Growing up at a time when economic power determined one’s ability to enroll in the small island’s only high school and observing his father’s unquenchable thirst for knowledge motivated Irving Andre to pursue academic and professional excellence.
Andre was privileged to attend Dominica Grammar School where about 25 per cent of parents could pay to send their children to high school. Andre’s father, who passed away in September 2008, headed the island’s customs department and was a voracious reader with a collection of nearly 700 books.
“The strongest memory and recollection of influence in my life was the picture of my father coming home from work and sitting up in his bed with smoke puffing from a cigarette while reading a book,” recalled Andre in conversation with CTV Canada AM co-host Marci Ien at the Royal Bank of Canada’s (RBC) Black History Month celebration last week.
“What business did he have reading books about philosophy, religion and history when it was not going to further his career opportunities? In that process of just looking at him, it dawned on me there is something here that I could pick up. My father was a typical West Indian in that he was very undemonstrative in his love, but he made a sacrifice by paying for his children to go to high school which was the privilege and preserve of a few. I told myself if that is the extent of the opportunities which existed on the island and that was the effort this man made, then who was I not to try to take advantage of those opportunities.”
With a degree in Geography from the University of the West Indies, Andre spent two years at John Hopkins University in Baltimore before joining his wife, Kathleen, in the Greater Toronto Area.
The father of two, who was born in Curaçao before moving to Dominica with his family at the age of three, worked as a claims adjuster with the Workers Compensation Board and delivered newspapers and flyers on weekends before enrolling in Osgoode Law School in 1985. A year later, he was accepted into the night court prosecutor’s program that allowed him to prosecute highway traffic infractions.
After graduating in 1988 and being called to the Bar two years later, Andre served as an assistant crown attorney prior to entering private practice and being appointed a judge in December 2003. He returned to the classroom to obtain his Masters and PhD.
“I did that for three reasons,” he said. “My father always boasted that one of his four sons would be a professor and I wanted to fulfill that wish. I also had abandoned studies at John Hopkins and I wanted to show my daughters that even though our family is financially secure and we are living comfortably, an ‘old head’ like me could still take advantage of the opportunities that exist in this country.
“I came from an island where there was just one high school and no university when I was there. Here in Ontario, there are 20 publicly funded universities and you could learn almost anything you want to…You don’t only teach by the wisdom you impart on young people, but by the examples you set.”
One of 27 Black judges in Canada since Guyanese-born Maurice Charles broke the colour barrier in 1969 and the only judge in Ontario’s Court of Justice with a PhD in Law, Andre refuses to accept he has reached the zenith of personal and professional fulfillment.
He has written and co-written a dozen books, including biographies of Dominica’s first Chief Minister, Franklin Baron; the island’s first Premier, Edward LeBlanc, and the first surgeon, Dr. Desmond McIntyre.
Andre’s latest books recounting the late Elias Nassief’s significant contributions to Dominica’s business landscape and the military assistance that Dominicans provided Guadeloupe and Martinique during World War Two are expected to be released next month.
As part of the RBC celebration, three high school students were presented with scholarships for essays submitted on individuals who have helped shaped and defined Canada’s diverse heritage. Students were required to submit an essay of up to 500 words.
The winners were 16-year-old St. Marguerite d’Youville Secondary School student, Katura Gibb and Grade 12 students, David Grant and Shardae Keane of Agincourt and Harbord Collegiate Institutes respectively.
Gibb’s essay uses compelling examples of Canada’s first Black Governor General, Michaëlle Jean, and escaped slaves Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who owned the city’s first cab company, Grant – an aspiring occupational therapist – wrote about the impact that the late Eva Smith had on marginalized Canadians and Keane – who intends to be a lawyer and politician – wrote about her role model, Jean Augustine.
“The essay winners are proof positive that we also have an exciting future ahead of us,” said British-born and Barbadian-raised RBC regional vice-president for Scarborough, Pickering and Ajax, Mark Beckles.
RBC, Canada’s largest bank, takes diversity seriously. At the executive level, one in two staffing positions is required to be filled by a woman and one in five by a visible minority. The bank also works with non-profit agencies to hire newcomers to Canada.
“Despite the fact that we work in a diverse city, diversity just doesn’t happen,” said Jennifer Tory, the regional president for the Greater Toronto Area. “We need leaders to champion it because, when we do, we make the most of our employees, we make better decisions and we better understand our markets and the opportunities they present for us.”
Last year, RBC was recognized as one of Canada’s Best Diversity Employers.
By RON FANFAIR