ROSEMARY’S GLASS BOX
I am a benefactor of ripened soil, I come from the country of the rising sun. We may be a minority but we are also a melody in C major. While the songs of this celebration should transcend across the lands of this nation, it is more beneficial to imagine a country in which we do not limit the singing of this tune to one month of the year but accept the contributions of black Canadians as part of our national fabric. It is also beneficial to imagine a nation in which the concerns of black Canadians are represented in. One individual who used her voice to not only advocate for herself but to articulate the needs of women and black Canadians is Rosemary Brown, the first Black female in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia.
As women and leaders from visible minorities fill seats in the House of Commons, it is too easy to forget the importance of ‘firsts’ (Chowdhry, 2017). To understand the significance of Rosemary Brown’s contributions, it is imperative we put into context the challenges she faced as the first black Canadian woman running for office in the Legislative Assembly. When Rosemary Brown immigrated from Jamaica in 1951, she was engulfed in layers of both racism and sexism. As a young, black university student, she struggled to find employment and housing due to oppressive social norms. Despite this, she managed to achieve a Bachelors of Social Work at McGill University and Master of Social Work at the University of British Columbia (Snyder, 2010).
More than anyone at the time, Ms. Brown knew that to be black and to be a woman was to be trapped in a glass box coated with layers of inequality. As she watched her white male and female counterparts ascend through opportunities handed to them at the qualification of their skin tone, she stood squarely against the walls of this glass box. While every scream and push would only fog the glass, or scratch the surface, she did not stop pushing until she destroyed barriers previously believed to be shatterproof.
In 1960, she joined the British Columbian Association for the Advancement of Coloured People acting as an advocate for both women and coloured people during a time of political charge against racism and sexism (Snyder, 2010). As a Black woman, she brought a distinct understanding of intersecting social issues. This enabled her to win a seat in the riding of Vancouver-Burrard in 1972 becoming the first Black woman in the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia. Her lifelong marathon through obstacles of oppression begs a question not exclusively applicable to black, female Canadians but challenging for all. In our daily lives, as we are confronted with the barriers of disability, poverty or even mental health stigmas should we be complicit in response or push through?
There is no one stock image or action that springs to mind along with the words ‘racism’ or ‘sexism’. Instead, these issues are consistent throughout the pillars of Canadian society. These include educational institutions in which textbooks lack the representation of successful coloured women, judicial institutions in which black inmates are more likely to be placed in maximum security and economic institutions where women of colour are prevented from receiving equal opportunities (Mcintyre, 2016). Women like Rosemary Brown created their own pillars of hope by inspiring future generations to challenge systematic oppression. She utilized her position in politics to create a committee focused on extracting sexist elements of British Columbia's educational material and opposed racism by boldly running for leadership of the federal New Democratic Party. The brave actions of coloured women like Rosemary Brown helped to pave the way for a more accepting, tolerant Canadian society. Whereas visible minorities constitute 19.1% of the overall Canadian population, 13.6% of the total 338 seats in the House of Commons are occupied by visible minorities (Chowdhry, 2017). This statistic is not just a number, the inclusion of visible minorities in Parliament is what preserves our voices as part of the political debate on issues such as healthcare, education and the economy and empowers a traditionally oppressed group to enact change on issues that have long been ignored by the majority in power. Although Rosemary Brown was a ‘first’, her message of equity, hope and self advocacy has moved from glass box to podium box in a way Canada will never forget.
Chowdhry, A. (2017, March 25). Record number of visible minority MPs elected to Commons. Retrieved December 01, 2017, from https://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/record-number-of-visible-minority-mps-elected-to-commons/article26892245/.
Mcintyre, C. (2016, April 21). Canada has a Black Incarceration Problem that Human Rights Advocates say isn't Being Addressed. Retrieved November 30, 2017, from https://torontoist.com/2016/04/african-canadian-prison-population/.
Sadlier, R.. Black History Timeline Canada. Retrieved December 01, 2017, from http://blackhistorycanada.ca/timeline.php?id=1900.
Snyder, Lorraine. "Rosemary Brown". The Canadian Encyclopedia. Toronto: Historica Canada, 2010. Web. 28 Jan 2010.