Rising from humble beginnings in a small Caribbean village to become the first Black woman elected to the Canadian parliament in 1993 was a remarkable accomplishment for Jean Augustine.
The retired politician achieved another first last week by becoming the first Grenadian-born to be conferred with Canada’s highest national honour, the Order of Canada. She was among 57 Canadians named by Governor-General Michaëlle Jean to receive this country’s highest civilian award.
“I have received several honours and awards in my lifetime, but this is the crème de la crème of recognitions,” said Augustine, who a month ago was included among Canada’s Top 100 Most Powerful Women by the Women’s Executive Network. “The many years that I spent in politics and other spheres of community involvement and the issues I have dealt with have not been easy.
“When you are bestowed with the Order of Canada, it means that all the work that you have done to make a difference in society has not gone unnoticed. Being recognized for contributions to country and community is indeed a great feeling and a reward that means a lot to me and my family.”
Augustine worked as an elementary school principal with the Toronto board and served as chair of Metro Toronto Housing Authority before entering politics. She represented the Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding for four terms before resigning from federal politics five years ago to make way for current Liberal Party leader, Michael Ignatieff.
As the first Black woman appointed to Cabinet when she was named Secretary of State with responsibility for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, Augustine also filled the roles of Minister of State, Assistant Deputy Chair of Committees of the Whole and Special Adviser for Grenada. She was also Parliamentary Secretary to then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and she chaired the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Parliamentary Committee and served on the Parliamentary Sub-Committees on Human Rights, International Trade, Citizenship and Immigration.
Augustine was the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Parliamentarians on Population and Development and Chair of the National Liberal Women’s Caucus.
As a result of two motions Augustine initiated, February was declared nationally as Black History Month and the Famous Five Statue received a home on Parliament Hill, giving recognition to the contributions of women and Blacks in Canada
Three years ago, the University of the West Indies honoured Augustine with a Caribbean Luminary Award, recognizing her significant contributions to the Caribbean Diaspora.
In addition, she was also appointed Ontario’s first Fairness Commissioner to advocate for foreign- trained professionals and ensure the credentials of internationally-trained professionals are treated fairly.
The Jean Augustine Chair in Education in the New Urban Environment was launched in June 2008 at the Technology Enhanced Learning Building on York University’s Keele Campus.
The Chair will study social justice and equity issues in the urban environment that shape student academic success. It also aims to enrich research and academic activities involving urban communities in areas such as educational policy and practice. In addition, by preparing teachers to deal with urban educational challenges, the Chair will have an exponential impact on the future of education.
Augustine has made a special gift of historically significant items to York University including her parliamentary chair, robes and portrait from the House of Commons, photos, commemorative items and gifts.
She also donated a collection of papers documenting her time as an elected representative which will be archived in order to allow students and scholars access for research purposes.
A few years ago, Augustine established a scholarship at George Brown College to encourage and assist single mothers in their decision to undertake post-secondary education at the academic institution.
The former House of Commons Deputy Speaker holds honorary doctorates from the University of Toronto, McGill University and the University of Guelph-Humber.
Augustine, who served on the committee that helped organize the first Caribana celebration in 1967, is a founding member of the Grenada Association of Toronto.