“As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs and International Trade committee, I was not only the messenger, but the message,” spoke Jean Augustine during the Women in Public Service Panel. The crowd erupted in cheers of support, but I remained silent, moved by the fortitude of her words and the grace of her mannerisms. I recalled the first time I had read about the Honourable Jean Augustine in eighth grade history; her photo had rested proudly on the “Important Canadians” section of my beaten-up textbook, and I could not help but feel inspiration race through me as I learned about her journey.
Unapologetic, outspoken, and resilient, Augustine fully embodied and defined the voice of Black-Canadians throughout her lifetime. As a young woman, Augustine’s accomplishments reaffirmed my passion for politics and moulded my sense of self. And there I was, not more than ten feet away from her at the International Women’s Empowerment and Leadership Gala. I was awestruck by this Black-Canadian woman that had played a pivotal role in shaping the Canadian political landscape.
Born in Happy Hill, Grenada, Jean Augustine was the first child of two sugarcane plantation workers. After learning about opportunities in Canada, Augustine applied for a nanny position through the West Indian Domestic Scheme, in which young women were given landed immigrant status in exchange for one year of domestic work. Eventually, Augustine earned her teaching degree, and quickly progressed the ranks from teacher to principal. She spent her years in the education sector, advocating on behalf of Women’s and Immigrant rights, and growing opportunities for Black youth that were otherwise non-existent. As the first Black woman in Parliament, Jean Augustine served as Chair of the National Liberal Women’s Caucus for three terms. She also served as the National President of the Congress of Black Women of Canada, and even holds an honorary doctorate of law from the University of Toronto.
Among her many accomplishments, Jean Augustine played a critical role in establishing Black History Month in Canada. Though individual communities had held their own Black History Month celebrations, no holidays existed federally. In 1993, the Black History Society successfully petitioned the Ontario government to declare a province-wide celebration. Augustine advocated to extend Black History Month federally.
During her years as a federal member of parliament, The Honourable Jean Augustine served as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister of Canada, Chair of the National Liberal Women’s Caucus, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, Chair of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Deputy Speaker. Augustine is not only a hero for her individual contributions to Canadian politics, but also for her dedication to ensuring that the achievements of other Black-Canadians are acknowledged.
As it stands, much of Black-Canadian history has been erased or forgotten. Black-Canadians helped to build the Halifax Citadel, a national historic site, and were directly responsible for the construction of the Government House. Black women, although denied participation in Canada’s war effort in WWI, formed the Black Cross Nurses (modeled after the Red Cross) to aid wounded soldiers. They also worked to provide medical aid to the Black community, offering first aid, nutrition, health care, and child care. Black individuals were successful merchants, pioneers, scientist, and engineers. Sadly, little of this information is taught in classrooms across the country, to the detriment of many young Black-Canadians.
Representation matters, and an absence of role models often discourages Black-Canadian youth from pursuing higher learning. As a result, Black-Canadians are less likely to succeed in academic settings, have higher rates of poverty, and are more likely to struggle with mental illness than their white counterparts. Representation, whether through television show characters or politicians, is necessary to uplift and empower a generation of young girls and boys. It motivates them to constantly strive for success. Personally, the Honorable Jean Augustine allowed me to discover my passion for policy, and unlocked a pathway for further advocacy. Through her powerful words, I was inspired to speak up on social issues within my microcosm and, as a result, am continuing the cycle of positivity and empowerment.
Far too often, Black-Canadian history is regarded as the bleak, harsh tale of a disenfranchised population. This perception, though common, is grossly untrue. Black-Canadian history is rich, complex, and one of extreme fortitude. Our identity is a badge of resilience and one we must persistently wear proudly. Only through this can all youth truly honor the contributions of those before us, and be inspired to make contributions for years to come.