By Jasminee Sahoye
Celebrations of the contributions made by black Canadians in Canada are everywhere in Canada throughout this month as Black History Month is being observed.
One of the country’s top financial institutions, Royal Bank of Canada has joined in recognizing the work of high school students through an essay competition.
More than 160 students entered their 700 word essays on how black Canadians have helped to define Canada’s diverse heritage and identify through their achievements and contributions to the broader society.
The top 10 essays were selected but there only three top prizes although the other seven students, each received certificates and gift cards.
Judging the essays were judge of the Ontario Provincial Court of Justice, Justice Irvin Andre, CBC TV news anchor, Dwight Drummond, OPP Inspector Rohan Thompson, CEO, Greater Toronto Civic Action Alliance, Mitzie Hunter, professor at McMaster University, Dr. Juliet Daniels and president of the Jamaican Canadian Association, Audrey Campbell.
Dozens of high ranking Black leaders were in attendance including Jean Augustine, the first Black woman of Caribbean descent to have been elected in the House of Commons as Member of Parliament. She was successful in getting the House to declare February as Black History month. The first black woman to serve the Ontario, Zanana Akande, was also present.
Also present was the fourth African Canadian to be named a Senator in Canada’s 145 year old history, Jamaica-born Don Meredith, who said “we are moving up,” referring to Black Canadians.
Artistic Director, Toronto International Film Festival, Cameron Bailey, the keynote speaker talked about how Toronto’s diversity is reflected in the myriad festivals celebrated in the city. He explained how the work he does is shaped by his own history as an African Canadian and an immigrant who came to Canada in the 1970s with his sister Maxine from Barbados. “I grew up first in suburban Toronto, a child of a single mother, living in public housing life many of you. I entered school with a West Indian accent and had no idea how things worked here. By the 1980s, I was a student trying to balance my love of pure art and pure idea with the growing knowledge that art and ideas are always shaped by the context who produced them.”
Bailey, who graduated from the University of Western Ontario added that in 1990 he spend much of his time writing about the art form in which he found ideas express most persuasively – film. He said he tried to connect his experience with the wide world of international cinema. As part of his work at the job in the film industry, he visited Africa, worked with film producers there and brought back some of the film to Toronto as part of the Planet Africa program.
First place winner, Markham District Public School student, Matthew Samuels, told The Camera about his experience.
“It’s kind of surreal. I don’t know if it really happened yet, so I’ll see how I feel when I wake up,” the 17 year-old, who wants to pursue studies in civil engineering, said after he received his prize. He has applied to a number of universities but his first choice is University of Waterloo.
When he submitted his essay, winning the first prize was not what he expected. “ I don’t that I was thinking this far ahead. I was thinking let me submit something that is really good and see where it takes me…”
He spent more than 10 hours researching and writing his essay on his own. “I tried to keep it a secret from my parents,” the well-spoken youth said.
Second place winner, Bramalea Secondary School, Zeana Harrison was ecstatic about her good fortune, adding that her hard work paid off. “Essay writing used to be something that kind of intimidated me but I had to do it a lot this year so I figured I wanted to try and do this and see what happens I had a lot of fun with it and I got to talk to my teacher because I interviewed her and I learnt a lot. I was very happy with the result.”
When she started researching for her essay about women who laid the foundation for the diverse and accepting country we live in today, Zeana was a bit unsure on what slant to take.
“In the beginning I was going to talk a bit about Rosemary Brown as well as another black politician and focus on political activists but I talked to a couple of my teachers, and one them brought up the point of talking about the community because it’s not always as talked about. People always talked about the big names but they actually forget about the people that are within their community.”
For third place winner, Wadia Forrester, said she feels very blessed to have been chosen as the top three.
She said she decided to write about Lincoln Alexander because she had heard about him and his legacy at school. “I felt compelled to write about him. I read his biography and I was very surprised. I said this is something that should be written about and that’s why I decided to write about him.”
The Grade 12 Oakville resident, who hopes to pursue studies in the Sciences, said her parents, who are from Jamaica, have always instill that education is the key to success. “I included in my essay that my parents have always emphasized the importance of getting a good education…. The essay is also about education, so I included in my essay, I always remember my dad would say ‘good things never come easy’,” she said.
Parents Rev. and Mrs Forrester are very proud of their daughter’s achievement. They say she has spent long hours compiling the essay, describing her as hard working, determined and disciplined.
Wadia’s father said anyone can succeed regardless of race. “Once you work hard and with diligence, there’s an opportunity out there for you and you can ascribe that opportunity.” He strongly believes that brings rewards, “as an educator myself, I always enforce that that’s done.”
Mrs Forrester, wants the best for Wadia and believes that “knowledge is power and no matter where you go, you’ll be respected for that.”
The judges had their work cut out. OPP Inspector Rohan Thompson told The Camera “It was very tough decisions because these young kids are very bright. Their stories were compelling and well written. At the end of the day, we had to make a decision. We thought in terms of educational value thought, this really went back into history and brought it forward so I think that really added a lot of some really good perspective.”
The winning entries had to show added value to the Canadian society. “For myself, it definitely was a learning experience. It was so great to see the stories that these kids were able to research and put together. It’s obviously they would need that skills set going into university next year, so it was great to see that.”
Another judge CBC New Anchor, Dwight Drummond said: “It was difficult because the top 10 were really good and they were really close together. For me, what you’re looking for is good grammar, you’re looking for a good story and you’re looking for them to really tie in what Black history month is all about. I felt that the top three winners really encapsulated that, they really captured it but it wasn’t easy. It was very really difficult to pick. For me, it was hearten to see these young people celebrating Black history, African history, Caribbean history. I’m always happen when young people are studying, researching and writing about the history because that’s what keeps it alive.”
He added it was a tough decision to pick the top three. “I’m not sure we were all in agreement but at the end of the day it was a consensus thing.”