Omolara Bakare
Omolara Bakare

Excellence recognized at Viola Desmond Day celebration

By Admin Wednesday March 11 2015 in News
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You are never too old to go back to school.


Nearly seven years ago after the birth of her son, Omolara Bakare was faced with two choices. She could either continue working as a Loblaw’s customer service representative or return to school and complete post-secondary education.


Dwindling financial resources had forced the single mother to drop out of Humber College’s general arts program and seek full-time employment.


“I wanted to be the kind of mom that my son would look up to and be proud of,” said Bakare, who graduated from Bathurst Heights Collegiate Institute and was raised in one of the city’s designated priority neighbourhoods. “The comfort level with my job before he was born no longer existed as I felt compelled to do more for him and myself. Just making a living was not enough. The bar raised and I was willing to do whatever was necessary to jump over the hurdles in front of me.”


Bakare enrolled in Ryerson’s Spanning the Gaps-Access to Post-Secondary Education program that provides additional support for students seeking higher education. Once admitted to the downtown university’s social work program four years ago, the mature student applied for every bursary and scholarship available, including the Viola Desmond Bursary, which she received last week at Ryerson’s seventh annual Viola Desmond Memorial Awards ceremony.


Winning this bursary caught her by surprise.


“I didn’t realize that it was just one bursary that was offered annually,” she said. “I thought it was about six or seven, so after I sent in the application and then read the criteria properly, I figured I had wasted my time. When I got an e-mail informing me I was this year’s recipient, I was shocked. In fact, I am still rejoicing.”


After graduating this year with her undergraduate degree, the aspiring Children’s Aid Society worker plans to take a year off from school and gain some work experience before pursuing a Master’s degree.


Since 2010, a Viola Desmond bursary has been offered to both a Ryerson and a high school student.


Kia Cummings, a student at Linden School – an all-girls independent education institution in the city – was unable to attend the event. Ryerson alumni, Marsha Brown, accepted the award for her daughter, who was on a Grade 12 service trip to Cuba.


This year is the 50th anniversary of Desmond’s death and 2016 will mark 70years since the Halifax beauty shop owner refused to sit in a New Glasgow theatre balcony section designated for Blacks. Instead, she sat on the ground floor reserved for White patrons. She had gone to the Roseland theatre to pass time while her car was being repaired.


After being forcibly removed from the theatre and arrested, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket and fined $20 and $6 in theatre court costs.


When efforts to overturn the conviction at higher levels of court failed, Desmond closed the business, moved to Montreal and enrolled in a business college. She eventually settled in New York, where she died in 1965 at age 51.


Five years ago, the Nova Scotia government officially apologized and pardoned Desmond.


To mark the annual Viola Desmond Day celebration, female Ryerson staff and students are recognized with awards named after Black women who have made significant contributions in Canada and globally.


Juannittah Kamera, the university’s health promotion programs co-ordinator, was the recipient of the Dr. Pearleen Oliver Memorial Award.


“While I don’t do this work for awards and accolades, I am touched that someone thinks I am deserving of this recognition,” said Zimbabwe-born Kamera, who spent a few months in England before migrating to Canada in 2001.


Graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree six years ago, she worked in primary health care before attaining her Master’s in 2011 from Brunel University in England. In her current role at Ryerson, Kamera serves as a consultant and subject matter expert to the university community by providing current and relevant information for program planning and decision making, builds student capacity in health and well-being and creates opportunities for community members to develop and engage in healthy behaviours.


The first Black graduate of Nova Scotia’s New Glasgow High School, Oliver – the sister-in-law of retired Canadian senator, Donald Oliver – advocated for Black women to be admitted to Canadian nursing schools and, with her husband, Reverend Dr. William Oliver, co-founded the Nova Scotia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People.


The community leader and human rights activist died in Halifax seven years ago.


Academic and community organizer, I. Abdillahi, was presented with the Dr. Rosemary Brown Memorial Award.


“For me, this award is certainly a marker of understanding the many Black women that came before me, particularly in my department in the School of Social Work,” said the instructor, who is a PhD candidate in policy studies. “By having discussions around anti-Black racism and racism which are real, live and important, I think that’s really meaningful for me to work in a space where those discussions are welcomed and not shunned. While this award is a great honour, it says I have a lot more work to do in terms of advancing the work of Black women in the institution.”


Abdillahi, who teaches a variety of theory and practice courses, is the board chair of a community-based mental health organization.


The holder of 15 honorary degrees, Brown was the first Black woman elected to a Canadian legislature. She passed away 12 years ago.


Fourth-year law and business student, Oluwatobi Taiwo, was excited to be receiving an award in Lillie Johnson’s name.


The first Black director of public health for Leeds, Grenville & Lanark District, Johnson’s sustained passion as a sickle cell advocate resulted in the province’s Ministry of Health and Long Term Care, including sickle cell disease on the list of 28 genetic diseases for universal newborn screening in 2005.


“I have a few nephews with the disease, so I am aware of the significance of her work and what it means,” said Taiwo, who is an active member of several Ryerson organizations, including the Law & Business Student Association, the Global Management Group and the Model United Nations.


Taiwo, who graduates this year, has applied to five provincial law schools.


Trained as a health care professional in her native Jamaica and Scotland, Johnson founded the Sickle Cell Association of Ontario (SCAO) in 1981, initially conducting its work from her home. For the past three decades, the nonagenarian has dedicated most of her life to the education of “sicklers” and their families, health practitioners, policy makers, educators and government about the symptoms and implications of the hereditary disorder that affects mostly people of colour.


Johnson came to Canada in 1960 to work for the Canadian Red Cross, which was looking for nurses for Ontario outposts. She was assigned to Red Lake which is nearly 100 kilometres from the Manitoba border. On arriving in Toronto, she was able to exchange that posting for one at St. Joseph’s Hospital.


She spent time at The Hospital for Sick Children, where she pursued pediatric studies for her provincial registered nurses accreditation and also took a summer course in genetics that exposed her to sickle cell disease and its effects.


After retiring in 1988, she volunteered with Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO) in Jamaica, providing treatment and health information to residents in poor and disadvantaged communities. She later served on the CUSO advisory committee when she came back to Canada.


Former Ryerson vice-president Julia Hanigsberg, who joined Holland Bloorview last January as president and chief executive officer, was presented with an honorary Viola Desmond Award.



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