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Black History Month: An Interview with Jean Augustine

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Jean Augustine was born in Saint. George’s, Grenada. In 1960, at the age of 22, she immigrated to Canada to be employed as a domestic worker. Ms. Augustine attended night school to get a first degree and then later a Master of Education degree from the University of Toronto. While working as a teacher, she became involved in politics, serving with many organizations, both public and private, such as municipal task forces and hospital boards. She also served as the National President of the Congress of Black Women of Canada. In 1993, Ms. Augustine became the first Black Canadian woman elected to the House of Commons. In 1995, she successfully brought forward a motion in Parliament to declare February Black History month.

A head and shoulders image of Jean Augustine. She is wearing a red blouse and a gold chain necklace and gold earrings. She looks directly at the photographer.
Jean Augustine. Courtesy of Jean Augustine.

Ms. Augustine was kind enough to chat with me over the phone about that historic moment in 1995, and about the challenges facing Black Canadians today.

Why did you want to make Black History Month a federally recognized observance?

Well, I was an educator. I came through the Toronto Teacher’s College and I recognized that the classroom curriculum was saying very little about African Canadians. The same thing was done to Indigenous peoples – if there was any reference, it was either in the footnote or as a sideline. Black Canadians were not part of the script and were not shown contributing to Canadian society. I found opportunity as a teacher to correct this in my own classroom, but I thought if there was general recognition of this at a very high level, it would get back down to those educators who were writing curriculums. At that time it was the pride of Canada that we were a multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic society and therefore I felt that each and every group within society needed to be valued and their history needed to be told.

When I proposed that motion asking the Parliament of Canada to acknowledge February as Black History Month, I did not want a big debate. I made sure that everyone understood we were talking about facts. The facts are that Black people have been in what is now Canada since the 1600s. We have contributed significantly to the building of this country, as individuals and as a community. Last but not least, Black Canadians are diverse – we come from many different places. In the end, there was no room for debate. Who would argue with these truths? I felt that once we had this motion, then across Canada our education system, our cultural bodies and our media would acknowledge our presence in the Canadian mosaic. Black history is not just for Black people – Black history is Canadian history.

What would you say are some of the biggest challenges facing Black Canadians today?

The challenges that face our young people today are around the issue of employment. We can say that for all youth in general, but for Black Canadian youth in particular, it’s an uphill battle. The issues of housing and of supporting young people as they make their way into postsecondary education are also very important. They need mentors and role models that will help them find a way to enter the workplace.

Do you have any advice for young Black Canadians today?

I think it’s important to recognize that no matter what the difficult time is, the person with education – in the long run, when things turn around – will definitely find their place in society. So I’m saying that education has to be the answer – stay in school! At the same time, it’s important for them to recognize that hard work and commitment do pay off in the long haul and it’s important to stay the course. Have some goals, know where the goals are taking you and stay with your goals.