Life / Health

Jean Augustine reflects on the importance of Canada's Black history

The first Black female MP who helped establish Black History Month in Canada says 'we have much to celebrate here.'

Jean Augustine, left, the first Black woman elected to the House of Commons who also helped establish Black History Month in Canada, speaks to journalist Alyson Renaldo during a recent interview.

Eduardo Lima / Metro

Jean Augustine, left, the first Black woman elected to the House of Commons who also helped establish Black History Month in Canada, speaks to journalist Alyson Renaldo during a recent interview.

In 1995, politician and educator Jean Augustine introduced a motion to declare Black History Month in February. The motion passed unanimously at the end of that year. Now the social-justice advocate and co-author of 100 Accomplished Black Canadian Women reflects fondly on that achievement, and how it serves to strengthen our national identity.

Much has been accomplished through Black History Month. However, the significance of its impact can only be revealed by understanding how it came to be.

“Why do we even need a Black history month? Ought we not celebrate all history, all the time?” I ask her.

“Because it organizes us.” Augustine’s tone channels her years as an educator. “The signal is given from the federal level that this is important. (The month is) an affirmation of our presence in this nation. Around the world, by every socio-economic measure, we seem to be at the bottom, but now, we have a (national platform). This opens avenues for curriculum development and forces research into what is needed to progress. I’m very proud that my little motion created synergies for this. I feel hopeful.”

As I sit with her, listening, I am struck by how inspiring, yet odd, it seems to discuss Canadian history with one of its recent architects.

“We (Black Canadians) have shaken the system through advocacy and forced open a space that sees meeting our needs as an integral part of the whole,” says Jean Augustine.

Eduardo Lima/ Metro

“We (Black Canadians) have shaken the system through advocacy and forced open a space that sees meeting our needs as an integral part of the whole,” says Jean Augustine.

It seems only fitting to ask: What are the top five reasons why Augustine believes we, as Canadians, should recognize Black History Month, and why?

1. To differentiate our history from the U.S.

Canadians hear lot about U.S. military history, but few are aware that Blacks fought for Canada in wars, even forming their own regiments after being rejected from White ones. The first Canadian to be awarded the Victoria Cross was William Hall, a Black man from Nova Scotia.

Augustine is concerned that youth are more connected to the history of other countries than their own.

“I’ve noticed a trend within our community. I’ve attended many Black history functions in schools here where (everyone) on display was from the U.S. I’m pleased by (the growing celebration of) Black History Month in Canada, but am sometimes concerned by the focus on U.S. figures in history. We have much to celebrate here,” says Augustine, who still lives in Toronto, in the Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding she represented from 1993-2006.

2. To learn about Black advocacy.

Augustine proudly asserts that “we (Black Canadians) have shaken the system through advocacy and forced open a space that sees meeting our needs as an integral part of the whole.”

Now, larger questions of fundamental equality, once heavily shouldered by the Black community, are evident in more refined discussions that benefit us all — the recognition of Asian Heritage Month in 2001, for example.

3. “To remember the lessons of slavery, which existed in Canada as well.”

Before we were Canada, we were colonial Canada. It is little remembered (or grieved) that human beings were bought, sold and owned here. James McGill, founder of McGill University, for example, owned slaves.

Obscuring slavery’s indescribable cruelty and residual systemic effects only serves to inhibit faith placed in current edicts of national inclusion.

4. To know that ‘the story of us’ in Canada is not a new one.

“We’ve been here since 1604 with Mathieu De Costa,” she says, referring the first (recorded) free African to come to Canada. He served as a translator for Europeans and the First Nations of the Americas.

Black Canadians are part of the country’s very foundation, involved in building and preserving institutions. In 1878, Robert Sutherland, Queen’s University’s first Black graduate, donated his estate to the school, which rescued it from financial hardship and kept the University of Toronto from annexing the intuition entirely.

5. Black history is simply Canadian history.

“For I know of no other country,” explains Augustine, “where I could arrive as an immigrant, with 25 dollars and a suitcase, start as a domestic worker and make my way to the highest places of the land.”

From domestic worker in private service to stalwart in public service, and with quiet pride informing every step of that journey — that is so very Canadian.

Alyson Renaldo is an actor, writer and producer of film and theatre. She is also an English professor at Humber College.

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