Erica Marcantonio Gr.12 Student Bishop Ryan High School Hamilton, Ontario
The Honourable Jean Augustine
“It’s important that no one be able to say that blacks can’t perform in every segment of Canadian society, because we can,” the Honourable Jean Augustine stated to reporter Vernon Clement Jones of Toronto’s Globe and Mail (2002). To call Jean Augustine a trailblazer for black women in Canada is an understatement given her numerous, outstanding achievements. As an immigrant to Canada, she became “the first African Canadian woman to be elected to the House of Commons in 1993, the first African Canadian to be appointed to the Federal Cabinet and later became the first Fairness Commissioner of the government of Ontario” (Mcleod, “Jean Augustine”). Her passion and fight for equality would resonate to our diverse population offering hope where individuals experienced little.
Augustine immigrated to Canada searching for new opportunities. She was born in Happy Hill, Grenada in 1937, the daughter of Olive and Ossie Simon, a sugar cane plantation worker. Her family encouraged education and Augustine became a teacher. With wages too low, she left Grenada and sought opportunities working as a nanny for Canadian families in 1960, Toronto. She then continued her education and became a teacher, then principal for the Metropolitan Separate School Board. Throughout her teaching career, Jean Augustine was an activist in Toronto’s Caribbean communities, “volunteering with grassroots organizations to strengthen immigrant and women’s rights” (McCleod, “Jean Augustine”). And so began her political career where she embarked on conquering the injustice immigrants and women were facing in Canada.
“The fact that we are able to celebrate Black History Month is due in large to the efforts of the Honourable Jean Augustine” (Medford, “Jean Augustine…”). In 1993, Augustine supported the idea of Black History month being celebrated across the nation. She recognized that contributions by Black Canadians were not part of the school curriculum. How can extraordinary Black Canadians, like James Douglas, Lincoln Alexander, Viola Desmond, and Lawrence Hill, to name a few, serve as role models for young Black Canadians if their lives go unnoticed? Augustine put forth a motion before Parliament to recognize February as Black History month, asking, “That this House take note of the important contribution of Black Canadians to the settlement, growth and development of Canada, the diversity of the Black community in Canada and its importance to the history of this country” (McCleod, “Jean Augustine”). The motion was passed unanimously in December, 1995.
Jean Augustine’s life and career has always been dedicated to the service of the citizens of Canada and to be a role model to the young and diverse population. As the nation’s first female, black Member of Parliament she “hoped to see the country leaning towards diversity and inclusion” (Medford, “Jean Augustine…”). She wanted to address in parliament “some of the social issues that were facing the black community” (Medford, “Jean Augustine…”). In 2012, she was invited to address students at the Westview Centennial School in North York. Principal Patrick Knight stated, “Her visit means a lot and will impact our students in a very positive way” (Lepore, “Canada’s First Black…”). Paulet Bierdman, a personal development and self-esteem expert stated that female students lack exposure to successful and accomplished role models to emulate (Lepore, “Canada’s First Black…”). Jean Augustine inspired many that day.
In 2007, Augustine was appointed Ontario’s Fairness Commissioner. The agency worked to assure immigrants were treated fairly when entering a regulated profession. As an immigrant herself, she understood the struggle and used her experience and skills as an activist to work with regulators. Augustine “had a mandate to ensure that foreign-trained professionals trying to get licensed in Ontario encounter a transparent, objective, impartial and fair registration system” (Keung, “Jean Augustine…”). Her achievements ultimately inspired other provinces to follow suit.
The Honourable Jean Augustine, born in Grenada, came to Canada with a modest education and a dream for bigger opportunities. This is the story of my grandparents, perhaps your parents, neighbours and friends. We are a nation of diverse backgrounds all here to live the best lives possible. Augustine’s passion to make life better for all newcomers would inspire many who followed.
Jones, Vernon Clement. "Cabinet Posting a Benchmark." The Globe and Mail, 2002, http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/cabinet-posting-a-benchmark/article4135988. Keung, Nicholas. "Jean Augustine, Ontario's Fairness Commissioner Retires At 77." Thestar.Com, 2015, http://www.thestar.com/news/immigration/2015/03/22/jean-augustine. Lepore, David. "Canada’s First Black Female MP, Hon. Jean Augustine." Thecaribbeancurrent.Com, 2012, http://www.thecaribbeancurrent.com/canadas-first-black-female-mp-hon-jean-augustine. McLeod, Susanna. "Jean Augustine." The Canadian Encyclopedia, 2016, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/jean-augustine. Medford, Marcus. "Jean Augustine: The First Black Woman to Be Elected To Parliament." By Blacks, 2017, http://www.byblacks.com/profiles/jean-augustine.