What will it take for our collective Afro-Canadian family to unite, rise up and claim our rightful place in Canadian society?
Senator Donald Oliver posed the question last Saturday night in his keynote address at the 29th annual Harry Jerome awards that celebrate excellence in Canada’s Black community.
Considered an expert in corporate governance, Oliver noted that members of the Black community – one of the largest minority groups in Canada – still experience difficulty in acquiring quality jobs and promotions and Black motorists are more likely to get pulled over by the police.
“We remain woefully under-represented in the corner offices of Canadian companies,” said Oliver who recently raised $500,000 to lead the first ever national study in Canada that proves the business case for diversity. “There are not enough Black leaders in our colleges and universities and we have lost ground in the last two decades on the political front too. Afro-Canadians are barely represented in the federal, provincial and municipal governments.”
“Why is it taking so long for Afro-Canadians to gain the full recognition that we so richly deserve? What has been holding us back?
Oliver listed three things he claims are impeding the progress of Blacks.
“Our contributions to Canadian society remain virtually unknown; we don’t seem to believe enough in our ability to shake up the status quo and old and tired stereotypes about our capabilities and aspirations remain,” he said.
“As long as they (stereotypes) exist, we will never be free and truly equal…We have got to get Canadians to think that we are Black people of today and not Black stereotypes of yesterday…My message tonight is although we have come very far, we still have a long way to go.”
Oliver added the day has come for the community to work together and celebrate each other’s accomplishments like those of Harry Jerome who passed away just days before being invited to deliver the keynote address to celebrate the 1982 Brisbane Commonwealth Games record performances of a new breed of Caribbean-born athletes who left an indelible mark on the sport in Canada.
The late track star, who in the summer of 1962 ran the 100 yards in 9.2 seconds to equal the world record set by Bob Hayes and Frank Rudd earlier that year, is a “Person of National Historical Significance” in Canada.
Jerome equaled Percy Williams’ national high school record with a 10-second run in the 100-yard dash in March 1959, won gold medals in the 100-metre sprint at the 1966 Commonwealth and 1967 Pan American Games, set seven world records, defended his national 100-metre sprint title in his last official race in August 1969 and established the parameters for the creation of the federal Ministry of Sport before succumbing to a brain aneurysm at age 42 in December 1982.
“He fought the same prejudices each of us has confronted in the path of our lives and with faith, perseverance, ambition and drive, he succeeded and we can too as soon as we embrace our own heritage, our real potential today and our hope for the future,” said Oliver.
Former Progressive Conservative Party of Canada leader John Tory, who was recognized with the first ever Diversity award, was among 16 Harry Jerome award recipients.
Federal Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism, Jason Kenney, said this year’s award winners are tremendous examples for young people while Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty applauded the recipients for striving for excellence, for persevering and for serving others like Jerome did.
“In the life, service and the memory of Harry Jerome, Ontarians have inherited a great and shining example,” said McGuinty. “Tonight’s award winners, like those before them, inspire us. Most importantly, they encourage us, they urge young people to stand up, to hold their heads high, reach high and they demand excellence of themselves in whatever they do.”
Provincial ministers Margarett Best and Dr. Eric Hoskins also attended the awards gala. Hoskins, the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, presented his ministry-sponsored Media award to Planet Africa magazine founder and Afroglobal TV chief executive officer, Moses Mawa.
Other winners were retired social worker/therapist Ileen Howell (community service); 2007 University of Toronto Economics graduate Isaac Olowolafe who created the university’s largest endowment fund for students in the African Studies program, pledging $25,000 last year to set it up (business); University of Albert professor emeritus Dr. John Akabutu who established the Alberta Cord Blood Bank that remains Canada’s only public cord blood bank outside of Quebec, with samples of stem cell blood from umbilical cords frozen in large tanks of liquid nitrogen (technology & innovation); Hospital for Sick Children Division of Infectious Diseases chief Dr. Upton Allen (health science); Canadian Armed Forces chief warrant officer Kevin Junor (professional excellence); music teacher and percussionist Muhtadi Thomas (entertainment) and award-winning author Kayla Perrin (arts).
Canada’s first Black female mayor, Dr. Daurene Lewis and Ryerson University chancellor and philanthropist Dr. Raymond Chang, were recognized with Trailblazer and President’s awards respectively while retired trade unionist and human rights activist, Bromley Armstrong, who migrated to Canada from Jamaica in 1947, was honoured with a Lifetime Achievement award.
This year’s youth winners are University of Toronto Master of Science graduate Michelle McFarlane (academics), Jade’s Hip Hop Academy founder Jade Jager-Clark (young entrepreneur), University of Western Ontario freshman LaShawn Murray who co-founded the Invisible Children Book Drive that collected over 39,000 books to support literacy programs for children in Uganda and organized an AIDS run that raised $10,000 for the Stephen Lewis Foundation (leadership) and Manitoba high school basketball player and volunteer Kenecia Pingue-Giles (athletics).
Since its inception in 1983, a total of 320 Harry Jerome awards have been presented for excellence in a number of fields.