For years, John Dennison almost single-handedly organized Black History Month events in Ottawa.
In the summer of 2012, he made history becoming the city’s first Black Citizenship Court judge after working for nearly 25 years on multicultural issues with the federal government.
A few months into his new role, Dennison was diagnosed with cancer which claimed his life a week ago.
A celebration of the life of the 66-year-old trailblazer and community worker took place last Sunday.
In addition to raising the profile of Black History Month in the nation’s capital, Dennison tirelessly promoted diversity in the arts through his leadership of Cathedral Arts, the performing and visual arts program of Christ Church Cathedral. He was the founding chair of the organization that presents concerts, dramatic productions, educational dinner lectures and exhibits.
Funds accrued from the event are reinvested in the arts program or shared with a charitable organization.
Born in Guyana, Dennison graduated from Queen’s College in 1967 and taught at Central High School where his colleagues included Wally Boxhill who is an Ottawa-based Citizenship and Immigration director.
“I knew John from back in Guyana because we lived close by and we also taught at the same time at Central,” Boxhill recalled. “We reconnected when we migrated and worked together on the employment equity files when he was with Multiculturalism and I was with Stats Canada. We travelled together across the country during the hearings and I really got to know him well then. We were close friends until his death.”
Graduating with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Laurentian University and a Master’s in Political Science from Carleton University, Dennison was a political assistant to former Nickel Belt Member of Parliament John Rodriguez who served as Greater Sudbury Mayor for five years up until 2010.
“John worked with me for almost two years,” recalled 76-year-old Rodriguez who migrated from Guyana in 1956 and was a school principal and Ontario English Catholic Teachers Catholic Association president before joining the New Democratic Party at its founding convention in 1961. “He had a very balanced head on his shoulders, he was organized and his advice was always based on the evidence before him. He also had a wonderful sense of humour which is good for an office environment.”
Retired federal public servant and community newspaper publisher Ewart Walters said Dennison was an integral part of Ottawa’s Black community.
“While his contributions in the federal public service sphere were in policy-making, he did a lot of work behind the scenes to uplift his community,” said Walters, president of the National Institute of Jamaican Canadians (NIJC).
Dennison volunteered with myriad organizations, including the Ottawa Public Library Board Foundation and Harambee Centres Canada and was the recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal, the United Way of Ottawa Community Builder Award, the North American Black Historical Museum Society Inc. Award of Excellence and the NIJC Lignum Vitae Award.