Parents are right most of the time. But not always.
In Christine Paisley’s opinion, her daughter, Kate’s submission to this year’s Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Black History Month Student Essay competition wasn’t her best composition.
The judges, who mattered most, disagreed.
The Weston Collegiate Institute student won a $5,000 scholarship and an educational “Me to We” trip to Ghana. Me to We is an innovative social enterprise that provides people with better choices for a better world.
“My mom is my biggest supporter and this means a lot to her,” said the first prize winner. “I have been on a family trip to Cuba and now I am really excited to see Africa.”
As part of Black History Month celebrations, Grade 12 students in the Greater Toronto Area were invited to write an essay focussing on how Black Canadians helped to define Canada’s diverse heritage and identity through their achievements and contributions to the broader society.
The second of three children, Paisley’s essay centred on Carrie Best who died in 2001 at age 98 and American-born Rubin Carter who took part in the Poor People’s March on Washington in 1963 and made Canada his home almost three decades ago after being absolved of a triple murder.
Born in Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Best founded The Clarion – the first Black-owned and published Nova Scotia newspaper – and started a popular radio show – The Quiet Corner – that aired for 12 years until 1964. She was also a columnist for The Pictou Advocate and a role model for generations of Black women.
As a prize fighter, Carter unsuccessfully attempted to lift the world middleweight boxing crown, losing to Joel Giardello in 1964. Two years later, he entered the biggest fight in his life after he and promising track star John Artis, who is now caring for an ailing Carter, were arrested and charged for a triple murder in a New Jersey bar.
They were convicted in 1967 by an all-White jury and sentenced to triple life terms even though they passed lie detector tests and a victim of the shooting swore they were not the gunmen.
Carter made hundreds of presentations to schools and organizations across Canada and the rest of the world and co-founded the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted to provide support to the unlawfully condemned, raise public consciousness on issues related to wrongful convictions and help reform the legal system.
“I learned of Mr. Carter in a Grade Nine class while watching The Hurricane (a film about Carter’s life) and was engrossed and inspired by his story,” said Paisley who is a member of her school’s African-Canadian Leadership Committee. He and Ms. Best have inspired me to be the best that I can be.”
Bur Oak Secondary School student Oyindasola Lagunju and Asha Gordon, who attends Gordon Graydon Memorial Secondary School in Mississauga, captured the second and third prizes respectively.
“I am proud to celebrate my heritage through creative writing which also helps me to focus,” said American-born Lagunju who was raised in Nigeria before coming to Canada two years ago.
She aspires to be a medical practitioner.
Gordon, who intends to become a lawyer, said Best and Mary Ann Shadd Cary – who published the first Black newspaper in Canada – were among a legion of distinguished Blacks who helped to shape this country’s history.
The essay panel judges included former Barbados consul general in Toronto Kay McConney, lawyer Tanya Walker, high school vice-principal Ainsworth Morgan and Office of Independent Police Review director Gerry McNeilly.
“We were simply blown away by the quality of the submissions,” said McNeilly. “The students did their research and captured some of the defining moments of the personalities they highlighted. One of them wrote about the late Lincoln Alexander who I knew and that brought back so many memories. I was totally impressed with their work.”
Jennifer Tory, RBC’s Greater Toronto Area regional president, said the students did a wonderful job of honouring Canada’s rich heritage.
“The history of African-Canadians is so essential to the Canadian narrative and an integral part of the broader Canadian story,” she said.
The top 12 essay finalists were celebrated at a reception last week at the Toronto Board of Trade.
“You are the writers and we know that in a few years you will be writing the history,” Dr. Catherine Chandler-Crichlow told the students in her keynote presentation.
She encouraged them to become more involved in their communities by volunteering at hospitals and in other spheres.
“It’s not enough to be excellent academically,” said Chandler-Crichlow, the Centre of Excellence for Financial Services executive director. “The strength of your community is directly related to your contribution in terms of volunteering and playing an important part in building an inclusive community. Volunteerism should not be seen as something that you do simply because it’s a requirement to collect volunteer hours before you enter Grade Nine. It should be part of your life…The more you contribute to your community, the better the world you live in will be.”
Chandler-Crichlow, who has over three decades experience in human capital development, reminded parents and community elders they have a crucial role to play in helping young people achieve their potential.
“We must make them know that we value excellence and that a good education is something that’s liberating,” she said. “If we want education to be liberating, we must be absolutely certain that our voices are heard so that our kids who are academically excelling are not put into applied courses. We must ensure they are in advanced programs that will allow them to get into the schools of law, medicine and accounting. We need to prepare them for the future which means we must participate…We need to be mentors and need to ensure they have access to people who are in business, advanced areas of biotech and other fields.”