On his third and final visit to Canada in November 2001, Nelson Mandela visited Regent Park for the dedication ceremony of the first school outside South Africa bearing his name.
The Canadian Friends of Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund selected the school for the honour because of the excellent range of programs undertaken by pupils to learn about South Africa and the country’s first Black president’s extraordinary life. Students of the school – formerly Park Public School – designed a banner that they proudly displayed at the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (Canada) launch at SkyDome on Mandela’s trip in 1998.
That historic occasion and other pivotal moments in Canada’s Black history were celebrated at the Toronto Police Service’s (TPS) Black History Month launch last Friday at the Nelson Mandela Park Public School.
Toronto Police Services Board (TPSB) chair Dr. Alok Mukherjee, who was at the school renaming ceremony 14 years ago, did community outreach and race relations functions for the Toronto District School Board prior to joining the board as its chair.
“It’s such a delight for me to come back to this school,” said the social justice activist who was part of Canada’s anti-apartheid movement. “This was one of my favorite schools to come and spend time in. I am so pleased to see that the tradition of teaching about social justice and human rights continues in this school to this day.”
Dr. Mukherjee, a former Ontario Human Rights Commission commissioner, reiterated that the TPSB is committed to maintaining and enhancing relations with the communities that make up the City of Toronto.
“This very much includes developing a strong partnership with and paying attention to the expectations of the city’s vibrant and diverse Black community,” he said. “An important element of this relationship is honouring and celebrating the history, culture and accomplishments of all groups in our city. The annual Black History Month is one such opportunity. We are all here today to honour, respect and reflect on a century of the history and heritage of African-Canadians and the African Diaspora.”
Renovated three years ago, Nelson Mandela Park Public School is the oldest school in Toronto still on its original site. Constructed in 1853, the school opened that year with four classrooms. In 1914, students shared their school with soldiers who used the facility as temporary barracks.
Deputy Chief Peter Sloly, who delivered the keynote address, said it was the first time he has been back to the school since his assignment to 51 Division, where he and a few other officers were handpicked by then Staff Inspector Bill Blair (now the chief of police) to lead the Service through a transitional period that included community outreach and policing Regent Park.
He recalled that walking the beat in the tough neighbourhood was a life-changing experience.
“As he was passing me, a constable in a squad car stopped, rolled his window down and beckoned me to come over,” said Sloly. “He said ‘Sarge, we don’t go in there’. That shocked me and I asked him why. He proceeded to tell me that it’s dangerous and they don’t like us.
“I said, we are the police for here and how are we not supposed to go in here. If they don’t like us in here, that’s our job to fix that. That interaction changed the way I view policing and the way I was doing everything in my life. I realized, at that point, that something had gone very badly wrong.”
This was the first time that the TPS has held its Black History Month kick-off outside police headquarters since the annual celebration – conceived by retired sergeant Terry James – started in 1994.
“An event like today really illustrates how we can come together for the betterment of our communities,” said school principal Jason Kandankery. “Here in Regent Park, especially at this school, we have an amazing relationship with our community officers. They are in our building at all times and that aspect of community policing is integral in building relationships with the city and the police service.”
Larry McLarty and Gloria Bartley, immigrants from Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago respectively, were the first Blacks to join the TPS in 1960.