Peel marks ‘Year for People of African Descent’



The tossing of a banana peel at a Black ice hockey player in London, Ontario last week is a reminder of the demanding journey and distance that people of African descent have travelled and the challenges they continue to face, says historian and curator Dr. Sheldon Taylor.

A spectator threw the banana peel at Scarborough-born Philadelphia Flyers forward Wayne Simmonds as he took part in a shootout to settle his team’s National Hockey League (NHL) pre-season game against the Detroit Red Wings.

“I don’t know if that individual has something against Black people or against a banana,” Taylor said in his keynote address at the United Way of Peel Region’s Black Community Advisory Council gala fundraiser last Saturday night at the Hilton Hotel in Mississauga. “I am still trying to figure that out.”

This is not the first time that a banana peel was thrown at a Black sportsman.

Nine years ago, one was flung near then Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Kevin Weekes as he was leaving the ice after a 2-1 loss in a playoff game in Montreal.

The racist act is more prevalent in European soccer.

Last June, a banana was hurled at former Brazilian star Roberto Carlos who plays for Anzhi Makhachkala in the Russian league. It was the second such taunt he has been subjected to this year.

In addition to raising funds for United Way programs in Peel, the gala celebrated the United Nations designating 2011 as The International Year for People of African Descent.

“To hear that the UN has determined that 2011 is all about us is quite something,” said Taylor who is a member of the Heritage Toronto Book Award jury. “I have reflected on this time and time again and I just wish that some of my mentors like the late Harry Gairey Snr. and Don Moore were still around because they would not be able to believe that in an international framework, not only is the UN saying (we) matter, but in the context of mattering, we understand because of the crystallization in terms of the United States with someone of African descent serving as president.

“We have always been masters of our own houses. That is what the United Nations is recognizing. As a matter of fact, were I part of that committee forging those words (about the declaration), I would have said ‘despite the odds against us, despite the challenges, despite the heartbreak, despite the fact that we have to turn our stumbling blocks into stepping stones, here is where we have come’. You can put us in any classroom in the world, but once we have opportunities and we don’t need a level playing because we have not had a level one to this point, we succeed.”

The gala’s theme, Unity in Diversity, caught Taylor’s attention.

“Speaking of diversity in Peel at one time was an oxymoron,” he said. “I make no apologies for that. We have travelled a significant distance over time and this is a historic moment.”

United Way of Peel region president and chief executive officer Shelley White said the UN declaration aligns with and complements her organization’s mission which is to engage with communities through partnerships to ensure all people are cared for, connected and included.

“Inclusion is one of our six values that guide our strategy and our work everyday and we are absolutely delighted to have the Black Advisory Council as part of our work to bring together like-minded community parties to ensure that the human rights of persons of African descent are promoted and protected,” she said. “We now have a strong united voice to develop programs, services and initiatives that will help our Black community thrive.”

Retried Teachers of Ontario executive director Harold Brathwaite who made history in 1994 by becoming the first Black director of a Canadian school board, and Shelley Challenger – the first Black female funeral home director in Canada – were among several prominent Peel citizens honoured at the event.

“This is the first time I have seen the Black community come together in Peel region to recognize people who live in this part of the world,” said Brathwaite who retired as Peel District School Board director of education in 2003 and has a Brampton school named after him.

“For me, this initiative is creating the opportunity for more members to know and recognize each other. There are groups that exist in Peel, but this organization will have a much broader impact than the smaller groups.”

Brathwaite has been a Mississauga resident since 1977.

Though born in Toronto, Challenger has spent most of her life in Peel. She switched careers after her father passed away.

“I was studying in Atlanta to be a medical doctor and when my dad died, I made the decision to become a certified funeral service practitioner,” she said. “This award means a lot because it’s recognizing my service to the community in that capacity over the past 12 years.”

African Community Service of Peel executive director Wambui Karanja, who did not attend the event, businessman Michael Steele, former Runnymede Health Care Centre staff development coordinator and Queen Street Mental Health Centre head nurse Madeline Edwards and comedian Jay Martin were also honoured.

“It’s so humbling to know the work you are doing is recognized by your peers,” said Martin. “I am elated and I feel very blessed.”

Longtime Mississauga Mayor Hazel McCallion congratulated the winners and acknowledged the advisory council for raising awareness on issues and challenges affecting Peel’s Black community.

“I have worked for years with the Congress of Black Women chapter here and I know the wonderful work they do in encouraging young people to get an education,” said McCallion. “I can appreciate what your organization is doing here and I am certain you will grow and raise funds for the many causes in this region.”

Sharon Douglas, the United Way of Peel region director of community investment, said money raised from the gala will go to the organization’s community fund for programs, service and initiatives to address social issues.

The gala was the brainchild of United Way of Peel community outreach coordinator Suelyn Knight.

Twins Kayla and Kaylie Allydice sang the national anthem while Juno-award winner Liberty Silver performed some of her top hits.

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