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Barbara Howard, black Canadian trailblazer, featured in new book

Runner competed internationally before becoming a teacher

Eighty years after making history as the first black Canadian athlete to compete on the world stage, Barbara Howard is inspiring a new generation.

The longtime Burnaby resident is featured in a new colouring book, Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids.

A page in the book tells Howard’s story: at 17, she won two medals for Canada at the 1938 British Empire Games before returning to Canada to become the first visible minority to teach public school in Vancouver. 

“Barbara Howard was literally a trailblazer,” co-author Tami Gabay said. “She’s an amazing lady.” 

What most impressed Gabay about Howard was how she took her passion for sport and passed it on to her students. 

“She took something that she loved and paid it forward,” Gabay said.

Howard died in 2017, but her story lives on. 

She is in great company in the book meant for students in Grade 2 and up, Gabay said. 

With a historical figure for every letter in the alphabet, she said the book teaches Canadians young and old about black women and men who made the country better.

The book came about when Gabay combined her plans to write a book about diversity in Canadian history with her co-author Akilah Newton’s plans to make a colouring book.

Together, Gabay said, they learned much about Canadian black history and found inspiration in how individuals pushed back against discrimination to do great things.

“There are many roses, but there are also many thorns and when you have that reckoning, you kind of accept your place in history (and) you’re able to move forward,” she said. “There was a lot of racial intolerance, and the takeaway is that these people persevered and became trailblazers to make our country better.”

Big Dreamers launched last month and the response has been great, Gabay said. The Kootenay Lake school district has already purchased 300 copies, and the authors are in talks with other districts. It is available in French and English in some retailers and online at

The co-authors have already been asked to create a similar book focusing on figures from American black history and another focusing on women, Gabay said. 

And Gabay said many adults have learned from the book and are hungry for more.

 A Canadian black history book for teens and adults could come in the future, she said. 

Gabay said she and Newton hope to continue educating about and celebrating diversity in their work.