Sharing knowledge about Canada’s rich cultural history that also includes the significant achievements of Black Canadians is essential for newcomers who Ontario welcomes with open arms.
It’s in that context that Blaine Courtney accepted the province’s Newcomer Champion Award which was presented last week.
Created seven years ago, the award recognizes individuals and groups who have made a difference in their community and Ontario through active citizenship and engagement.
Courtney chairs the Owen Sound Emancipation Festival which is the longest continuous running event of its kind in North America. Descendants of former slaves who found freedom in Owen Sound, which was the most northern terminus of the Underground Railroad, have been staging the emancipation festival every August 1 since 1862.
Born and raised in Owen Sound, Courtney’s great grandfather was a runaway slave from the Courtney plantation in the Carolinas and his father – Frank, who died in 2007 – was painter and self-educated community worker.
“I am standing on the shoulders of my ancestors, including my father who taught me that community is important,” said Courtney who was inducted into the Owen Sound Sport Hall of Fame this year. “I am proud of the legacy they left me.”
In his three years as chair, Courtney has helped return the festival to financial stability, expand its programs and increase its profile across the country.
Starting with a speaker’s forum and emancipation art show, the weekend festival also features the “ancestors” breakfast and picnic at Harrison Park which is home to the Black History Cairn built a decade ago to honour the city’s first Black settlers.
The town crier usually rings in the festival with a tribute to John “Daddy” Hall who was sold into slavery during the War of 1812. Escaping with his wife and settling in Owen Sound where he was the town’s crier for almost 50 years, Hall died in 1900 at age 117.
Individuals and organizations are honoured with Newcomer Champion Awards for celebrating inclusion and diversity, integrating immigrants and promoting cultural heritage.
Michael Chan, the province’s Minister of Citizenship, Immigration & International Trade, presented the awards.
“Ontario’s recognition as a caring place to live and work is due to the marvellous efforts of people and organizations such as our newcomer champions,” he said. “We truly appreciate their dedication and commitment.”
Giving freely comes naturally for Waterloo resident Narine Dat Sookram who was recognized for promoting cultural heritage.
In primary school in Guyana where he was born and raised before migrating to Canada in 1993, Sookram mobilized young people to volunteer at a rural community temple he attended.
As a high schooler, he volunteered as an assistant priest leading religious services, provided his peers with drinking water at school and established a youth group to enable the members to learn, grow and support their community.
Sookram’s obsession with volunteering continued in his adopted homeland.
The Mohawk College graduate founded the Active Vision Charity Association to promote Indo-Caribbean culture in Canada and help newcomers assimilate into a new society. For nearly two decades, the organization has helped immigrants shape their resumes and cover letters and offered job hunting advice. It also provides driving lessons and tips on how to apply for a driver’s license and Sookram can always be counted on to offer transportation to seniors and other area residents who don’t have access to vehicles.
Sookram also hosts a weekly community radio show, Caribbean Spice, on Sound 100.3 FM Radio to promote West Indian music, produces the annual Caribbean Dreams concert for young upcoming artists to showcase their talent and mentors immigrant women to become successful independent entrepreneurs.
Named one of Canada’s Top 25 Immigrants last year, Sookram is the recipient of several community honours, including the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award, the June Callwood Outstanding Achievement Award for Voluntarism, the Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Medal and the Alliance of Guyanese Community Organizations
Other award recipients included Orchard Park Secondary School graduate Alexia Rookwood who wrote and narrated a play, Road to Freedom, that was performed during last month’s Black History Month celebrations, Whitby’s ethno-cultural and diversity advisory committee which has had a profound impact on the community by breaking down barriers and promoting diversity and inclusion and Carrefour Adult School of Eastern Ontario’s Public School Board which promotes diversity awareness in Ottawa schools.