The first black woman to be elected a member of Ontario’s parliament believes that the black community should strive to be a collective group and be supportive of each other.
Zanana Akande who is considered a trail blazer, was born in Toronto to immigrant parents from Barbados and St Lucia and faced barriers as a young black child growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood.
“I always encourage people to effect the collective,” said Akande during an interview with The Camera when she was honoured by the University of the West Indies last year. “We should recognize each other. I don’t care if you’re from Africa or different islands or Canadian or American, as black people we are a community. The sooner we began to operate like a community, I know that there are different groups within it, that’s fine…. What I’m saying is that even with those divisions, we should be recognized within our community and not work against each other.”
Akande said she has often times heard comments from people within the black community that they achieve everything on their own. “Do not ever think that you have achieved things all by yourself. People in other provinces, in situations, in other countries that have come to life and made it necessary for people to look at themselves or to clear a path that has helped you to move to the position you’re in. Do not think that the people who came 50 years ago did nothing. Remember that the situation was different and anything they did has helped you. I can’t say that enough to my kids…, to younger people, I cannot emphasize it enough. Be aware of the catch words when they say you’re different from them…. They are exactly the same, they may not have had the opportunities. This attempt to split us into segments is deliberate and we have to become aware of it.”
As a former school teacher, vice-principal and principal, Akande, who completed a Masters in Education, said her parents, who were both teachers before migrating here, always stressed the value of education.
“As a black kid growing up in Toronto, people did not see you in leadership roles,” she said adding that she was actively involved in her high school’s student council and other extra curricular activities.
She vividly recalls an incident at school that she believes was racist. “I remembered lending my notes to someone and they got an A and I got B and they were copying. On the side of my notes, it’s written ‘very neatly presented.’ I said to my mother, I’m going to go and speak to him (referring to the teacher) and she said ‘no you’re not.’ She said if he had given you a D and given her an A, it would have been, she said pick your battles and do something, it’s just the notes, what it is; 10 per cent of the marks, get a better mark and check the marks because at that time, they used to go over the exams.”
Akande served the New Democratic Party (NDP) for a number of years on committees and assisted with canvassing during elections. “I had studied their agenda in a general way and in a specific way when it came to each election and I identified with the issues and their position with the issues more than I did with any other party and I took that whole thing seriously. My father always used to say that a democracy demands an informed and involved population…. My choice of the NDP was not trivia, it was real.”
She was encouraged to run for a seat in the legislature. She was first asked to represent Scarborough which had a big black population. She decided against it, as she felt that the constituents may not be supportive of her.
However, two weeks before the 1990 election, Akande decided to throw her hat in the race for the riding of St Andrew – St Patrick and she won after campaigning on issues that effected the residents. She was appointed Minister of Community and Social Services, but one year later, she resigned amidst some controversy.
She was accused of overcharging her tenants. The media hounded her and her family,
“I had to go to rent review and the final verdict was that I did not overcharge my tenant by $5 more and they had a whole extra room. But, what that meant to me is not the rent issue but they trivially were picking on the issue rather than focusing on the issue. When I resigned from the cabinet, I stood in the house and said, the work of the government is far too important for it to be distracted by the trivia by issues of rent. There was a woman who accused me of this over charging rent in the PC party who picked at my clothes, she come to me and she would say you looked like a model. In the newspaper, you could find references to my manicured hands, to the temporary leader of the opposition talk about the car I drove, which he said that it was a very expensive car but it wasn’t but it was a Volvo, it was a limited edition. The reporters would talked about where I lived and where some of my children were in private school. In fact a reporter, who later ran for the NDP said to a mutual friend of ours ‘she doesn’t represent the black community.’” Akande lived in Forest Hill, an affluent neighbourhood, where she still lives today.
She added that she did not want to go through “this trivia, stupidity. Thank God they seemed to have changed but that’s what happen when you’re the first. People think it’s so wonderful when you’re the first, she said with a chuckle. “I said to one reporter, I’m actually doing you all favour to resign. It allows you to focus on government, rather than on my personal life. They actually wrote up a list of the students that my youngest daughter was going to school with – it was so trivia and upsetting. I felt they were taking the issues seriously and it was deflecting from what was really happening. They were mentioning my children. I had put my name on the ballot they had not.”
Another reason Akande left the government was what she describes as relatively minor. The government’s treatment of Carlton Masters, who was Ontario’s New York Agent General. He was accused of sexual harassment but was later found to be innocent. “… their treatment of him was unconscionable, half chaos and I thought that how can you respect that kind of treatment from a government of which you are a part,” the former NDP minister recalled with deep emotion.
Now, happily retired with grand children, Akande said a lot have been changed over the years. However, she is warning young black Canadians that “they should not assume that its going to be clear sailing. The opposition has just become more sophisticated and they may not be as obvious, probably, and as open, and may well continue in other ways…. It is also wise to be aware that there may be some other issues and it’s helpful to have that openness because you don’t want to become paranoia. You don’t want to be one of those people that everything that happened is because you’re black, that’s unhealthy and it prevents you from improving yourself. It prevents you from looking at the situation critically. Be critical, be objective of yourself, be prepared but opened.”
When asked to sum-up her career path and achievements she said “I would say that I have done nothing exceptionally but I have progressed haltingly but determinable and hopefully with my mental health still intact.”