While acknowledging the presence of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg and other institutions like the North American Black History Society Museum in Amherstburg, Mayor John Tory said the time has come for the establishment of a permanent facility in Toronto to celebrate Black history.
He made the call at the Ontario Black History Society’s (OBHS) Black History Month kick-off brunch last Sunday at the Metro Convention Centre.
Toronto has the largest concentration of Blacks in Canada, accounting for nearly 8.5 per cent of the city’s population.
“I think we have come a long way in terms of Black History Month and what it represents,” said Tory. “But Black history still doesn’t have the presence it should in the Black community here and the community at large.”
Tory said the celebration of Black History Month is important because a true understanding of Black history is inadequate without grasping the significant contributions members of that community have made in Canada.
“Beyond that, I have always believed – and that’s one of the reasons I have come to this event whether I am in or out of public life – that an incomplete understating of Black history denies Black youths one of the best opportunities to form a positive self-image because there is so much positive role models to give them self-confidence in themselves and in their ability to achieve their dreams.”
In her first appearance at the annual event since becoming Lieutenant Governor last September, Elizabeth Dowdeswell admitted she didn’t see Blacks while growing up in rural Saskatchewan after emigrating with her parents from Northern Ireland in 1947.
As head of the United Nations Environment Program, she spent six years until 1998 at the agency’s headquarters in Nairobi, where she has a god-daughter.
Dowdeswell complimented the OBHS for preserving and promoting Black history.
Formed 36 years ago, the OBHS 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.
The OBHS has hosted an annual brunch and awards ceremony to kick off Black History Month since 1997.
“Your work allows us to understand the country’s complicated history of race relations, both the successes and the challenges,” said the province’s 29th vice-regal. “Indeed, the story of Black Canadians is the story of Canada itself and its evolution as a multiracial society. Black people have refused to bow down to prejudice and bigotry. Instead, they have fought for justice and human rights for all. Our country and our province are the richer for them and it’s right that we should honour their struggles.”
Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne congratulated award winners George Carter, Dr. James Walker, Mary Anne Chambers, Bernice Carnegie, the Owen Sound Emancipation Festival organizers and Planet Africa Group.
Each year, the OBHS honours outstanding individuals and organizations in the community in the name of Black trailblazers.
“You remind us that the power to bring about change does not rest solely with those in the halls of power, but in the community with people of influence like you who make real change happen,” Wynne told the recipients.
In the keynote address, Chambers said she was optimistic about the future despite the hurdles Blacks face.
“Today, even while the challenges of poverty and the frustrations of subtle and not so subtle racism continue to be the realities for too many of our people, the fact that we are able to publicly speak about our challenges and frustrations while celebrating our achievements suggests to me that while we have further to go, we have come a long way and there can be no reversal of any gains that we have made.
“We have the opportunity to direct the evolution of Black history as time goes by without forgetting where we started, but with a determination to create a future for our grandchildren and their grandchildren that will reflect how far we have come, our impressive contributions and achievements and our potential as a people,” she said.
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.