In conversation with Suzan Lavertu, Founder, School of Afro-Caribbean Dance

Suzan Lavertu

Suzan Lavertu

Photo credit: DHM Photography

Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you?

I was born in Montreal, Quebec. I have one brother and four sisters. My parents are from Dominica and there was always an effort to ensure that the language, food and culture were shared in our household. 

Was there any person or persons that influenced your childhood the most?

My parents were a huge influence in my life, My mother worked  two nursing jobs to make sure that we had  what we needed, as a result  my father did a lot of the care giving and cooking in our house.  From my mother, I learned the important lesson of hard work, giving back and life balance. From my dad I learned how to cook, dance and appreciate music as there was always music playing in our home. 

What is your educational background?

I attended CEJEP Montmorency, Dawson College Carleton University and Algonquin College.

Could you describe your day job?

I work for the City Of Ottawa, at Employment and Financial Assistance as a Business Applications Support Specialist.  In my role, I train staff on the computer system used to issue financial services and provide ongoing support as part of a team.

You are the owner of the Afro-Caribbean Arts Studio of Afro-Caribbean Dance.  What is the origin of the studio and what have been its successes and challenges?

When I moved from Montreal to Ottawa in 1989, I was seeking a place where I could share my love of Afro-Caribbean dance with others. Unfortunately, there was no such place at that time. I danced with a student group at university while studying but after graduation I needed a place to express myself.  Dance schools in the area did not offer the type of dance I was seeking and adult dance classes were rare at my level for dancers who wanted to dance recreationally.  My mother always squirreled away funds to help me on our educational journey.  Once I graduated my mother asked if I would like to use the remaining  funds to purchase a home or a business. I choose a business and created the program  I was looking for and opened our own space.  In the ice storm of 1998, I lost everything due to water damage in our space. The water had damaged our wood floors, mud-caked over our mirrors, the sound system and costumes destroyed. We were insured, however my naivety when it came to business insurance at the time, did not cover the ice storm. 

I was blessed to have of two members from the community whose daughters were benefitting from the program, held me up, and encouraged me to continue. We rented space in unconventional places to continue our program before finding space in the community centers. We are now proudly celebrating 20 years in the community.  

You are also the organizer and prime mover of the annual Afro-Caribbean Cotillion. What is the purpose of this event and how long has it been running? 

The Afro-Caribbean Cotillion was created from the simple thought of wanting to give back to the young women in our community. I believe that true success is achieved when you are able to share with others.  The Afro-Caribbean Cotillion Ball event is a formal ball at which young women (ages of 15 to 22) of African or Caribbean descent are presented to the greater community. It’s a celebration of the journey that these young women have taken after training and guidance by volunteer Mentors who are specialists in the areas of social graces & etiquette, life skills and youth empowerment. The Afro-Caribbean Cotillion is a 12 week project for young women of African or Caribbean descent. Each week we work from the outside in, to gain added confidence and enhanced respect for themselves as they learn to dance, become articulate and at ease in social situations, with the support of our various volunteer community Mentors and as a result, become well prepared and respected young adults in their own communities.  Examples of our sessions include: dressing for your body type; rites of passage;  physical & mental health; financial management; resume writing and public speaking.  

The cotillion experience has helped countless young women gain the poise and knowledge needed for all kinds of social events, job and college interviews, national and international travel and ultimately, success in their adult life.  We are a non-profitable project created for the sole purpose of giving back.

 It would seem that the cotillion, despite its name, attracts mostly people from the Caribbean. Can you think of any reason why participation from people from Continental Africa has been very limited to date?

I disagree with this statement. From the very first year of the Afro-Caribbean Cotillion, we have had protégés participation from Botswana, Ethiopia, Angola, Nigeria, Somalia and Ghana to name a few. Our guests to The Afro-Caribbean Cotillion Ball are a reflection of our protégés participating in the process. We invite all community groups, the general public, Embassies, High Commissions, Ministers of Parliament and municipal representatives to attend.

 I do however believe that some in our community assume that the word “cotillion “ implies the  that it is for the wealthy.  They are basing their impression on American cotillions where traditionally they were for the wealthy to met other wealthy people.  That is no longer the case. Cotillions now are for  young people to learn social skills and graces. The Afro-Caribbean Cotillion does all that and more by including a cultural perspective in addition to providing other essential tools needed in today’s society.

Outside of your involvement with the Studio and the Cotillion, do you have any other outside interests or hobbies?

Yes, I love to read, paint, sing and travel with my family.

 You are one of very few people within the black community who volunteer for the well-being of others. How would you explain why it is so difficult to get people to commit to volunteering, to give back, so that those who are vulnerable and disadvantaged can prosper. I am thinking of those who are well established in jobs or businesses, who can readily invest a few hours each week or month to mentor our youth, serve on not-for- profit organizations and so help our community move forward.

I believe that it has to be a calling to the right project. I also believe that we as a community need to think outside the box, use resources that exist in the greater community.  Business is tough, and I was not always in a position  to be able to give back because I was growing my business, working a day job and balancing my family. It’s because that balance is under control that I am able to give back. The other issue is that our community has deep routed trust issues.  It takes a lot of hard work to earn the trust of our community not only  within each specific country or island but with each other.  My parents always used to say: be prepared to be “chief cook and bottle washer”, meaning you have to be prepared to do all tasks  when getting things done.  Unfortunately because of a lack of resources not everyone is ready to do that on a volunteer basis.  Another issue is that we need to focus on our generation Canadian born youth of Caribbean and African descent  with relevant  community support , their needs are not the same as  the black immigrant  experience. 

 Can you describe the awards you have received in the past? 

United Way Community Builder:  United Way Ottawa honors Ottawa’s outstanding volunteers through its Community Builder Award program — those organizations, partnerships, agencies, neighborhood groups and individuals who work tirelessly, passionately and collaboratively to make Ottawa a better place in which to live, work and raise a family. Each Community Builder Award recipient’s name is inscribed on the Wall of Inspiration. Located in Jean Pigott Hall at Ottawa City Hall, the Wall of Inspiration is a visible, permanent reminder to residents and Visitors of the enduring commitment that these individuals and organizations have made to Ottawa. 

YWCA-YMCA Woman of Distinction Awards – Nominee:  Health Living Category. Recognized nationally, the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards is our premier fundraising event, honouring extraordinary women leaders, while highlighting YWCA programs and services that improve the lives of thousands of people each year across the Ottawa region The YWCA Women of Distinction Awards also honours businesses and organizations that support the wellness and diverse needs of their employees and volunteers. 

Cultural Mosaic Award:   3C’s Ottawa Community Recognition for promoting diversity and culture in the Ottawa/ Outaouais region. 

The Global Community Alliance Award:  Recognition of contributions that highlight and encourage unity in Ottawa, values that our community holds dear. 

The Jamaica Ottawa Community Association Heroes Award:  Arts & Business Honorees for the development and promotion of culture to the Jamaica Ottawa community and greater Caribbean community

 Looking at Canada’s black population, there seems to be a divide between African and Caribbean communities, on the one hand, and Anglophone and francophone communities on the other. On another front, there appears to be a divide between people from the Caribbean and people from continental Africa. Do you agree with this perspective and if so, what can be done to remedy this divide?

I believe that if we focus on our youth and their experiences as Canadian of African  and/or Caribbean descent,  we can unify because that is what we have in common.  There also has to be more opportunity to participate in each cultural others celebrations. This would highlight our commonalities as well.

Over the years, have you seen any change in the status of the black population in Canada? Are we any better off now than say, ten or fifteen years ago? Do you note any differences between progress by black women compared to black men?

We absolutely have progressed, changed, grown. The differences we face the same struggles and realities however their experiences and realities that are unique to the black woman and black man.

There are some segments of our community which claim that black men do not respect black women and vice versa. They suggest that we tend to defer to other races when we interact with them, especially white Caucasians. Do you agree with this perspective?

I disagree.  I completely respect the black man. He is my brother, the black women my sister.

Looking at the Black population in Canada, what do you see as our greatest challenges and how do we resolve them? What are our strengths?

Our greatest challenges is learning how to celebrate our culture, values and traditions in a Canadian context so that it remains relevant for our youth.  Our youth are struggling with identity. Their roots are entwined with many and they are sometimes being fed with information  that is inaccurate and misleading. We as a community, need to take responsibility for that to make sure our youth are dreamers, thinkers, and achievers.  We need to be sure that they are motivated and elevated.  Our future depends on it.

Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

I would like to thank the community for their ongoing support over the past 20 years. Thank you for trusting your children with me. Thank you for believing that all things are possible when we walk this journey together. Please come and experience The Afro-Caribbean Cotillion on April 9, 2016.  I guarantee you will leave uplifted and celebrated by being in the presence of our phenomenal youth.  Join us on May 14th, for a cultural journey through dance. We are such a talented people and there is nothing better than celebrating culture as one family.

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1 comment

  1. Way to go my cousin!
    I am do proud of you. Hopefully you are a trendsetter that many will emulate.
    You are articulate, eloquent and ambitious.
    Keep doing what you are doing!
    Love, your cousin Lucia ❤

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