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Barbara Howard (1920–2017)

Barbara Howard at the British Empire Games in Australia, 1938. © City of Vancouver Archives / James Skitt Mathews, 1938

For the week of Monday, January 30, 2023

On February 5, 1938, the third British Empire Games (later Commonwealth Games) began in Sydney, Australia. Among the competitors was Barbara Howard. Records suggest that the 17-year-old Canadian athlete was the first woman of African descent to compete at the Games and represent Canada on the world stage.

Howard was born on May 8, 1920, in the east end of Vancouver, British Columbia, to Samuel and Catherine Howard. When she was eight years old, her father died, leaving her and four older siblings in the care of her mother and an uncle who provided financial support. She showed athletic prowess from a young age, winning championships for Laura Secord Elementary School and setting provincial records at Britannia High School.

In 1937, Howard amazed the crowd when she completed the 100-yard dash in 11.2 seconds at the Canadian trials for the British Empire Games. That was faster than the Games’ record and just two tenths of a seconds off the women’s world record, held at the time by Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld and Rosa Grosse of Canada. This impressive feat attracted national press attention and encouragement from Rosenfeld, who was by then a prominent Toronto sports columnist.

Having earned a place on the Canadian team for the British Empire Games, Howard set off on the 28-day journey to Sydney early in 1938. There, she competed in three events, helping to win bronze in the 660-yard relay and silver in the 440-yard relay, and placing 6th in the 100-yard dash.

Her athletic career was cut short when national and international tournaments, including the 1940 Olympics, were cancelled due to the Second World War. Howard pursued a career in physical education, completing a degree in education at the University of British Columbia in 1959 and becoming the first racialized person to be a part of the Vancouver School Board. She taught for more than 40 years in several Vancouver Public schools and became a youth group leader at her local United Church. Howard’s contributions to her community had a profound impact, especially on her students.

Although she did not have many opportunities to compete on the world stage, Howard’s participation at the British Empire Games helped break barriers for women of African descent who followed in Canada and beyond. They included Jean Lowe of Toronto, who excelled in Ontario track and field competitions in the 1930s and 1940s, and Rosella Thorne of Montréal, who competed at the 1952 Olympics and the 1954 Vancouver British Empire Games. Howard was inducted in the Burnaby Sports Hall of Fame (2011), the BC Sports Hall of Fame (2012), and the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame (2015).


Fanny “Bobbie” Rosenfeld was designated as a national historic person in 1976. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada (HSMBC) advises the Government of Canada on the commemoration of national historic persons—individuals who have made unique and enduring contributions to the history of Canada.

The National Program of Historical Commemoration relies on the participation of Canadians in the identification of places, events and persons of national historic significance. Any member of the public can nominate a topic for consideration by the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. Learn how to participate in this process.


February is Black History Month. Learn more about African Canadian histories by exploring articles in our online archives about John Ware, Reverend Jennie Johnson (1868–1967), R. Nathaniel Dett (1882–1943) and The No. 2 Construction Battalion of Nova Scotia.
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