Just over five decades ago while working part-time as a janitor at Northern Secondary School, Gordon Cressy was attracted to an advertisement in the building that read, “Plenty of work and No pay in the Caribbean.”
Canadian University Services Overseas (CUSO), a new volunteer movement founded at McGill University in 1961, was seeking volunteers for placements around the world, including the Caribbean.
Cressy was among 15 young Canadians who applied to go to Trinidad & Tobago in 1963.
“Austin Clarke was doing the orientation and he looked at each one of us and asked, ‘Why are you going?’” said Cressy. “I was just 19 at the time and I told him I wanted to help the people. Austin looked at me and said, ‘If that’s all you are going to do, don’t go. But, if you are going to listen and learn, then you might be able to help the people’.
“At that stage in my life, I didn’t meet anybody who was not White and going to T & T seemed like a grand adventure. Little did I know it was going to be a life-changing experience for me and that Austin’s advice would be the best I have ever received. Over the last 50 years, I have been listening and learning.”
The recipient of the African-Canadian Achievement Founder’s Award of Distinction last Saturday night, Cressy thanked several prominent Black Canadians – alive and deceased – who have helped him listen and learn over the years.
“These people are my teachers and I am the better for it,” the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund co-founder and Learning Partnership founding chief executive officer said. “They have had an impact on my life.”
Three hours after accepting his award, Cressy and his wife Joanne Campbell hopped on a plane for T & T which is their second home. They resided in the twin-island republic for four years up until 2011 and now visit at least four times annually.
As a CUSO student volunteer, Cressy was instrumental in launching the first YMCA pool in Trinidad. Six years ago after completing several decades of public and community service in the city, the couple went to Tobago and oversaw the construction of an eight-lane, 25-metre pool complex on three acres of prime land outside Black Rock donated by the Tobago House of Assembly.
Cressy, president of the George Brown College Foundation, and Campbell are spearheading the building of a YMCA in Tobago.
This year’s African-Canadian Achievement Award honorees included Sheila White who comes from a family with a rich legacy.
Her father, Bill White, was the first Black Canadian to run for federal office as a candidate for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (the forerunner to the New Democratic Party). He ran in Spadina in the 1949 elections. Her grandfather, William White, was the first Black officer in British North America.
White’s aunt – Portia White – was considered one of Canada’s greatest vocalists.
“I think about my ancestors all the time because they traversed a much more difficult terrain than I ever had to,” said White whose cousins include retired Senator Donald Oliver and poet/educator Dr. George Elliott Clarke. “It’s always an inspiration for me to realize they carved a path so that I could be able to do what I want to do. Back in their time, they didn’t have that luxury. Every step for them was a battle.”
White, who was recognized for excellence in politics, was a political candidate in five elections between 1999 and 2007 in Scarborough.
The president of WORDS Media & Communications, White is also a litter prevention advocate.
Also recognized with awards were Reverend Peter Fenty who last year became the Anglican Church of Canada’s first Black Bishop; Ryerson University Director of Athletics and men’s soccer coach Dr. Ivan Joseph; Justice Kofi Barnes; raconteur and businesswoman Itah Sadu; Barbados Ball Canada Aid president Steve Kirton; Toronto International Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey; educator Dr. Elizabeth Sinclair-Artwell; Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) Radio program development manager Nicholas Davis; health care professional Camille Orridge; neuroscientist Dr. Patrice Smith; author and York University psychology graduate Yahaya Baruwa and meteorologist and storyteller Dr. George Blake who received the Lifetime Achievement Award.
John and Avril Mills were presented with the Matilda Van Cooten Award for Excellence in Parenting.