Someone of significance was coming to their school and Grade 5 student, Chris Williams, joined other students, school officials and the janitor in readying the education facility for the visit.
That was over three decades ago and the important visitor was Lincoln Alexander, Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament and federal minister and Ontario’s first Black Lieutenant Governor, who passed away in October 2012 at age 90.
The Order of Ontario and Canada recipient and Hamilton-Wentworth, York Regional and Toronto Police honorary chief was the longest serving chancellor of the University of Guelph, where he held the position for an unprecedented five terms, a record among Canadian universities. Three of the university’s awards bear his name.
Alexander graduated in 1953 from Osgoode, whose Black Law Students Association (BLSA) created an award – a bronze bust – in the trailblazer’s name three years ago to be presented during their annual Black History Month (BHM) celebration held last week at York University.
This year’s Lincoln Alexander Memorial Award recipient was doctoral student, Chris Williams, whose scholarly work addresses racial profiling and systemic racism.
“As the years went by, I certainly came to develop a profound appreciation for his (Alexander’s) legacy and the extent to which it resonates to this day,” said the York University and Carleton University graduate, who plans to complete his doctoral thesis later this year.
Toronto Star reporter Jim Rankin, who in 2002 led a team of reporters, editors and researchers involved in a Michener Award-winning investigative series into race, policing and crime in the city, introduced Williams, who collaborated with Rankin and a team of the newspaper’s reporters, to generate multimedia material for the “Known to Police” investigative series that won a national newspaper award last year.
“In the media business, we like to use labels that sometimes generalize and do injustice to subjects and stories and the people we interview, and sometimes they fit like a glove,” said Rankin, who was the recipient of a Harry Jerome Award last year for public advocacy. “Chris is an academic and an activist and the labels fit. I know he’s an academic because, on occasion, his vocabulary makes me reach for a dictionary. I also know he’s an activist because he doesn’t sit idly by when he sees a social injustice issue in need of correcting. He acts. This is a great honour for him which he deserves.”
Previous Lincoln Alexander Memorial Award winners are Osgoode graduate and Ontario Court of Appeal judge, Michael Tulloch and provincial court judge, Donald McLeod.
For the second year, the event’s organizers awarded three bursaries. Applicants are required to submit a resume and a 1,200-word statement of interest indicating why they want to attend law school.
“These bursaries are aimed at increasing the representation of Blacks by strengthening the candidacy of law school applicants from our community who desire to use the law as a means to increase the well-being of the Black community,” said BLSA first-year representative, Camille Walker. “On average, Black students have historically scored lower than the majority of students writing the LSAT (Law School Admission Test) and they often fall well below on the LSAT curve on a given test. Many students are afforded the opportunity to attend professional LSAT prep courses and receive one-on-one tutoring in preparation for the test.
“This is an opportunity that is less readily available for Black students due to financial constraints. Thus we recognize that this bursary is vital to not only the success of applicants attempting to write their LSAT tests, but to the potential success for entrants into law school.”
This year’s winners were Arfi Hagi Yusuf, Natasha Allen and Jabbari Weekes, who was unable to attend the event.
“I am from a low income family and law school, at one point, seemed like a distant dream for me,” said Allen, who graduated from R.H. King Academy and is a third-year University of Toronto student majoring in women and gender studies. “This award proves there are people in our community who care about the educational advancement of young people.”
Hagi Yusuf, whose Somalian parents fled to Canada during the Civil War, is a second-year York University student pursuing political science studies. She also plans to attend law school.
“I want to use the law to help newcomers and refugees,” the Louise Arbour Secondary School graduate said.
The theme of the third annual BLSA Black History Month celebration was Shared Struggles, Shared Strength: Marching Ahead Together.
“This year’s theme was born out of a desire to make Black History Month something more than just what it is commonly thought to be,” said BLSA mentorship co-ordinator, Kyle Elliott. “When a lot of people think about Black History Month, they think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and Lincoln Alexander. They are great individuals and it makes sense that they are fondly celebrated. However, we decided that Black History Month has to go beyond just a celebration of these great thinkers and icons. If we limit it to just these people, we are doing a disservice to what Black History Month aims to do or at least what we want it to achieve.
“We wanted to be mindful of not having Black History Month represented by only one story or simply a set of stories. Though we want to make the Black past more visible, we also want to place the focus on the world in which we live today. While folks of the past are important, we wanted to create a theme which established space for a narrative of Black lives today. Though people have unique stories and experiences, we all share many things in common. While Black History Month is of course a window for seeing and understanding the history and experiences of Blacks in Canada and around the world, it’s also an opportunity to celebrate the diversity and commonality we find in these experiences. It recognizes that though our stories may all be different, many of our strengths and struggles are the same.”
The rest of the BLSA executive comprises Tiffany Smith and Mary Owusu (co-presidents), Adrian Howard (vice-president), Shani Ocquaye (secretary), Renard Patrick (treasurer), Serwaah Frimpong (academic advisor), Clement Mbulu (communications & information technology director), Subban Jama (social co-ordinator), Gilbert Awer Eneajor (equity officer) and Kimberley Smith (community outreach co-ordinator).
The BHM celebration committee comprised Owusu, Alaina Alexander and Alisha Kassam.