Wazee is Swahili for wise old persons. Octogenarians Mairuth Sarsfield, Leonard Braithwaite and Arthur Downes are sage leaders who have created indelible footprints in Canada, their birth country. Last week, they were presented with Wazee awards that recognize their longstanding commitment to African-Canadians and to Canada.
The presentation took place at a reception that was part of the Northern Lights: African Canadian Stories exhibition that ended last Sunday at the Ontario Science Centre (OSC).
The OSC and Tourism Toronto collaborated to stage the three-week exhibition curated by historian Dr. Sheldon Taylor.
Born and raised in Montreal, Sarsfield worked as a journalist, research writer and television host and with the United Nations Environment program in Nairobi. The author of No Crystal Stair, which is a coming-of-age story set in the Little Burgundy district of Montreal in the 1940s, she’s currently completing another book – Who is Sylvia? – which sheds light on the early African-American Salt Spring Island settlers who British Guiana (now Guyana)-born Vancouver Island and British Columbia’s first governor James Douglas invited to migrate to Canada in 1858 to protect his colony from the American’s territorial imperative drive to own the Pacific Coast.
That was a period when the United States had divested California from the Republic of Mexico, legally swindled British Columbia out of the Columbia River delta and began to negotiate with Russia for Alaska.
Sarsfield, who resides in Nanaimo, B.C., said the Black American settlers contributed to the early construction in Victoria, cutting lumber, building houses, roads, shops, warehouses and pioneering agricultural farms to help feed the colony’s growing urban centers.
“Canada would not have been Canada from sea to sea to shining sea if it weren’t for our people,” said Sarsfield whose mother, the late Anne Packwood, was a teacher, community worker and founder of the Coloured Women’s Club in Montreal. “Our people are full of great stuff and we have come from a long line of people who never gave up.
“We, as authors, work hard and we do this because our work reinforces the truth which is here on the walls (of this exhibition) to see.”
Braithwaite grew up in Toronto at the height of the Depression era when life was extremely tough for most Canadians, particularly Blacks. Yet, he was able to graduate from Harbord Collegiate and serve both here and in England with the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) during World War II.
Discharged on his return home and transferred to the RCAF Reserves in 1946, Braithwaite enrolled at the University of Toronto where he obtained a Bachelor of Commerce degree in 1950. He also graduated from Harvard University with an MBA and from Osgoode Law School.
In those days, very few Black men and even fewer Black women matriculated from high school. That meant Blacks were very scarce on university campuses.
Braithwaite ushered in a new era in Canadian politics in 1963 when he won a provincial seat in Etobicoke and became the first Black elected to a Canadian parliament. He was victorious in two subsequent elections before being defeated in 1979. Later elected Controller for Etobicoke in municipal elections, the 86-year-old made history in 1999 by becoming the first Black to be elected to the powerful Law Society of Upper Canada’s governing council.
Downes, who was born and raised in Toronto, was appointed a Justice of the Peace in 1978. The holder of a Doctor of Letters from Mary Holmes College in Mississippi in 1981, he served as chair of the board of governors of Doctors Hospital, a director of the Ontario Hospital Association, Most Worshipful Grandmaster of the Prince Hall Grand Lodge Free Accepted Masons and Warden and Lay Delegate of the Anglican Synod.
He also acted as Senegal’s honorary Consul General for 16 years up until 2009.
Taylor said the award recipients and other Black Canadians blazed a trail, despite numerous challenges, for himself and other immigrants to follow.
“I came here nearly 40 years ago, so I am a beneficiary of a good education, clean water and many of the things relating to democratic ideals that those who were here before yearned for,” said Kittitian-born Taylor. “There were those who built bridges brick by brick but, unfortunately, with each succeeding generation, some have taken the building of those bridges for granted.
“There is a significant Black drop-out rate in our high school system. That could be any of us. We need to double our efforts. That is why this exhibition is so important because it highlights the type of education that someone like Thomas Massiah received and what he was able to do with it in spite of the fact that he was not welcomed when he attended McGill and he was often told that he would not be able to do much with his academic credentials.”
Born in the St. Henri district of Montreal, Massiah earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from Sir George Williams University (now Concordia) in 1947, a Masters degree in Organic Chemistry in 1956 from McGill University and his doctorate in 1962 from the University of Montreal. His sterling resume includes professional positions in chemistry at Ayerst Research Laboratories in Montreal and Canada Packers in Toronto.
In 1985, Massiah – who holds five scientific patents and is the author of Musings of A Native Son – developed a process for preparing the drug, Cotazym, which is used for treating cystic fibrosis.
A classmate of the late pianist Dr. Oscar Peterson, Massiah was founding president of the Montreal Negro Alumni Group in 1953.
Nearly 100,000 visitors viewed the exhibit that featured several distinguished African-Canadians, including George Carter who was the first Black Canadian to be appointed to the Ontario Court of Justice in 1976.
Actress and model Linda Carter presented an excerpt of a TV documentary, The Making of a Judge, which highlights her father’s accomplishments.