Despite her enormous body of work in the arts and education in Canada over the last four decades, Amah Harris has somehow flown under the radar.
The Dominican-born Harris was a member of the Toronto Arts Against Apartheid Foundation that organized the Arts Against Apartheid Festival which brought Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the city in 1986. With Harry Belafonte as the honorary chair, the eight-day festival marked a pivotal point in Canada’s stand against apartheid.
Harris founded Theatre in the Rough, co-directed Black Theatre Canada – a public education touring company that delivered workshops in the Caribbean and toured Canada and South Africa — and wrote plays in the Kwakoo Anansi series using the traditional African character to educate and entertain.
As an anti-racist education advocate, Harris has led workshops aimed at overcoming the legacy of institutionalized racism in Canadian society. And as a trained teacher, she integrates elements of drama, education and culture into techniques for problem solving, teacher curriculum and building community within the classroom.
Harris was honoured with an Award of Merit at the 18th annual Rev. John Holland Memorial Awards banquet in Hamilton last Saturday night.
“Amah is a pioneer in the field of Black theatre in Canada,” said awards co-chair Evelyn Myrie. “She has made tremendous contributions to art and theatre both on the stage and behind the scenes.”
Harris dedicated the award to her parents for instilling a sense of responsibility to give back to her community.
“My mother was a Jamaican who married a Dominican and did a lot of work in our community when she came over to the Windward Islands,” she said. “She advocated for citizens affected by tuberculosis, leprosy and mental disorders and, along with my father, fought for a school to be built in our village. My dad used his own money to help build that school. Community service is ingrained in my family and when I came to Canada, I just continued with what I was accustomed to doing.”
Harris founded two theatre groups, presented a wide range of theatrical selections and facilitated training workshops before leaving Dominica in 1970 to study theatre at the Banff School of Fine Arts in Alberta. After completing theatre studies at the University of Windsor where she was on the Dean’s List, she returned to Dominica to join a new company, People’s Action Theatre.
A year later, Harris came back to Canada to pursue an education degree. For the past 14 years, she has taught theatre and science at Gordon A. Brown Middle School.
“The school has students from all parts of the world and I try to get them to understand who they are and what it means to be Canadian,” Harris said.
She plans to quit the classroom in the next year and return to full-time community work.
Over the past 18 years, a number of Hamiltonians and other Ontarians who have made significant contributions in the arts, business and community service and youth engagement have been recognized with Rev. John Holland Awards.
Born on Christmas Day 1882 to a runaway slave who came to Canada through the Underground Railroad in 1860, Holland was a railway porter for 33 years, the pastor at the historic Stewart Memorial Church and the first Black Canadian to be honoured for humanitarian service with Hamilton’s Citizen of the Year Award in 1953. He died a year later.
The Hamilton Black History Committee, which administers the awards, established a scholarship to honour the legacy of Nelson Mandela who died last December. The financial award honours young people who embrace human rights and social justice work.
McMaster University first-year social sciences student Michael Abraham was the recipient of the inaugural $1,000 award.
Born to Ethiopian parents in Nairobi where the family spent a decade before coming to Canada in 2003, Abraham volunteers at Hess Street Elementary School and uses contemporary dance to help young people overcome fear and personal challenges.
“To be the recipient of an award named to honour someone who has been a role model for so many including me is quite an honour,” he said. “I am so happy.”
Other youth achievement award winners were Kambrea Cumberbatch, Seynab Hassan, Hassan Ishaq, Anita McFarlane, Michael Jobity, Alexia Rookwood and Jackson Holland-Virgin.
A graduate of Sir Alan MacNab Secondary School, Cumberbatch is enrolled in Mohawk College’s protection security & investigation program. The Hamilton Youth Steel Orchestra member who maintained a 90 plus average in Grades nine and 10, aspires to become a police officer.
Cumberbatch is the second member in her family to be honoured at the awards ceremony. Her older brother Kemarr was recognized two years ago.
Fleeing Somalia with her mother 14 years ago, Hassan is a leader at Westdale Secondary School. She’s the vice-president of the Global Awareness Club and an active member of the Model United Nations and Student Bridging Borders organization.
“It’s rare to meet a high school student who is so mature, organized and results-oriented,” said her nominator. “Her demonstrated leadership and vision have made a positive impact on our community.”
The Grade 12 student, who has been accepted by three Canadian universities, plans to become an optometrist.
A respected leader in Hamilton’s Somali community, Ishaq is a second-year student in Mohawk College’s protection security & investigation program and a Hamilton Police volunteer.
He spent a year in Turkey before arriving in the steel city in 2007.
“The transition was difficult because I came from a war-torn country,” he said. “Canada has however provided me with an opportunity to fulfil my potential and I am grateful for that.”
McFarlane, 23, completed her final year at McMaster University on the Dean’s Honours List and is currently enrolled in the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education Master of Teaching program.
“I have always advocated for equality and equity rights among marginalized groups, especially within the realm of education,” she said. “Education is a powerful instrument that I have been privileged to take advantage of and it has sculpted my perspective of my existence in this world.”
Jobity is an accomplished pianist and jazz musician and president of the Cardinal Newman Secondary School athletics council while Rookwood has been on the Principal’s Honour Roll for the past three years at Orchard Park High School.
Holland-Virgin is the grandson of educator, journalist and public servant Nerene Virgin – Rev. Holland’s great niece – who was presented with the Business and Professional Achievement Award two years ago.
Fluent in French, Holland-Virgin also speaks Spanish and understands Italian, Korean and Mandarin. The Westdale Secondary School student is a member of the Hamilton Wentworth School Board’s Black History Month Committee, the city’s youth advisory committee and a Cable 14 volunteer cameraman and graphics producer.
“He is caring, bright, giving, intelligent and a dignified young man,” said his school’s principal, Virginia McCulloch.
Professional and Arts & Entertainment Awards were presented to speech language pathologist Beverly Bronte-Tinkew and singer/songwriter/actress/community activist Queen Cee respectively.
“For me, this award validates the work I have done in the community empowering girls and young women,” said Queen Cee.
This year’s Ally Award recipient was Millar Alexander, a local law firm established in 1962 by high school friends Lincoln Alexander, who died two years ago, and John Millar. After leaving their first jobs as lawyers, they recruited Japanese Canadian Yoshiharu Tokiwa and Aboriginal Peter Isaacs to form one of the first interracial law firms in Canada.
Millar’s sons – John and Colin – are the firm’s partners.
“This award is really dedicated to my father,” said Colin. “He taught us the importance of treating people based on their individual qualities and abilities, not religion, race or anything else that divides us from each other.”