It is the premier African-Canadian Achievement Awards gala in the Golden Horseshoe.
Over the past 16 years, a number of Hamiltonians and other Ontarians who have made significant contributions in the areas of art, business, 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 which was founded by fugitive slaves and free men 177 years ago, 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.
Last Saturday night, recipients proudly accepted their Holland Awards, but none was more proud than educator, journalist and public servant, Nerene Virgin, who was presented with the Business and Professional Achievement Award.
She is Holland’s great niece.
“There is both a sense of pride and relevance for me,” said Virgin, the fourth generation in her family to call Hamilton home. “My great grandfather fled slavery in Maryland as a teenager and swam across the Niagara River to his freedom. If he was willing to do that to be free, I have an obligation to do something with that freedom.
“Receiving an award is gratifying, but what is more important for me is honouring my ancestry. I feel as if I am part of a dynasty that has instilled in me the importance of freedom and literacy because my great grandfather could not read or write.”
In the aftermath of Virgin’s acclamation as the Ontario Liberal Party candidate in Hamilton East-Stoney Creek in the 2007 provincial elections, she was racially slurred by a Hamilton newspaper that described her as a “tar baby”. The paper later apologized.
Hate crimes in Hamilton have surged by nearly 50 per cent in the past year and the most frequent targets of hate-related incidents are members of the city’s Black community.
“That will only change when our importance and our contributions are shared with others,” said Virgin, a Hamilton Committee Against Racism member and the daughter of retired Canadian citizenship court judge and labour union activist, Stanley Grizzle. “Our stories need to be incorporated into the everyday curriculum of our schools instead of being told just once a year during Black History Month.”
A former elementary and special education teacher, Virgin provided Canadian families with an alternative to American children educational programming with her role as Jodie on the award-winning TV Ontario show, Today’s Special. The cast included National Ballet of Canada’s artistic director, Karen Kain.
“When I joined the cast, I was aware of Nerene’s considerable talents as a performer,” said the retired ballerina who supported Virgin’s nomination for the award. “But what impressed me the most about her was her ability to hold her own dancing with a professional of the calibre of her co-star Jeff Hyslop who is internationally respected.”
Canadian actress Sarah Polley credits Virgin with her development.
“She took endless amounts of time with me to nurture my curiosity and to answer all my questions about how she used her voice and movement to create a timeless character,” said Polley. “It was my first experience with the idea of ‘technique’ and I will always remember the way she inspired me and her generosity of spirit in taking such time with me as a child.”
Virgin spent almost two decades with CBC TV before leaving to secure English as a Second Language certification and teach in Mongolia.
CBC producer David Burt said Virgin’s professionalism impressed him.
“Twenty-four hour network news is fast moving business,” he said. “I never saw her crumble under pressure, flub a line or raise her voice against another employee. She was never late, never angry, and never moody. She’s among the most professional TV news anchors with whom I have had the pleasure to work.
“Over the course of her career, Nerene has generously mentored up-and-coming journalists and has been an exceptional role model, personifying what attention to task and professionalism means. She is an inspiration to many and an extraordinary example of what can be achieved.”
American-born musician John Ellison, who received his Canadian citizenship six years ago and is best known for writing Some Kind of Wonderful, was the recipient of the Arts Award while fifth generation Canadian Dennis Scott was presented with the Community Service Award.
“Hopefully, this award will motivate others to volunteer and participate in their communities,” said Scott, the ex-chair of the Owen Sound Emancipation Festival which celebrates its 150th anniversary this year.
Award-winning author Lawrence Hill was the recipient of the Award of Merit and 85-year-old Rev. Dr. Francis Chisholm, a friend ofHamilton’s Black community, was presented with the inaugural Ally Award.
Youth Achievement Awards were presented to five high school and post-secondary students for academic excellence and community service.
The recipients, each of whom received $1,000, were Tiana Traficante, Kristian Ferreira, Dejehan Hamilton, Kemarr Cumberbatch and Yolanda Ajak.
Traficante is a Grade 12 student at Bishop Ryan Catholic Secondary School and an aspiring musician; 18-year-old Hamilton is enrolled in Mohawk College’s music program and Cumberbatch intends to become a police officer.
Ferreira is studying Psychology at McMaster University and Ajak, who migrated from Sudan 15 years ago, is enrolled at Trent University.
Jamaican-born Evelyn Myrie, who was inducted into the Hamilton Gallery of Distinction last November, co-founded the Holland Awards.
“The idea was conceived in my living room 16 years ago in response to the City of Hamilton’s request for our community to organize an event to mark the city’s 150th anniversary,” said Myrie.
Tributes were paid to Awards co-founder Vince Morgan who passed away four months ago. Arriving from England in 1964, he also served as chair of the Stewart Memorial Church’s board of trustees and as Worshipful Master of Mount Olive Lodge #1.
“Vince was a dedicated community leader who served us well,” said Myrie. “He’s sadly missed, but not forgotten.”
Previous Holland Award winners include entrepreneur Michael Lee-Chin, Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament Lincoln Alexander, Toronto District School Board director of education Dr. Chris Spence, late Olympian Ray Lewis, who won a bronze medal in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics 4 x 400-metre relay event and Jamaican-born Canadian soldier Mark Graham who was killed in Afghanistan six years ago.
By RON FANFAIR