At this pivotal moment in the conversation around anti-Black racism in North America and beyond, Jean Augustine is reminded of the Sankofa — a bird associated with a west African proverb used to express the importance of reaching back for knowledge gained from the past.
“Whenever you see the Sankofa it’s with its head looking back, then forward to position,” said Augustine. “I use that analogy because I think in order for us to go forward into the future, like the Sankofa, we have to know the past, take information from the past and bring it to the present. That is what I’m hoping Black History Month would be, could be or should be.”
It’s been 25 years since the House of Commons officially recognized February as Black History Month in Canada, largely due to the efforts of Augustine — the first Black Canadian woman elected to Parliament. Augustine brought to Parliament the idea of Rosemary Sadlier, then president of the Ontario Black History Society, to recognize February as Black History Month nationwide (several provinces had done already done so, but these efforts were to bring this into national focus).
In the wake of the global reckoning on racism in 2020, Augustine considers the way forward as she reflects on a quarter century of progress and increasing recognition of the contributions and achievements of people of African ancestry.
“The discussion at 25 years has to be about where we are in today’s society,” she said. “The examination of what’s happening today from what we know about the past will give us the agenda for the future.”
That ties in nicely with the theme of this year’s celebration, “The Future is Now.”
Despite having a presence in Canada as early as 1603, until the passing of legislation in December 1995 to formally recognize Black History Month, the stories of Black Canadians had been widely left out of history books, their achievements largely unrecognized. While the accomplishment still marks one of the proudest moments of Augustine’s career, it is her hope that this pandemic would be used as a time of reflection to closely assess where we are in the movement towards a more equal society.
It is her dream that one day the conversations around Black history would be so normalized in our academic institutions, workplaces and spaces that future generations would only know a world where the stories of all people are recognized. She hopes that as a nation we would continue to work to ensure that the history of Black, Indigenous and other people of colour would not just be relegated to a month, a footnote or a sidebar in our history textbooks, but be included within the wider narrative of the building of Canadian society.
“Black history is for all of us as Canadians,” said the 83-year-old Augustine. “We can say the same thing about the history of Indigenous peoples. This month is a time to draw attention to the contributions of all the artists, writers, musicians and everything else, but the information shared should be carried through the entire year.”
Fighting for social justice has been a signature of Augustine’s work as an activist, educator and politician. She came to Canada from St. George, Grenada, in 1960 as part of the Canada-Caribbean Domestic Program. Augustine was struck by the injustices she witnessed upon arriving in Canada — housing discrimination, racial biases in the education system and lack of representation in media — and became a trailblazer for change. She traces her heart for service and desire for equity to the principles instilled in her through her staunch Catholic upbringing in Grenada.
“My faith has always been very front and centre of everything that I do,” said Augustine, the mother of two daughters and grandmother of two grandsons. “I grew up in the Legion of Mary and that’s where we did things like going to old age homes and reading for those individuals who had lost their vision. I learned very much, and my whole orientation (through my life’s work) has been around the teachings of the Church.”
Augustine would later attend teacher’s college and earn her master of education degree while working as an elementary school teacher with the Toronto Catholic District School Board, eventually being promoted to principal. After years of contributing to various social justice causes and involvement on various boards, she found her way into the political arena and was elected Liberal MP from 1993 to 2006. She also served as Minister of State for multiculturalism (and the status of women) from 2002 to 2004.
Arriving in Canada in her early 20s, Augustine had no idea she was heading down a path that would lead her to Parliament Hill. She did know, however, that she was meant to lay a model for others to follow and to mentor young people to reach their full potential and develop self-esteem.
“My prayer is always that ‘Thy will be done,’ ” said Augustine, who continues to work to improve the human condition through the Jean Augustine Centre for Young Women’s Empowerment. “I knew from very early on that mine was a life of service and that I would try to work at making society fairer, more just and more equitable.”