By: Dwain Wellington Rattray
Light, Learning, Liberty. That was the theme of the 10th Annual University of the West Indies (UWI) Toronto Benefit Gala, on April 6, 2019, held at the prestigious Ritz Carlton Hotel in downtown Toronto. The fitting notion creates a synergy with the motto of UWI— Oriens Ex Occidente Lux— “A Light Rising from the West.” The light of collective accomplishment certainly shone as the packed ballroom witnessed awardees be recognized and lauded.
The UWI Toronto Benefit Gala seeks “to raise funds for scholarships to benefit aspiring students in great need and to honour extraordinary individuals and organizations.” Awards are divided into four categories, namely: Chancellor, G. Raymond Chang, Luminary, and Vice Chancellor Awards. In an evening which resonated with excellence, seven awards were bestowed upon six individuals and one organization. The 2019 honourees are: Dr. Mohamad Fakih, Sandals Resorts International, Dr. Juliet Daniel, The Honourable Justice Gregory Regis, Dr. Joy Spence, Ms. Deborah Cox, and Mr. Damian Marley.
It is no secret that ties between Canada, in general and Toronto/GTA in particular, and the Caribbean are stronger than ever. The successful event continues to strengthen those ties, while simultaneously benefitting students. In bringing greetings from Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen said, “The power of immigration is not just based on that search for a better life, but also to give back to Canada.” The minister continued saying that immigrants were “creating a Canada that is better than the one we found; giving back so much to the country that has adopted us.” Hussen noted that he intended to visit Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago soon, because the Canadian government is pursuing “efforts to continue to strengthen bilateral relationships; to tap into the best and brightest in the world.”
That sentiment is embodied in the person of Jermaine Nairne, the first scholarship recipient at the inaugural gala. “As a member of the gala committee, I can tell you that what you see here this evening is but a small piece of the puzzle called life transformation,” he said. Nairne continued to articulate the importance of the scholarships, noting that they were, “transformative because you literally change the trajectory of the lives of the students; transformative because it’s giving a hand up. What you do is to take both corrective as well as proactive action.” Born to a 17-year-old, the Keynote Speaker and Leadership Coach says that without being given a hand up, he would not be where he is today. “Beyond the glitz of the evening are students whose hopes and dreams whose aspirations and talent development rest on every effort that we make to pull them up,” he said.
Professor Sir Hilary Beckles, who is Vice-Chancellor of UWI, told guests that the gala was a noble idea truly worthy of celebration. Highlighting the calibre of the institution, Beckles said: “Of all the 151 universities in the Caribbean, we are number one; of the 2000 universities that are in the Caribbean and Latin America, we are in the top 3 percent and of the 28,000 in the world we are in the top 5 percent.”
Donette Chin-Loy Chang, co-patron of the benefit, told the story of how “a lunch meeting at the UWI Mona campus, eleven years ago…changed 500 lives across the entire English-Speaking Caribbean; and raised nearly $2 Million Dollars.” The widow of the late Raymond Chang said: “In nine years, we have honoured 76 phenomenal leaders; we’ve hosted about 4,050 guests.”
In accepting her award, Grammy Award nominated, multi-platinum R & B/Pop recording artist and actress Deborah Cox says that she is motivated to use her platform to encourage young people and that starts with her own children. “I am so proud to be Canadian. I’m so proud to be of Caribbean descent. It helps me with my perspective of my humble beginnings,” Cox said.
Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley shared that he had an emotional attachment to UWI. He said that receiving the award was a very big deal for him. “I am also a big advocate for education; I can see where my education has helped me in my career in music.” he shared.
It is the words of 2018/19 scholarship recipient Howard Brown, from UWI’s Open Campus, that encapsulate the cogent meaning of the gala: “In a global world that is faced with social imbalances there is need for more agents of change. Agents of change that will help to create a catalyst through which we can enhance equilibrium in our societies.”