the United States and if he hadn’t been a superb athlete, how different his life would have been.
Sometimes I think about how everyone’s life would be so very different if they were born into a different community, country, or time, or with different personal characteristics. Human potential often goes unfulfilled for no good reason.
Emery Barnes served his adopted home well, spread joy wherever he went, and set an example for others to follow. There is a small park in downtown Vancouver named after him, but his real legacy resides in the hearts and minds of those he served.”Leave a reply →