The Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) was the first global Black nationalist organization with a chapter in Canada, and played a crucial role in fostering unity and pride among Canadians of African descent. The UNIA established an organizational framework within which Black Canadians could develop their talents and assume positions of leadership at a time when they were denied these opportunities elsewhere. Liberty Halls, whether owned or rented by the UNIA, were centres for Black political, social, and cultural activity when Black Canadians had little access to spaces that made community gatherings possible. The organization fostered a strong West Indian-Canadian leadership, further binding the members of this motivated ethnic group to each other and to a national and international network of proud Black activists.

The UNIA was founded in Jamaica in 1914 by Marcus Mosiah Garvey. Within less than a decade, it evolved to become the central organ of the largest global Black nationalist movement in history, with over 1,000 chapters in 40 countries. In June 1919, the first Canadian division of the UNIA opened in Montréal, followed closely by one in Toronto in December of the same year. By 1922, there were 32 chapters of the UNIA in Canada, ranging geographically from Sidney, Nova Scotia, to Victoria, British Columbia. One quarter of Black Canadians, or close to 5,000 people, are believed to have been members of the UNIA at its peak in the early 1920s. After Marcus Garvey’s death in 1940, activity and membership went into decline. The Toronto division closed in 1982, but the Montréal division continues to offer services today.

Historically, the UNIA’s numerous executive positions were filled by men and women who ran weekly meetings, regional conferences and international conventions, raised funds, organized classes, and ran subsidiary social and cultural groups such as the Black Cross Nurses, the School of African Philosophy, and the Literary Club, among many others. By providing leadership roles within the organization, the UNIA deliberately cultivated a Black leadership class in Canada at a time when such opportunities were limited. The UNIA’s Liberty Halls were the site of the majority of the UNIA’s activities, and the purchase of a hall was a major accomplishment for Canada’s UNIA chapters. They were some of the few places, other than churches, where large gatherings of Black Canadians were allowed to occur.

The success of the UNIA in Canada is closely associated with the West Indians who made up a majority of its members in Canada and were especially dominant in the major urban centres and in Nova Scotia. In addition to connecting them to a global diaspora of West Indians economic migrants and UNIA members worldwide, the UNIA offered Afro-Caribbean immigrants an instrument with which to mitigate the systemic racism that affected their ability to find housing and employment and circumscribed their social activity. West Indian leaders of UNIA modeled lives of engagement and activism for their own communities and for all Canadians.