A grand celebration of a special community elder


Goo nite aye, goo nite O!

Awe come fuh tell you

Goo nite aye!

The words of this well known Guyanese kwe kwe song and many others rang out on Monday, May 23 as a group of mostly Guyanese living in Canada and the USA celebrated the life and achievements of Muriel Collins whose name adorns a downtown Toronto Housing Co-op.

The Muriel Collins Housing Co-op which was established in May 1995 is named in honour of this amazing African Guyanese woman who worked for the City of Toronto for more than 33 years before retiring in 1998. Although it was mostly a Guyanese musical celebration, there was representation from Africa, Asia, several Caribbean islands and Europe. Collins had been an activist in the labour movement and several of her union brothers and sisters came out to pay tribute to her many decades of activism.

Collins, who was born on May 19, 1933 in Georgetown, Guyana’s capital city into a family of 10 children, immigrated to Canada in 1963. She arrived at Pearson International airport on May 16, 1963 with her two small children and eventually gave birth to twin boys in Canada bringing her family to four children who she successfully raised as a sole support parent.

Working in several Homes for the Aged (including Fudger House and Kipling Acres) for more than 33 years while raising her family she also found the time to be active in the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) Local 79, CUPE Ontario and CUPE National. She was a founding member of the CUPE Rainbow Committee (which represents racialized workers) at CUPE National. Collins also chaired the CUPE National Task Force on Women and was a member of the CUPE National Executive Board (NEB) representing southern Ontario. As a member of the CUPE Ontario Executive Board she spent many years working on equity issues and contributed profoundly to improving the lives of CUPE members and all working people. These were extraordinary achievements for any racialized person but especially so for an African woman during that time.

In 1989 Collins was honoured with a YWCA Women of Distinction Award for her activism and advocacy in the labour movement.

On September 1, 1992 when making a deputation at Queens Park to the Standing Committee on Resources Development “on behalf of 410,000 workers from coast to coast in the public sector and approximately 220,000 women in public services” Collins included an example of the struggle of those days: Looking back to 1983 and that organizing drive, I believe I can speak for those workers when I say all the headaches, all the intimidation and disruptions in their lives were worth it, because we were able to improve the quality of life for 900 working women and men.

Collins was named to the Ontario Federation of Labour‘s (OFL) 1999 Honour Roll and an OFL scholarship was awarded in her name. The scholarships are awarded each year to children of unionists who are starting their first year of college or university.

So on May 23 when we gathered to celebrate the life achievements of this stalwart of the labour movement whose life exemplified the philosophies of the mighty Pan-African leader, the Honourable Marcus Mosiah Garvey and the fighting spirit of the freedom fighter with whom she shares her birth date (El Hajj Malik El Shabazz), it was to the sounds of African drums. The drummers, Shurwayne Charles accompanied by his daughters Whitney and Kimberly, Nzingha Saul, Debbie Johnson and Ian McCrae, Rennie Herry, Amma Ofori of Drum Theatre Togetherness, made the drums sing and talk. The drummers swayed, their hands a blur as transported all in attendance – especially the dancers – out of Toronto, back to Guyana and, eventually, to the African continent. To the accompaniment of the African drums we whirled around the floor in our brightly coloured clothes, celebrating the season (spring) the culture (African) and the woman of the day. Children, youth, elders were all up and dancing to the infectious rhythm of the drums. At least one person appeared to “ketch de spirit” and had to rest for a while but was soon back on the floor whirling with the rest of us. Rhythmic clapping, stamping of feet and dancing accompanied the drummers as we celebrated and rejoiced as a community the achievements and the life of one of our elders. The infectious rhythm of the djembe, dun dun and kinkadee drums even had Collins circling the floor with us.

Since many of those in attendance at the celebration were Guyanese or the children and grandchildren of Guyanese most of the songs were familiar and the words well known including: Anyway Sancho want am, anyway, anyway, anyway. Jane engage an she tink nobady like she. Nation a whey yuh nation? Mawnin naybah mawnin. Nah wake meh fohday mawnin. Timbah bruk ah meh back Etimiah. Dimodee O Dimodee la. 
Even though most of the songs were Guyanese folk songs we were blessed with songs in several African languages including Lingala from the Congo (Central Africa), Twi from Ghana (West Africa) and Kiswahili from East Africa. As the celebration happened about a week away from the month of June (Black Music Month) the celebration was also an awesome kick-off to Black Music Month. For more about the celebration of Black Music Month make sure to listen on Tuesdays 7:00 to 7:30 p.m. at www.ckln.fm throughout the month of June. To experience the beauty and power of drumming (www.muhtadidrumfest.com) visit the 12th annual Muhtadi International Drumming Festival at Queens Park, June 4th and 5th. 

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