It certainly didn’t take long for Gemma Raeburn-Baynes to integrate into her new environment.
Just weeks after migrating to Montreal from Grenada, the teenager started the first youth choir at St. Francis Church where her mother played the organ.
Last Saturday, the “Energizer Bunny”, as her only child, Kevin Baynes, refers to his mom, celebrated 50 years of community service with about 200 family members and friends at a gala reception. The guests included Grenadian Prime Minister Dr. Keith Mitchell, Ontario’s Fairness Commissioner Jean Augustine, 1978 Montreal Carnival Queen Sophia Walcott and Mary Deros who is the associate adviser to Montreal Mayor Denis Coderre.
Raeburn-Baynes helped start Montreal’s Caribbean Carnival and founded the Play Mas Cultural Association that raises funds for sickle cell, the now defunct Miss Black Quebec pageant and Montreal Ebony Models, the city’s first Black modeling agency that generated nearly $1.5 million in a 27-year span through fashion shows.
“Of all the events I have been involved in in five decades, my work with the modelling agency stands out as a highlight because it helped young people gain confidence and discover the elegance in themselves in addition to raising their self-esteem and money for charity,” she said.
The 2011 recipient of the Grenada Toronto Association Consul General Award and the Sheila & Victor Goldbloom Distinguished Community Service Award, the Bank of Montreal Financial Group’s senior auditor and McGill University graduate initiated the Trans Canadian Possibilities Internship Scholarship for visible minority and aboriginal youth and young people with disabilities.
Raeburn-Baynes, who has had three congestive heart failures and has been on long-term disability since 2002, remains active despite health challenges. She’s very involved in The Taste of the Caribbean festival she started 15 years ago that showcases the Caribbean’s rich culture, craft and tasty culinary delights and is in the process of organizing a Caribbean Fashion Week event in Montreal in September.
Six years ago, the Human Rights Commission ordered the Montreal Police to pay the Dollard-des-Ormeaux resident $20,000 for racial discrimination. The commission ruled that police officers made racist remarks in a 2004 incident in which they drew guns on Raeburn-Baynes and two Grenadian-born friends who were helping to clear out her garage. A neighbour called 911 after spotting the trio, believing a robbery was in progress. Police arrived with guns drawn and when Raeburn-Baynes protested, an officer replied that “bullets don’t see colour”. Another officer told one of the men that if he didn’t like it here, he should go back to his own country.
The city settled with the plaintiffs.