Violet King, the first Black woman lawyer in Canada
Born in 1929, Violet King broke several important barriers over the course of her extraordinary life: she was the first Black student to graduate from the University of Alberta’s faculty of law; she was the first Black woman lawyer in Canada, called to the bar in 1954; and she was the first Black lawyer admitted to the Law Society of Alberta. Later in life, she also became the first woman appointed to an executive position with the YMCA in the United States.
King was born in Calgary, Alberta and attended the University of Alberta. Working as a piano teacher to fund her studies, she was vice president of the student union, the representative of the Students’ Union to the National Federation of Canadian University Students, class historian for her final year, and the Alberta representative to the International Student Services Conference.
“People told me it wasn’t a good idea for a girl to be a lawyer, particularly a coloured girl — so I went ahead,” King said in 1956 in an address at the Beta Sigma Phi pledge banquet. “It is too bad that a Japanese, Chinese, or colored girl has to outshine others to secure a position.”
King was the only woman in her graduating class in 1953, and only the second woman to practise law in Calgary. She was an avid advocate for women’s rights, joining the feminist Blue Stocking Club in university and going on to work with women’s groups that fought for equal pay legislation. At a gathering for the Lethbridge Women’s University Club, King said, “Many things remain to be done in the legal field to give women both the equality and protection to which they are entitled.”
After her time spent practising criminal law in Calgary, King moved to Ottawa, where she secured a position with the federal Department of Citizenship and Immigration.
About Violet King, Nicole Dodd, one of the founders of the Alberta Anti-Racism EDU Committee, said, “She is just a trailblazer in terms of being a Black Canadian, and having her achievements reach such high levels, during a time that was historically quite discriminatory and racist toward people of African descent.”
Dodd’s words are undeniable, and the mark King left on the Canadian legal and educational landscape is felt to this day. Throughout her life, she tore down barriers and fiercely followed her own chosen path. The City of Calgary has recognized King’s role in Albertan history by naming a central city plaza in her honour.