Growing up in Ethiopia in the 1960s and 70s when human rights and equity were seldom practiced, Teferi Adem made it his duty to promote fairness once he arrived in Canada as a refugee in February, 1978.
Last week, he was rewarded for his tireless work in advancing equity-related initiatives with a William Hubbard Race Relations Award at the City of Toronto’s annual Access, Equity & Human Rights event to celebrate Human Rights Day and the 64th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights.
Among the first wave of Ethiopian newcomers in the city, Adem enrolled in York University at age 27 and became the institution’s first race relations and human rights advisor. In this capacity, he organized anti-racism and equity conferences, seminars and workshops and developed original racism and human rights policy that’s used in course syllabi.
His 2001 article, “Checklist for Engaged Pedagogy,” published in Voices from the Classroom: Reflections on Teaching & Learning in Higher Education, is an integral learning tool for the training development of educators.
Adem also contributed to York University as chair of the race and ethnic relations advisory committee and the security advisory committee’s anti-discriminatory standing sub-committee and as a member of the university’s senate sub-committee on diversity and inclusion, the security advisory council and Access York which is a disability support group. In addition, he cofounded the university’s Black Students Alliance, advised diverse academic programs and was a staff advisor for the university’s Black and African history events.
He spent almost two years as a political refugee in Romania and Turkey before coming to Canada 44 years ago.
“Canada was not my first choice when I applied to countries with refugee resettlement programs,” said Adem. “My list included the United States, Canada and Australia and when my application to go to the U.S. was turned down, Canada accepted me.”
Raised with seven other siblings by a single mother in southwest Ethiopia, Adem started working at age 15 as a teacher to support his family. Because his family was poor, he enrolled in the Haile Selassie I Military Academy (renamed Harer Military Academy) in order to complete high school.
“The graduates belonged to what was then the military aristocracy and the new students were told most of us would not do well in the exams,” said Adem. “I passed with flying colours.”
A year before graduating, Selassie – then under the weight of a country facing famine, unemployment and heavy political opposition – was overthrown by Marxist dictator, Mengistu Haile Mariam.
As a second lieutenant with pre-flight and pilot training, Adem was frowned upon as a Selassie supporter and forced to flee his birth country.
A founding member of the Ethiopian Association in Toronto and the Canadian African Newcomers Aid Centre, Adem was a City of Toronto welfare program administrator, a child care and social worker with Huntley Youth Services and an outreach program coordinator with the Alzheimer’s Society of Toronto.
He currently runs his own human rights, anti-racism and equity consulting service.
The city established the William Hubbard Award in 1989 to honour Toronto’s first Black councillor, who successfully ran for public office at age 51 in the late 1890s and served as deputy and then as acting mayor.
A visionary, Hubbard led the charge for publicly-owned water supply and electricity power that resulted in the establishment of Ontario and Toronto Hydro. He also persuaded the city to acquire the Toronto Islands.
BY RON FANFAIR