When a father left after dropping off his child at a talent show Julie Spence organized in the mid-1980s while she was a youth worker at the Caribbean Excelsior Fraternal Association, she knew she had to do something to engage parents and their children.
Before leaving, the dad assured Spence he would remain with his child if the organization created an event that would also capture his attention.
That was her cue to start a spelling bee for kids in 1987. With 30 Black children in the inaugural event for children in the organization, the annual Spelling Bee of Canada (SBOC) has grown over the years to become a provincial competition. To celebrate the 25th anniversary this year, 31 regions from Sudbury in northern Ontario to southwestern Windsor were represented at the Ontario championship last Sunday at the downtown Delta Chelsea Hotel.
Spence grew up in Jamaica where spelling bees were popular.
“We had parish competitions and during the spelling bee season, residents with radios would take them out into their yards and neighbours would congregate and cheer on their favourites,” Spence recalled. “That was when I realized how much the competition brought people together.”
Nearly 46,000 young people from across the province have participated in the SBOC competition that promotes learning, develop self-esteem and encourages the adoption of positive life skills among the youth. Young people compete in the primary category for kids between the ages of six and eight, the junior division for participants between the ages of nine and 11 and the intermediate section for youth whose ages range from 12 to 14.
While elated at the event’s growth and development, Spence is disappointed by the extremely poor turnout of Black children in the competition. Of the 93 finalists last Sunday, just six were Black including three from the combined All Nations Gospel Church and the Logos Apostolic Church whose congregation are mainly African-Canadian.
“I grew up in Jamaica with a mother who could not read, yet she was not afraid to ensure that I would learn how to read,” said Spence. “My mother used to ask me to read books and I would come across words that I could not pronounce and come up with something sounding like the word. My mom recognized what I was doing and would tell me that that word was not in the dictionary. She made me underline those words I did not know and seek help from teachers.
“I have encountered Black parents here who do not want their children to take part in the competition because they are afraid their kids would embarrass them in a public setting. Some tell me they don’t have the time to help their children prepare for the spelling bee even though I assure them that we provide coaching. It’s one excuse after the other. It bothers me as a mother and a human being that we are not recognizing that our children cannot read. There are parents from other ethnic backgrounds who struggle with reading, but they are not too proud to push their kids forward to do it.”
Barbadian-born mental health counsellor, Veronica Taylor, who is the president of the SBOC Hamilton chapter, is also concerned about the lack of Black children in the competition.
“While canvassing to register children, I found that Black parents are not encouraging their kids,” she said. “They would leave it up to the children to decide if they want to be part of it or not and that’s not good.”
Ontario’s Minister of Education, Laurel Broten, commended the SBOC for its dedication to helping children at the primary, junior and intermediate levels improve their vocabulary and public speaking skills.
“As Minister of Education, I understand the importance of the work you do to help youth across Ontario enrich their learning and build self-confidence,” Broten said.
For the first time, SBOC will host a Canadian Invitational tournament in July in Toronto. The provincial winners will compete against representatives from Nigeria, Ghana, Jamaica and India who have already confirmed their participation.
“We have nine youths each from Ghana and Nigeria and we expect to have more countries represented here,” Spence added.
By RON FANFAIR