People of African and Caribbean descent have been an integral part of the establishment, vitality and continued growth of our nation since the early 1600s when Samuel de Champlain was founding Port Royal, naming New France and exploring the St. Lawrence and the Great Lakes. Throughout our country’s history and long before it even existed, the pioneering spirit, courageous sacrifices and indelible contributions of many African-Canadians have woven a strong and vibrant thread into our rich societal tapestry.
Here are a few inspiring cases in point spanning almost 250 years of our history:
- Escaping with her family from slavery during the American Revolution, Rose Fortune (1774-1864), made her home in Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia and built a successful business providing essential services for travelers. As she safeguarded property and watched over the community’s waterfront, Fortune became unofficially known as Canada’s first female police officer long before the RCMP was founded in 1920.
- Merchant seaman and military hero William Edward Hall (1827 – 1904) became the last man standing in defense of a British garrison under attack from an Indian mutiny in 1857. For his bravery, Hall became the first black person, the first Nova Scotian and the first Canadian sailor to receive the Victoria Cross.
- Coming to Canada during the time of the Underground Railroad, Mary Ann Shadd Cary (1823-1893) earned a law degree as the American Civil War reached its end. Working as a lawyer, teacher and suffragist in Chatham, Ontario, Cary also became Canada’s first female publisher when she established the Provincial Freeman in 1853.
- World War II Air Force veteran and Member of the Order of Canada, The Hon. Lincoln M. Alexander, (1922 – 2012) became the first black person to become a Member of Parliament in 1968, served in the House of Commons until 1980 and, in 1985, was appointed Ontario’s 24th Lieutenant Governor, the first member of a visible minority to serve as the Queen’s representative in Canada.
Read about more prominent Black Canadians here.
The same year that Mr. Alexander became Ontario’s Lieutenant Governor, Guyanese-Canadian entrepreneur, journalist and publisher Michael Van Cooten, founded the African Canadian Achievement Awards of Excellence to pay tribute to the exemplary contributions of African and Caribbean-Canadians and to encourage a sense of pride and dignity within these communities. Two years prior, in 1983, Van Cooten established Caribbean Life Magazine, later becoming Pride News Magazine, as a news, informational and cultural resource with a mandate of fostering unity, encouraging excellence and enhancing a feeling of dignity and pride in its target community. Van Cooten was motivated to start the ACAAs after attending the funeral of a prominent black Canadian and, while hearing about the man’s esteemed accomplishments and successes, realized the unjustness of the fact that these tributes weren’t being paid while the person was alive to hear them. “I also realized that, because no public recognition was ever paid, or the person’s achievements never officially recognized and recorded, these accomplishments were lost to history – Black Canadian history,” adds Van Cooten in his ACAA Founder’s Message.
Since then, the ACAAs annually recognize and honour trailblazing, visionary and outstanding community members in the areas of Business, Law, Medicine, Politics, Religion, Education, Community Service, Media, Arts and Entertainment, Sports, Youth Achievement and Lifetime Achievement, along with a prestigious Founder’s Award. Among the over 350 notable recipients so far are The Late Rosemary Brown, Canada’s first African Canadian female MPP; the late Lincoln Alexander, Ontario’s former lieutenant-governor; Michael “Pinball” Clemons, Vice Chair Toronto Argonauts/Founder, Michael “Pinball” Clemons Foundation; The Honourable Jean Augustine, first Fairness Commissioner of Ontario; and Donovan Bailey, former Olympic Sprint Champion. Recently, the ceremony was moved back to being held in February during Black History Month to “where it rightfully belongs,” says Van Cooten.
On Saturday, February 9th, twelve more Canadian contemporary black history-makers will be celebrated at the 28th annual ACAAs. The gala event will be held at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, with tickets available for $40.00 for adults and $20.00 for students. Phone (905) 686-8868 or visit the official website for the ACAAs for more information. This year’s honourees include:
- Internationally renowned Soprano Measha Brueggergosman for Excellence in Arts and Entertainment.
- The Excellence in Business Award will go to Marie Critchlow, an accountant and founder and President of Just Incredible, a chain of beauty supply stores.
- York Region Police Inspector and former President of the Association of Black Law Enforcers (ABLE), Chris Bullen for Excellence in Law.
- Nathan Downer, a news reporter and anchor at CP24 will receive the Excellence in Media Award.
- Dr. Virginia Nsitem, a chiropractor, who specializes in pain management, will get the Excellence in Medicine Award.
- Ontario MPP (Don Valley East) and Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Tourism, Culture and Sport, Michael Coteau, receives the Excellence in Politics Award.
- Dr. Everald Lewis, Founder and President of Rhema Studies of Theology Association for Excellence in Religion.
- Former CFL trailblazing quarterback and businessman, Chuck Ealey for Excellence in Sports.
- Toronto Police Chief, Bill Blair will receive the Founder’s Award.
- Raphelita Walker, venerable volunteer and Jamaican Canadian Association (JCA) member for Excellence in Community Service.
- Dean of Ryerson University’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education, Dr. Gervan Fearon, for Excellence in Education.
- The Youth Achievement Award goes to Cherith Burke, a fast-rising fashion designer.
- The Lifetime Achievement Award goes to former Citizenship Judge and community stalwart, Pamela Appelt.
– Photos courtesy Michael Van Cooten, African Canadian Achievement Awards of Excellence
Throughout February VisionTV is observing Black History Month with a number of documentaries, interview programs and films featuring prominent black artists and influencers. See the full schedule here.
– Henry Lees