When pondering Black Canadian heroines deserving of profiling for an essay competition, Grade 12 student, Zaena Harrison, did not have to go far to find someone worthy of consideration. That individual was right in her Bramalea Secondary School.
Harrison said her Grade Seven French teacher, Janelle Nunes, has been an exceptional role model for students and young people in the Peel community.
“Upon interviewing her, it’s clear she has overcome many obstacles to get to where she is today,” said Harrison, who was one of three winners of this year’s Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) Black History Month student essay competition. “One of her first experiences of racial discrimination occurred when her second grade teacher recommended without explanation that she leave the French Immersion program.
“When assessed by school administrators, it was proven that she was in fact gifted, especially in regards to language. At Queen’s University, she was subjected to discrimination yet again by her peers who made comments about her background and the fact that she came from the public school system. She was able to overcome these negative experiences and keep moving forward while being understanding and not allowing them to change who she is. These are the values she instills in her students.”
Harrison, who aspires to be a clinical psychologist, also profiled the late Rosemary Brown – the first Black Canadian woman to be elected to a provincial legislature – in her award-winning essay.
“As a young Black woman, my life has been impacted by these exceptional women and they are a constant reminder that my generation can make a positive change in the community,” wrote Harrison.
The other winners were Markham District Public School student, Matthew Samuels and Wadia Forester, who attends King’s Christian Collegiate in Oakville.
Samuels, who intends to become a civil engineer, highlighted the contributions of Delos Davis, Canada’s second Black lawyer who was appointed a King’s Counsel in 1910, and Dr. Anderson Abbot, who was the first Black Canadian licensed physician.
“It’s nigh impossible to dispute that Black Canadians have had a powerful impact on Canadian identity and they have helped to define precisely what it means to be a Canadian,” said the honour roll student and avid soccer player who is a member of his school’s music council.
Forrester was inspired by Lincoln Alexander’s legacy as a Canadian trailblazer. He was Canada’s first Black Member of Parliament and federal minister and the province’s first Black Lieutenant Governor.
“Throughout his life, he emphasized the importance of education among youth by using his own life as an example,” Forrester wrote in her essay. “He was a strong supporter of eliminating racism and discrimination by expressing that people of all races and backgrounds deserve an equal chance at achieving the best in life.”
Harrison, Samuels and Forrester were presented with scholarships for essays submitted on individuals who have helped shape and define Canada’s diverse heritage.
Close to 160 high school students entered their 700-word essays that were judged by a distinguished panel that included Ontario Provincial Court judge, Dr. Irving Andre; Civic Action chief executive officer, Mitzie Hunter and CP24 anchor, Nathan Downer.
“Reading these essays makes me confident that the contributions of important Canadians won’t be forgotten,” said Downer.
Jennifer Tory, RBC’s regional manager for the Greater Toronto Area, said the legacies and impact of noteworthy Black Canadians are worth celebrating every day and not just during Black History Month in February.
Canada’s largest bank, RBC, 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.
“Many fabrics make up our multi-racial, multi-ethnic and multicultural tapestry and this is a cherished national value and one that I think we are all very proud of,” said Tory. “We try to embrace diversity in all its forms because we recognize how much we all have to gain from it. That’s why it’s important for us to mark celebrations like Black History Month.”
Senator Don Meredith congratulated RBC for developing a platform for youth to celebrate the many exceptional contributions of Black Canadians.
“As a youth advocate, I have had a strong commitment to engaging, encouraging and empowering our future leaders,” said Meredith, who recently returned from an official visit to Nigeria and Ghana. “I am especially passionate about igniting interest in the achievements of people who have overcome obstacles to attain great success.
“By honouring and promoting the historical contributions of modern-day achievements of Black Canadians within the community, we are reaffirming and strengthening the roots of multiculturalism in Canada. Black History is important because it teaches us to aspire, dream and to break down barriers that impose restrictions on our limitless potential. Black History teaches us to hope even in the wake of impossible odds.”
In the keynote address, Toronto International Film Festival artistic director, Cameron Bailey, said the city’s diversity is reflected in its myriad annual festivals, including the Caribbean carnival.
“It’s my belief that the city you see around you now exist because, in part, of the changes that the festivals have made,” said Bailey. “My perspective on festivals and the work that I do is very much shaped by my own history and my experiences as a Canadian and an immigrant who came in the 1970s from Barbados.”