Black History Month: An interview with Rosemary Sadlier

Monday, February 29, 2016

Rosemary Sadlier was born and raised in Toronto, and has degrees in teaching and social work.  Rosemary was the president of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) and in that role she worked for recognition of Black History Month. She continues to advocate for racial inclusion and human rights through education and outreach. She has won many awards and honours, including the Order of Ontario, the William Peyton Hubbard Race Relations Award and the Lifetime Achiever Award from the International Women Achievers’ Awards.1 She is also featured as a human rights defender in Speak Truth To Power Canada, a teaching resource created by the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in conjunction with its partners the Canadian Teachers’ Federation, the Assembly of First Nations, Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami and Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights. I recently had the honour and the opportunity to ask Ms. Sadlier about the importance of Black History Month and the challenges facing Black Canadians today.

Rosemary Sadlier stands in a room and smiles at the photographer.
Rosemary Sadlier. Photo courtesy of Rosemary Sadlier.


How did you first become involved in educating the public about Black history?

I first became involved in educating the public about Black History every time I was asked where my parents or I was from. As the only Black family in our neighbourhood, as the only Black child in my school (until joined later by my sister), random curiosities sometimes required a response. And so it began. By being.

In high school, faced with people who had not already been “educated,” I became interested in finding out more and was offended that racist and inequitable concepts were being taught.  I was fortunate that I had a link to the African Canadian community through my church and from my own lived experience, knew that the stereotypes offered did not apply. I also spent time outside of school, reading and learning about African history which was a powerful tool towards my own identity.

Once finished university, once a parent, once, then several times, dealing with my daughter’s experiences in the classroom and on the street, I was reminded that much needed to be done. I was nominated to the board of the OBHS and did what I could to support the organization and its mission. The OBHS had successfully advocated for the first official Black History Month (BHM) proclamation in Toronto by 1979 – long before I was there.

Upon becoming president of the OBHS, and with a staff change at the OBHS, a mix-up could have meant that the City of Toronto might not issue a proclamation for BHM. I was able to secure a proclamation issued from the Province of Ontario. I also obtained BHM proclamations from all provinces, then successfully initiated the process with Jean Augustine, MP resulting in the national BHM declaration passed in December 1995 and first celebrated in 1996. 

Why was it important to you to establish Black History Month?

It was important to me to have a BHM since it helps to provide the missing piece of Canadian history, society and culture.  I never saw myself reflected in school from the students and teachers through to the text books, subject material and curricula. If the contributions, and achievements of African Canadians are not made known to all students, if the mere fact of the long-term presence of the Black community is not recognized, how can we as a developed country truly affirm all our citizens?... How can we have social justice if the only one group's contributions, achievements – being, are known? How do we pursue and uphold all human rights if what is human and who has rights is so narrowly defined?

The Black Canadian community is very diverse with those who hail from the Black Loyalists and the Underground Railroad through to those who have more recently arrived. There are highly educated, well established members from many groups and there are those who are struggling due to low or no employment and the whole host of challenges that all other Canadians may face. What is different, what ties the community together​?

What do you think are the major challenges facing Black Canadians today?

I believe that there are many challenges facing the Black community today.  We begin with: who is, what is the Black community? In addition to issues related to the multicultural nature of the Black community with members who have roots from places around the world and how they might identify themselves, is the comfort in so doing. Another element to identify is how people may convey/name their mixed backgrounds or if that is important to them to do.  Past the identity issues, which is further challenged by the lack of mandatory African Canadian history or culture resources and courses in our elementary and secondary schools towards affirming identity and raising awareness of a wider range of contributions is how the “teaching tools” which are widely available convey, define and refer to people of African descent.  What messages does the media and social media share or reinforce about members of the African Canadian community?  How does what people think they know about African Canadians impact the experience of living a fully equitable type of life for African Canadians?

While we are moving slowly towards some awareness, more needs to be done so that those in positions of authority, from hiring agents through to police, from appointment secretariats through to medical personnel, are able to deal with, assess the situation of each person of African origin that they interact with, in an appropriate way. Perhaps at that point, social justice will have been realized.​



1 All information from Speak Truth to Power Canada: http://sttpcanada.ctf-fce.ca/.