Canada's first Black female lawyer recognized at Viola Desmond event at Ryerson
April 14, 2019
In researching her grandmother, 10-year-old Lani Bent quickly realized she was no ordinary woman.
“Grandma Violet was a big deal,” Jo-Anne Henry-Bent recalled her daughter saying. “My reply was, ‘Oh yes, she was’.”
Violet King-Henry was the first Black person to graduate from law school in Alberta in 1953.
The only female in her graduating class was called to the Bar a year later, making her the first Black female lawyer to practice in Canada.
The descendant of Black settlers from the United States who moved to Canada 100 years ago, King-Henry practiced Criminal Law in Calgary for two years before accepting a position with the federal Citizenship & Immigration ministry in Ottawa where she spent seven years.
In 1963, she moved to New Jersey to become executive director of the Newark YMCA’s Community branch. In that role, she helped Black applicants who were actively seeking employment opportunities.
A year after marrying in 1965, the couple gave birth to their only child who was in Toronto earlier last month for the 11th annual Viola Desmond Awards ceremony at Ryerson University.
Moving to Chicago in 1969 to take up senior roles with the YMCA, King-Henry was appointed executive director of the National Council of YMCA’s Organizational Development Group seven years later. The first female to be named to an executive position within the national organization succumbed to cancer in New York in March 1982 at age 52.
The Ryerson awards are named after Black Canadian trailblazers who were recognized at the event on March 4.
Amanda (Amiga) Taylor Wheatle, who graduated from high school at age 23 and earned her undergraduate degree in 2012 and her Master’s two years later, was the recipient of the Violet King-Henry honour awarded to a staff member.
She is the Student Health & Well-Being Navigator in the Faculty of Community & Design and executive director of Ephraim’s Place Community Centre that honours the memory of her brother – Ephraim Brown – who was killed by a stray bullet in 2007 while attending a birthday party in his housing complex.
He was just 11 years old.
Taylor Wheatle, a Ryerson community member for the last 11 years, was unable to attend the event because of illness.
Henry-Bent was impressed with the recipient’s resume and leadership skills.
“The idea of an award for Ryerson staff who have gone out of their way to develop capacity in students, I know, would make my mom proud,” she said. “She believed in leadership development and she understood the importance of making leadership visible.”
Just 16 when her mother passed away, Henry-Bent remembers her fondly and is proud of her accomplishments.
“She was at a level of leadership in the YMCA where she was extremely busy,” she pointed out. “Though called to do so much, she was always there for me. She made my lunch for school and would also pick up the phone when I called. When I rose to a leadership position, I just couldn’t understand how she always found time for me. That made me appreciate her even more.”
Henry-Bent believes a heavy workload and toxic work environment took their toll on her mother.
“Apparently when she took the position on the National Board, the head office was in New York city,” she said. “There was a plan to move it to Chicago, but as my mom developed in her role, she felt strongly that the ‘Y’ should keep its valuable real estate in New York and stay there. The top person at the ‘Y’ at the time disagreed and that caused quite a rift and disagreement. I think that hastened her death.”
The holder of an undergraduate degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania, a Master’s in Executive Leadership from Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business and a Law degree from the University of California, Berkeley Boalt Hall School of Law, Henry-Bent designed and developed an award-winning leadership building environmental justice program in the underserved Roxbury community in Boston, served as the program co-ordinator for a community-based child abuse prevention program in Dorchester and was one of 10 fellows selected from around the United States in 2003 for an 11-month full-time executive leadership program that develops the potential of leaders at the helm of non-profit, philanthropic and public organizations to improve the life circumstances and prospects of children and families living in low-income communities.
Henry-Bent spent nearly seven years in Georgia, directing a child abuse prevention/early intervention and family strengthening initiative in 17 counties and supervising essential programs that serve children and families before moving to Washington in July 2012 to become the administrator of a permanency/foster care program. She worked with the District of Columbia Public Schools for five years before taking a break last October.
“I actually took a sabbatical,” she said. “This is my first real break from work since I was 15. I was on paid leave for a while and received a grant to get executive coaching. I was focused on that and I will soon start my search for the next job.”
This was Henry-Bent’s first visit to Toronto in almost five decades.
“My understanding is that my mom brought me here at least once when I was a child, but I just don’t have any recollections of that,” she noted.
After her mom’s death, Henry-Bent remained in contact with her uncle – Theodore ‘Ted’ King – who resided in Vancouver with his family.
The railway porter, World War II veteran, civil rights activist and Alberta Association for the Advancement of Coloured People president died in July 2001.
“I went to Vancouver quite often and spent quality time with him, his wife and their children who were my baby-sitters,” said Henry-Bent.
She along with her husband – Troy Bent is a firefighter and teacher – and their daughter reside in Washington.