Published on March 1st, 2017 | from CAMH

Celebrating Black History

By Dr. Donna Ferguson Psychologist with the WSIB Psychological Trauma Program, with contributions by Dion Carter, Manager, Diversity and Equity, CAMH | 

In December 1995, the Canadian House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month. This followed a motion introduced by the first black Canadian woman elected to Parliament, the Honourable Jean Augustine – a motion that was carried unanimously by the House of Commons.

As the month draws to a close, I feel a sense of encouragement and empowerment in being part of a richly diverse community. Today’s black population in Canada is comprised of people from all around the world including Africa, South America, the Caribbean and the United States. Black Canadians have made important contributions to Canadian culture as writers, musicians, activists, teachers, healthcare practitioners, and members of public office, among others.

Black Women in Canadian History

This year’s theme was especially uplifting, as we recognized the contributions of black women in Canada’s history. In particular, we focused on four inspiring women: Jean Augustine, Viola Desmond, Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré and Femi James who all played or continue to play a role in improving the lives of Canadians.

Femi James
James is the executive director of The S.P.O.T., a centre serving young people, that empowers youth to be agents of change in their lives and communities through arts and technology. She has been an advocate for children and youth for over a decade and is known for creating opportunities for youth who face overwhelming life and systemic barriers.

Juanita Westmoreland-Traoré
Westmoreland-Traoré is the first appointed Black judge in the history of Quebec. She was also the first Black dean of a law school in Canada’s history. The daughter of immigrants from Guyana, she holds a law degree and a doctorate. She is an advocate for human rights and has received awards for her fight against discrimination.

Viola Desmond
Viola Irene Desmond (née Davis), businesswoman, civil libertarian (born 6 July 1914 in Halifax, NS; died 7 February 1965 in New York, NY). Viola Desmond built a career and business as a beautician and was a mentor to young Black women in Nova Scotia through her Desmond School of Beauty Culture. It is, however, the story of her courageous refusal to accept an act of racial discrimination that provided inspiration to a later generation of Black persons in Nova Scotia and in the rest of Canada. In December 2016, it was announced that Desmond would be the first Canadian woman depicted on the face of a Canadian banknote — the $10 note in a series of bills released in 2018.

Jean Augustine
Jean Augustine was Ontario’s first Fairness Commissioner, for eight years. The first black woman elected to the House of Commons, Augustine was appointed in 2007 with a mandate to ensure that foreign-trained professionals trying to get licensed in Ontario encounter a transparent, objective, impartial and fair registration system. Augustine used her skills and experience as a community activist and politician to work with the regulators, and helped usher in an era of change in a licensing system that had been criticized for unfairly erecting barriers to qualified immigrants. Throughout her tenure, licensing procedures in all 42 regulatory bodies were improved. They are also now required to conduct systematic assessments to ensure they adhere to the Fair Access legislation.

What does Black History mean to me?

While there is value in looking back at contributions of our ancestors, Black History Month can also bring up deep emotions. Feelings that stem from the injustice, discrimination and hatred just for being born black – which is still experienced today in a different way.

However, we are a resilient community, and we can rejoice, celebrate and thank those who worked and persevered to give us hope. Black History Month is a time when we can be reminded about what it means to be black, and celebrate integrity, leadership and determination.

It is a time to learn of the contributions of black Canadians in the past up to the present. It is a time to reflect and appreciate the legacy of those who came before, and instill a strong sense of pride in the minds and hearts of black young people – many of whom are unaware of the positive impact of their ancestors and present day heroes.

Throughout Black History Month, we are able to share the rich history and contributions of our community with others – but it doesn’t have to be confined to a single month. We all have a duty to recognize these wonderful contributions to Canadian culture – not just in February, but all year round.

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