Sam and Rita Burke
Sam and Rita Burke

Stalwarts honoured at Black History Month launch

By Admin Wednesday February 03 2016 in News
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Former Citizenship Court judge John Dennison was instrumental in the federal government initiating the Mathieu da Costa Challenge in 1996 for young people to celebrate the contributions of Canadians of African, Aboriginal and other backgrounds to the building of this country.

The late Ottawa resident was also a mentor and friend of Kenyan-born translator and community advocate Sarah Onyango who was the recipient of the Mathieu da Costa Award presented at the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) Black History Month kick-off last Sunday.

Thinking about someone to dedicate the award to was a no-brainer for Onyango.

“This is definitely for John for his unyielding support, guidance and training,” she said. “It’s because of him that I am able to do much of the work I am doing now.”

The eldest of five children, Onyango completed her undergraduate degree in Canada where her father was a Kenyan diplomat in the 1980s and worked in the East African country for several years before returning to Canada in 1992. She earned her Master’s in Linguistics from a French University and is a translator for a Canadian television network specializing in political, parliamentary and public affairs coverage.

Onyango also hosts a weekly radio show on CHUO 89.1 FM and co-founded the Black Ottawa 411 website which is an online community information resource.

Order of Canada recipient and five-time Olympian Charmaine Crooks, who was the first Canadian woman to run 800-metres in under two minutes, was presented with the United Nations International Decade Award.

“It’s a real honour to be recognized by the community where I started my life in sport,” said Crooks who resides in Vancouver and is the president of a global strategic advisory company. “While it’s great to receive accolades, I still have more to do in my career. I can look back, but I always look forward. There is so much more to do.”

The Canadian Olympic Committee executive board member and Canadian Soccer Association board member was recently inducted into the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women & Sport Wall of Fame.

Husbands and wives Sam and Rita Burke and Barry Penhale and Jane Gibson were the recipients of the Rev. Addie Aylestock and Harriet Tubman Awards respectively.

Married since 1972, the Burkes co-owned Burke’s Books & Picture Framing which was operational for 14 years up until 2008.

“We are grassroots teachers and educators,” said Guyanese-born Rita Burke who, with her husband, started Ebony Toastmasters Club in 2005. “We feel the need, we understand the need and we are passionate about the need to continue educating people.”

Penhale and Gibson have published books documenting and celebrating African-Canadian history.

“To receive an award that bears Harriet Tubman’s name is quite an honour and we are very humbled,” said Penhale.

Abandoned as an infant at age six months in her native Jamaica, Norma Nicholson lived with her grandmother for the next seven years.

“When she died, my whole world fell apart,” recalled Nicholson who was the recipient of the Rose Fortune Award. “Living with my paternal sister who had grown children led me to experience homelessness, poverty and abuse.”

Despite the odds stacked against her, Nicholson graduated from high school and came to Canada in 1969 to work as a nanny. She earned a Master’s in adult education and spent nearly four decades working as a registered nurse and with young people.

Nicholson recently published a book, Young Lives on the Line, based on her interactions with youths.

Other award winners were Anne Cools – Canada’s first Black senator – who received the Olivier le Jeune Award; chef Selwyn Richards who was presented with the Dr. Anderson Abbott Award and keynote speaker Jean Augustine who was honoured with the Mary Matilda Winslow Award for advocacy in public education.

When the late Dr. Daniel Hill, the OHRC founding director and Wilson Brooks, the city’s first Black school principal and one of Canada’s first Black flying officers, were looking for a space to host a few friends to discuss the formation of a Black history movement, former Metro councillor Beverly Salmon and her late husband Dr. Douglas Salmon – Canada’s first Black surgeon and the first African-Canadian president of a hospital medical staff – graciously offered their home.

That meeting 37 years ago led to the formation of the OBHS which petitioned the City of Toronto a year later to have February proclaimed Black History Month. In December 1995, the Canadian parliament finally recognized February as Black History Month.

Since 1997, the OBHS has hosted an annual brunch and awards ceremony to kick off-Black History Month.

Black History Month evolved from the work of American scholar, Dr. Carter Woodson who, in an attempt to spread the concept of African-American history, suggested its celebration during a week in the middle of February.

That month was chosen because it’s the birth month of Abraham Lincoln and the chosen birth month of Frederick Douglass, who was born a slave and therefore was unsure of his actual birth date.


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