Bev Salmon was ‘a beautiful spirit with a kind heart’

by Ron Fanfair
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Then National Black Coalition of Canada Regional Chair Dr. Sheldon Taylor heard of a woman who was robbed and badly beaten while plying her trade as a sex worker in Toronto and he contacted Beverley Salmon.
“Because of her background as a nurse, I knew she was empathetic and would deal with the situation right away,” he said.
Taylor was right.
Salmon visited the American woman while she was in hospital and, as soon as she was well enough to travel, gave her money and put her on a bus to get back to Detroit where she was from.
“Bev was active in community on her own terms,” said Taylor.
Salmon, the first Black woman elected to municipal council in Toronto in 1985, passed away on July 6. She was 92.
Despite being significantly committed to community, Taylor said she did not receive her fair dues.
“Bev lived in close proximity to Bridle Path (a Toronto neighbourhood filled with large luxurious homes) and people resented that,” the educator and curator said. “She was treated as if she was a bourgeoisie when, in fact, she did far more than a lot of them. She was treated by the Black community as an underdog because they don’t know the extent of what she did.”
Salmon’s father – Herbert Bell Sr. – was an immigrant from Jamaica while her mother, Violet Bryan, was a fifth generation Canadian.
When Bell’s parents found out that he enlisted in the West Indies Regiment before turning 18, he was promptly de-enlisted and sent to Boston to study engineering. Desperately wanting to serve in the military, he came to Canada and joined the First Depot Battalion New Brunswick regiment in 1917.
He later transferred to the 260th Battalion in Siberia during the First World War where he was wounded and sent to a Halifax hospital to recuperate. Leaving the Army as a decorated war hero, he ran an automotive repair business in Toronto for 24 years before his death in 1953.
The Garveyite owned property in the city and quietly advocated for the community behind the scenes.
Taylor said Salmon inherited community activism from her father.
“Bev carried with her the history very proudly, but she didn’t shout about it,” he said. “She did what she had to do very quietly.”
When Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC) founding director Dr. Dan Hill Sr. and Wilson Brooks – one of Canada’s first Black flying officers and Toronto’s first Black school principal – were seeking space to host a few friends to discuss the formation of a Black history movement, Salmon and her late husband – Dr. Douglas Salmon, Canada’s first Black surgeon and hospital’s medical staff president – offered their home.
That meeting led to the establishment of the Ontario Black History Society that petitioned the City of Toronto a year later to have February proclaimed Black History Month.
Hill’s son, Juno Award-winning singer/songwriter Dan Hill Jr., said Salmon was “supremely kind, warm and down-to-earth with a kind of elegance and regal charm”.
“Bev was a close family friend and the two of us frequently got together for a meal,” the Grammy Award nominee said. “We usually talked about family. Five years ago, when my mom was about to undergo medically assisted suicide in Switzerland, Bev reached out to her in her own extraordinarily kind and caring way. I will never forget that she was there for my mom and me right to the end.
“I will miss Bev terribly.”
A registered nurse who practiced in Toronto and Detroit, Salmon received a layette from the Victoria Order of Nurses (VON) and later became a VON, providing home and community support services.
“Bev’s compassion and caring were inextricably linked to her profession as a nurse,” said 96-year-old longtime friend Arthur Downes. “She cared for people in the community even when she didn’t have to. Sometimes you would attend a function where there were one or two people of colour who did not speak to one another. No matter where she was, Bev would pull your sleeve just to let you know she saw you and she hopes you are okay.”
Unsuccessful in her first run for elected office in the city in 1976, Salmon was successful nine years later, defeating lawyer Andy Borins by 2,073 votes in North York Ward 8.
Her first motion resulted in ‘Alderman’ being changed to ‘Councillor’.
Barbara Hall, Toronto’s last mayor prior to amalgamation in 1998, and Salmon were elected to City Hall the same year.
“Bev really influenced our need to address racism,” said the former OHRC Chief Commissioner who worked with Black families in Nova Scotia before entering politics. “She taught us a lot about anti-racism and, as a result, committees were set up at city hall.”
Hall and Salmon sat on the Kensington Market Jazz Festival Board.
“I saw her a few times lately and she had a great love for music,” Hall added.
Salmon was the OHRC’s first Black woman Commissioner in 1979 and a co-founder of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations.
In the 1990s, she and former school principal MacArthur Hunter co-founded and co-chaired the Black Educators Working Group that, among other things, advocated for an inclusive curriculum.
Seven years ago, Salmon wrote to politicians, including then Premier Kathleen Wynne, urging them to fund lawyers for families following the inquest into the police shooting death of Ian Pryce, whose mother Heather Thompson, was Salmon’s friend. She was also at the forefront of the call to end police carding.
“Bev was approachable, discreet, decisive and unassuming,” said Black Action Defence Committee founding member Lennox Farrell.
To celebrate Black History Month last February, Tropicana Community Services invited Salmon, University of Guelph Chancellor Mary Anne Chambers and Zanana Akande to a fireside chat to reflect on their professional and community careers.
“Bev was a very thoughtful person who didn’t speak out of turn,” said Akande, the first Black woman elected to Ontario’s Legislative Assembly and to serve as a government minister in the province. “I don’t think she ever emitted words without thinking very carefully what they meant, what impressions they were going to have and how it would affect moving forward, whether be it the community or a situation. She was also intentional in everything she did. It was deliberate, focused and well meaning.”
Chambers said Salmon was a beautiful spirit with a kind heart.
“Throughout the decades that I had the good fortune to know her, Bev’s gentle smile and gracious demeanor were constant,” said the former Scotiabank Vice-President and Ontario government minister. “I always knew, however, that behind that warmth was a tower of strength with an unshakeable commitment to family and community and a fearless and formidable advocate for human rights and social justice. I will miss her.”
Salmon, who was the recipient of an honorary doctorate from Toronto Metropolitan University in 1999, was appointed to the Order of Ontario in 2016 and the Order of Canada five months later.
As part of York University’s programs and research initiatives that reinforce its dedication to Black Studies in Canada, the Bev Salmon library fund was launched in 2018.
The special collection of records document her experience as a nurse and the first Black woman municipal councillor.
Hospitalized earlier this year for pneumonia and congestive heart failure, the former Ontario Status of Women Council member recovered and travelled to Boston a few weeks ago to spend quality time with her daughter Leslie Salmon Jones and her husband, Jeff Jones.
Salmon visited eight American states and toured the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington before proceeding to Maui in Hawaii to visit another daughter, Heather Regal Salmon, and her husband, Donny Regal.
She is survived by three of four children. Dr. John Douglas Salmon Jr. died in June 2021.
Warren Salmon, the President of Black Board International and First Fridays, said his mom lived a life of service.
“She also stood up for what she believed in on different levels,” he said. “When we lived on Glenorchy Rd. in North York, there was no bus service and she fought to get one. That was what sort of propelled her into politics.”

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