By Lincoln DePradine
Jean Augustine, the former federal multicultural minister, who also served as a parliamentary secretary to ex-Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, was roasted, toasted, lauded and feted Sunday on her 80th birthday.
But, amidst all the fun and celebration at the $150-a-ticket brunch, the Grenada-born former MP, who represented Etobicoke-Lakeshore in the House of Commons, reminded guests at the packed Woodbine Banquet Hall of the larger reason for the gathering: raising funds for The Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University.
The Chair, requiring operational funding of $3 million, focuses on education, community and diaspora issues, with the added aim, advocates explain, of advancing “access, equity and inclusivity to education through community engagement and collaborative action.’’
Through the Chair, students, researchers and other Canadians, are able to peruse and study an extensive array of material belonging to Augustine including more than 17000 photographs and videos, as well as artifacts, her parliamentary chair, certificates and plaques.
“We want you to see this Chair as your own,’’ Augustine said.
The Chair was launched with a $1 million contribution from York University. Another $800, 000 has been raised through donations from Canadians, including members of the Black and Caribbean community.
“We can do it,’’ Augustine said, referring to the remaining $1.2 million that has to be raised. “This special birthday is a time we want you to pledge.’’
Augustine, who left Grenada in 1960 for Canada and was first employed as a domestic worker, is also a former school principal. She’s also been a member and executive officer of dozens of organizations, including the Congress of Black Women of Canada, and has been bestowed with six honorary doctorates.
In 1993, she created history by becoming the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons. On her retirement from elected politics, she worked with the Ontario government as the province’s Fairness Commissioner.
Family members – including Augustine’s children and grandchildren – friends, supporters, faculty and staff of York University, St Lucia-born British actor Joseph Marcell, diplomats and politicians – such as Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory – attended the birthday brunch, or sent celebratory greetings.
Grenada-born Liberal MP for Whitby, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, changed a scheduled visit to the United Kingdom to attend the brunch and delivered greetings from her family and the government of Canada.
“You change your schedule to accommodate those who have made a way for you to be here,’’ said Caesar-Chavannes.
A congratulatory message was sent, via video from St George’s, by Augustine’s cousin Dr Keith Mitchell, the Prime Minister of Grenada.
One of the diplomats in attendance was Grenada’s Consul General in Toronto, Derrick James, who commended the organizers for what he described as “this deserving tribute to Dr. Augustine, and for making it a truly memorable 80th birthday celebration for someone whose remarkable service to country and community is unmatched’’.
The Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora is held by Dr Carl James, who used Sunday’s occasion to explain the importance of the initiative and to also appeal for funding. James was appointed in 2016 to a five-year term.
“The Chair started with much community support, including major support from Black community members. For this reason,’’ said James, “we return to you – our donors and supporters – to tell you of our activities. We invite as many of you as possible to support the Chair and help us continue with this legacy that’s related to the community. Thanks very much for your support and for everything you have done.’’
A surprise appearance at Sunday’s brunch was made by Danny Glover, the well-known American actor, film director and political activist. He was in Toronto to speak at the historic First Baptist Church, as part of an ongoing effort by Torontonians to inspire more active political engagement in the Black community.
“I see many young people here who would take up your position and mantle and become citizens; citizens not only of Canada but citizens of the world,’’ Glover said in brief remarks at the brunch. “Citizenship is vital to doing the things that we need to do to establish a just world.’’
Augustine, in a comment to The Caribbean Camera, said she was “really very pleased’’ with the birthday event, and with the hard work of the team that organized it.
“It gave me an opportunity to ensure that folks know about the Chair, which is going to be in perpetuity, and that there would be opportunities for the community’s involvement in the Chair,’’ she said.
“I am looking to the community now to help with the completion of the Chair and the raising of the remaining $1.2 million.’’