Anne Cools made history in 1984 when she became the first Black person ever to serve in Canada’s Senate, the upper house of parliament.
Born on August 12, 1943 in Barbados, Cools immigrated to Canada in 1957 when she was 13 years old, her family settling in Montreal, Quebec. She grew up in a household that valued education and political service; both a grandfather and her uncle were active in the political life in Barbados. Her father was a pharmacist. Her family’s relatively high standard of living and level of education did not protect Cools from growing up without suffering tragedy. When Cools was four years old, two of her five siblings—the next oldest and next youngest to her—died from peritonitis, an inflammation of the stomach cavity that can prove fatal if infection takes hold.
In the 1960’s, Anne attended McGill University in Montreal where she studied Social Work. It was during her time at McGill where she got involved in radical school politics and participated in a 10 Day sit-in at Sir George Williams University (Now Concordia University) in protest of alleged racism at the school. The demonstration resulted in over $2 million dollars in damages to computer equipment, and while Anne never participated directly in any of the damaging, she was sentenced to 4 months in prison for participating in the sit-in.
In 1974, Cools moved to Toronto, Canada’s largest city and one with a growing West Indian population at the time. She took a job as executive director of Women in Transition Inc., one of the first shelters for victims of domestic violence in the country. The shelter was struggling financially when she took over, and “the first thing I had to do was persuade the staff to continue working in order to keep the place alive,” Cools recalled in an interview with Chatelaine journalist Donna Laframboise. They accepted her proposal to work without paychecks for six months until new sources of funding were found, and the shelter soon regained its footing. Demand was so high for its services that Cools also found funding and won board approval to open a second shelter in 1987.
During the late 1970’s and mid-1980’s she sought election into the Canadian House of Commons, but lost by a hair nearly every time. It wasn’t until 1984, under the recommendation of then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau that she was summoned to the Canadian Senate by then Governor General Edward Schreyer.
Cools was a member of the opposition in the Senate from 1984, when the Progressive Conservative Party returned to power after in legislative elections that year, until 1993, when a new Liberal government was installed with party leader Jean Chrétien as prime minister. In March of 1995, she delivered a speech on International Women’s Day in which she reflected upon the causes of violence against women and children in society, and stated that “Behind every abusing husband is an abusing mother,” according to Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
Cools’s words caused an outcry in Canada, stirred by women’s rights organizations and played out in the media. With her solid, professional background in domestic-violence issues, Cools defended herself in two lengthy Senate speeches later that month.
As a senator she continued with her social justice interests. In the 1990s she was on a joint committee with the senate and House of Commons which produced the report, recommending that the children of divorced parents should have access to both parents. With all her research she became a strong advocate for father’s rights, family issues and divorce. Through her long tenure she has served on many committees such as the Committee on Aging. She now sits as an independent.