Volume 90, Issue 79

Thursday, February 13, 1997



Tipping the scales of justice

Courtesy of Fort Malden National Historic Museum

By Gary Bennett

The first black lawyer in Canada was Delos Davis. He was born in Maryland Aug. 4, 1846 and came to Canada with his parents in 1850, landing at Amherstburg, Ont. Davis worked hard in order to become a lawyer. He was a school teacher at Gilgal from 1867-71 when he obtained his teacher's certificate. He briefly resigned from this profession but subsequently returned to the classroom when he began studying law.

On June 19, 1873 Davis was appointed and constituted a Notary Public for the province of Ontario. This was a remarkable accomplishment for a black person at that time but Davis would not stop there. For 11 years after this appointment, he devoted himself to studying and practising law, in so far as it could legally be done by someone not admitted as a solicitor. Davis acquired such a worthy education in law that he felt he was able to pass the final examination prescribed by the Law Society for persons seeking to be admitted as solicitors. This was not an easy task. The Law Society only allowed people who had finished a period of articling under the tutelage of a lawyer to write the final examination. No lawyer in Canada was willing to allow Davis to article at that time.

Being the ambitious man he was, Davis was not satisfied being a notary public. His proficiency in law was so evident that in 1884 he appealed to the Ontario legislature, asking that the Supreme Court of Judicature call him to the bar without articling. Subsequently, the Hon. W.D. Balfour, MPP, introduced a special act of the legislature authorizing the Supreme Court to admit Davis to practice, providing he passed a successful examination according to the rules of the Ontario Law Society. It was passed in May 1885. The act is entitled An act to authorize the Supreme Court of Judicature for Ontario to admit Delos Rogest Davis to practice as a solicitor (assented to March 25, 1886). The act explains, "in consequence of prejudices against his colour and because of his being of African descent he had not been articled to any attorney or solicitor or served under articles."

On May 19, 1885, Davis passed the bar examination finishing first in his class. On November 15, 1886, he was called to the bar by the benchers of the Law Society.

But this was not the end of his list of accomplishments. After being called to the bar, Davis established a law office in Amherstburg and soon became one of the leading practitioners in the county. He was counsel in six of the most high-profile murder cases in Canada at that time. He defended five and prosecuted only one. He won every one of these cases and had a provincial reputation for being an expert in drainage litigation. So impressive were his skills and accomplishments that on Nov. 10, 1910 the government of Ontario recognized Davis by making him the first black lawyer in Canada, and the British Empire, to be appointed a King's Counsel. This was an honour that only a minority of lawyers in the Commonwealth had achieved.

Davis' determination to succeed in the legal profession soon became the dream of his son. Frederick Homer Alphonso Davis followed in his father's footsteps and became a lawyer. He attended York University's Osgoode Hall in Toronto and subsequently graduated in 1900. Fortunately for Frederick, no new statute needed to be passed to allow him to article. The father and son team established the law firm Davis and Davis, Barristers, on Gore Street in Amherstburg.

This month, the international community celebrates the accomplishments of people, such as Delos Rogest Davis, whose sacrifice and toil made our great country Canada what it is today. The Delos Davis story is not only black history, it is Canadian history. We should not wait until February each year to teach it to our children.

graphic by Colin Dunne

To Contact The Features Department: gazfeat@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1997