Awards honour anti-racism activists



The J.S. Woodsworth awards were handed out at Queen’s Park in downtown Toronto recently. The awards honour individuals and organizations striving to eliminate racial discrimination.

The Ontario New Democratic Party (NDP) administers the awards which commemorate the United Nations International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination which is celebrated on March 21. On that day in 1960, a large crowd of Black South Africans assembled in front of the Sharpeville police station to protest the pass laws imposed by the apartheid government. The pass laws were statues requiring Blacks to carry a reference (pass) book with them when they traveled outside of their homes. The protest escalated into violence, resulting in the police killing 69 protestors – many of whom were shot in the back – and wounding 180 in what has come to be known as the Sharpeville Massacre.

This year’s J.S. Woodsworth award winners are the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) Ontario chapter and volunteer/historian, Wilma Morrison, who is an important part of the Niagara Falls community through her efforts to preserve Black history and secure recognition for the contributions of Blacks to the region’s development.

The octogenarian played a key role in helping to rescue the Nathaniel Dett Chapel built in 1836, saving it from destruction and having it officially designated as a national historic site in 2000. The chapel was named for the renowned musical composer and educator who was born in what was then known as Drummondville (now Niagara Falls) and played, among other places, Carnegie Hall, Boston Symphony Hall, the Library of Congress, the Philadelphia Academy of Music, and before U.S. presidents, Herbert Hoover and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

She also created the Norval Johnson Heritage library which, along with the chapel, are important tourist attractions. The library houses almost 1,000 volumes related to Black history and is a research centre for students and educators interested in African Canadian history or their own genealogical background.

CBTU’s first vice-president, Andrea McCormack, accepted the award on behalf of her organization which was nominated by Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Ontario executive assistant, Antoni Shelton.

“It’s truly an honour to be the recipient of such a prestigious award,” she said.

McCormack paid tribute to CBTU founding president, June Veecock, who won the individual award four years ago. Veecock served for 19 years as the Ontario Federation of Labour’s (OFL) Director of Human Rights.

The CBTU, which has over 50 chapters across the United States, granted a charter to Ontario at its 25th convention in Florida in 1995. Prior to that, a group of local Black trade unionists had been advocating for almost two decades within their unions and central labour bodies to position workplace and union racism and discrimination higher on labour’s agenda.

The local CBTU chapter, officially launched in November 1996, was instrumental in pushing for affirmative action seats for racial minorities on the Canadian Labour Congress and OFL boards.

Newly-elected provincial NDP leader, Andrea Horwath, noted that this year’s winners are part of a long tradition of individuals and organizations that have fought for racial equality and the right to live with respect and dignity.

“For too long, diversity has been treated as a threat rather than a gift and too often that perceived threat has been expressed in hatred and conflict, in exclusion, discrimination and intolerance,” she said. “No progress today, no sustainable development tomorrow, is achievable without the absolute elimination of racism and discrimination.

“We all make up one society and we are all citizens of the world. Diversity of race and culture cannot be allowed to become a menacing factor in society and development… When we work to combat racism, we are supporting social inclusion and justice for all.”

The awards honour the memory of J.S. Woodsworth who was a powerful advocate for Ontario’s working class in the early 1900s. In 1932, he created the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a political party that was the forerunner of the NDP.

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