By RON FANFAIR
African-Canadians have had a long and distinguished presence in Montreal, yet their stories and accomplishments are hardly known or publicized.
Take the case of Dr. Thomas Massiah, who survived the Great Depression in Canada in the 1930s to graduate from Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry in 1947, a Masters in Organic Chemistry from McGill University in 1956 and a Doctorate in Organic Chemistry from the Universite de Montreal six years later. He did post-doctoral research work, primarily in the field of pharmaceuticals, for nearly two decades and was granted five patents.
Before he received his Doctorate, Massiah founded the Montreal Negro Alumni Group (MNAG) in 1953 and became its first president.
He explained how the group emerged when he addressed a Black History Month event organized by the Queen’s College of Guyana Alumni Association (Toronto) celebration last Sunday in Scarborough.
“At a faculty luncheon, I told one of my colleagues that I wanted to go to graduate school, but I did not have the funds and I was married,” recalled Massiah, who now lives in Toronto and was a high school classmate of the late, great pianist, Dr. Oscar Peterson. “He said he was married too and he had a six-year-old son. When I asked him how he was going to go to graduate school, he told me he got bursaries and fellowships. No one had told me that these things were available back then.
“There were a number of Blacks who graduated from university, but not one of them knew anything about graduate school. Our group was formed to encourage more Blacks to pursue post-secondary education and it provided tutorial help along with scholarships and bursaries.”
The group presented approximately $30,000 in academic awards in its 15-year existence.
Massiah, who left the organization in its third year because he felt it became elitist, said the racial prejudices that he and his family faced are still evident in Canada today.
“I would give Canada a “D” grade – and that’s not for distinction – in terms of race relations,” he said. “I am a realist. Some people cannot get their head around it. I did not encounter racism when I was at the University of Montreal, but I did encounter incredible naiveté. A White priest once asked me where I was born and when I told him Montreal, he said no, before that. Yes, there is still a great deal of race and prejudice. It is subtle in Canada, but it’s there and you might as well face it.”
Massiah authored Musings of a Native Son which reflects on his life struggles through public and high school through to his first degree and how he coped with the double edged difficulty of being Black and ambitious while persevering in a mostly unwelcoming White-dominated environment.
In Toronto, Massiah served as the National Black Coalition liaison with the Toronto Police Service in the 1970s in an attempt to improve relations between the community and the police and he also tutored mathematics to Black students enrolled in a Saturday morning program at Vaughan Road Collegiate.
Centennial College student, Danielle Singh, who was presented with a bursary at last Sunday’s event, was overwhelmed by Massiah’s achievements.
“When you look at what he’s done in spite of the barriers he’s faced, that’s a great story and I am so glad that I was present to hear it and actually meet Dr. Massiah,” she said. “In my eyes, he is certainly a great Canadian and someone I and other young people can look up to.”
Singh, who graduated from St. Joseph’s Morrow Park Catholic Secondary School and volunteers at St. Timothy’s Catholic Church, aspires to attend either York University or the University of Toronto to pursue family law after completing her certificate program.
The alumni group also presented awards to Syed Rayman (Service), Lionel Mann (Leadership), VIA Rail (Appreciation) and a Life Member Certificate to Lester Fernandes.
Established in 1844 as a boys’ grammar school, Queen’s College became co-educational in 1975.
The Toronto Alumni group has been in existence for 19 years.