by Joy Osiagwu, Editorial Associate
Saturday 27 January 2024.
Black History Month opens with a loud ovation for Community leadership
As the United Nations Declaration of International Decade for People of African Descent winds up (2015–2024), Canadians from all works of life converged at the National Gallery, Ottawa, on Saturday, 27, for the annual opening ceremony of Black History Month under the theme: Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; a Future to Build.
February is a unique and historic month for the recognition and celebration of Black History in Canada, especially the culture and unwavering resilience of Black Canadians. It is also a time to applaud and honour the legacies of past and present Black Canadians who weaved and continue to add to the tapestry of life, shaping a strong and diverse Canada to the world’s admiration.
Moderated by Sarah Onyango, Community Outreach Coordinator, Black History Ottawa, the event began on a remarkable note with goodwill messages from the Canadian and provincial governments.
Member of Parliament, Ottawa Centre, Hon Yasir Naqvi, reminded the attendees of a milestone that should be applauded as a feat, referencing the election of Honourable Greg Fergus as Speaker of the House of Commons on October 3, 2023.
“There is some color on the wall, and there is still more work to be done, and we will do it together,” he said. Delivering the message of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, MP Naqvi encouraged all Canadians to join in the series of celebrations to mark the memorable achievements of Black Canadians.
The speakers all recalled the unforgettable role of the Iconic and brave Viola Desmond, who stood against racism in 1946 at the Rosland Theatre in Glasgow, Nova Scotia. MPP for Nepean, Hon Lisa MacLeod, representing the Ontario government, recalled Desmond’s brevity and the honor bestowed on her in November 2021, with her portraits adorning the exterior south wall of the building, 75 years after the incident at the theatre.
“It was the first Civil rights moment in North America…before Rosa Parks, there was a Viola Desmond.” I am so in awe of the Black Community leaders, ranging from the older to the younger generation,” the movement lives on! she said, while referring to the contributions of June Girvan, Fred Sherman II, and his wife Denise Siele, to mention a few. Accordingly, Fred Sherman III read the proclamation of Ontario for the Premier, Doug Ford.
The Mayor of the City of Ottawa, Mark Sutcliffe, dwelt on the same subject matter to drive home the message of the season that remarkable change can start with a spirit of bravery as exemplified by Viola Desmond, recalling one of her famous quotes: “Do your little bit of good where you are. It is those little bits of good put together that overwhelm the world.” He adds that though her action seemed little to her at the time, eighty years later, Desmond’s deed still set the foundation for a civil rights movement that continues today.
“We never know how much of an impact we are making with even the smallest, good deed and the impact it could have on a life or a country”, Mayor Sutcliffe added. He encouraged all Canadians to attend, volunteer, donate and support events like these and local charities that support the work of BIPOC communities for an all-inclusive Canada.
The leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party and leader of the opposition, MPP Marit Stiles, acknowledged the immense contributions of the Black community and the value added to the Canadian Mosaic.
“You have made Black History come alive not only in February but all year long through your celebration of resiliency and creativity of the Black community in all its diversity.” she noted. Even as the United Nations Decade for the People of African Descent ends this year, MPP Stiles encouraged the community to continue to “fight for justice and equity.” “Change must continue and must be seen through every government policy in education, climate justice, and so much more”, added Stiles.
The host of the event, the National Gallery of Canada, represented by the Director of Anti-Racism, Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Accessibility, Princewill Ogban, enumerated the work of the Gallery to support the drive for empowerment and celebration of people of African Descent by the United Nations.
In collaboration with Black History Ottawa’s June Girvan, he said the institution worked to develop a signatory statement to the UN Decade of the people of African Descent on Emancipation Day, August 2023. The signatory statement highlights “the intent to have a permanent collection of global African Artwork at the gallery in Ottawa”, he noted.
BHO Team, L-R, Jean-Marie Guerrier, June Girvan, Sarah Onyango, Godwin Ifedi & Joanne Robinson
The Vice President of Black History Ottawa, Jean-Marrie Guerrier, informed the attendees that Canada and the province of Ontario all adopted the UN Decade for people of African Descent, stressing that some of the objectives are promoting respect, protection of human rights and fundamental freedom for people of African Descent. He also announced that twenty-one organizations in Ottawa signed onto the spirit and intent of the decade. The city of Ottawa led the way by adopting the decade on March 22, 2018, a day set aside to eliminate racial discrimination. Guerrier said the twenty-one organizations are “turning good intentions into memorable actions.”
The celebration’s highlights were the unveiling of the annual Royal Canadian Mint fine silver coin for the 2024 edition in honour of the Black settlers of Amber Valley as part of the stories defining Canadian shared History.
The annual unveiling of the Canada Post commemorative stamp honoured trailblazer Mary Ann Shadd. She was the first Black woman in North America to publish and edit a newspaper, even as a practicing lawyer, an educator, and an abolitionist.
Awards were also presented to individuals and organizations who distinguished themselves in their service to the community.
Youth Leadership Category
Gelila Geremew bagged the award for her leadership and community engagement work as a volunteer at Jaku Konbit and Paul Menton Centre for students with disabilities.
Also in the category was Kristina Smart, responsible for leadership and community engagement as a volunteer with several organizations, including the Ottawa Police Service, Jaku Konbit, and the Jamaica Ottawa Community Association.
Michael Christopher Louisme for his leadership and community engagement as a tutor and mentor for students from marginalized communities.
Community Leadership Category
Abdirizak Karod was one of the award recipients for his work with the Children’s Aid Society of Ottawa, the Community Foundation of Ottawa, and the Asunnah Muslim Association of Ottawa.
Elizabeth December for her leadership and community engagement with the Black Scholarship Fund, the Guyana Ottawa Cultural Association, and the Anglican Church.
Anne-Marie Bostic for her leadership and community engagement, specifically as a volunteer with various organizations, including the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Ottawa, Fete Carib, and Club SOCCA.
Suzette Weekes bagged the award for her leadership and community engagement, specifically in her work as a volunteer with the St. Vincent & Grenadines Association of Ottawa, Black History Ottawa, and DreamKEEPERS, while Mylcha Kerr-Faucher also bagged the award for her community service efforts.
Sheila Pitt took home the award as well for her leadership in initiating the observance of MLK Jr Day in Ottawa, as well as her volunteer work with various community organizations and programs, including the Guyana Ottawa Association, Impact Heritage, the Harambee Foundation Ottawa, and Black History Ottawa. Sheila got a loud ovation for a surprised United Way East Ontario Community Builder Award.
Mylcha Kerr-Faucher: For her leadership and community engagement; specifically, as a volunteer with various organizations, including the National Capital Alliance on Race Relations (NCARR), Ottawa Police Service, Ottawa Community Immigrant Services Organization, HelpAge Canada, and the Jamaica Ottawa Community Association
John G Dennison Award
The award went to Elise Harding-Davis in recognition of her advocacy, leadership, and excellence in showcasing Canada’s Black History through educational initiatives, including activities linked to the Amherstburg Freedom Museum, the Nazrey African Methodist Episcopal Church National Historic Site, and other heritage sites.
The President’s Award
The president’s award went to the Ubuntu Collective, created by June Girvan, who also initiated the celebration of the United Nations Declaration of the Decade for People of African Descent in Ottawa.
The guests and government officials at the Federal and Provincial levels celebrated Girvan’s leadership in the community and contributions to a more diverse Canada.
A mini documentary on the tenth anniversary of the Black Ottawa Scene was also the toast of the night to celebrate the passion of the editor, Godwin Ifedi, for covering the people and events of Black Canadians in the capital region for a decade.
The opening ceremony is an annual event organized by Black History Ottawa, a Canadian charity dedicated to educating, informing, and entertaining Canadians about Black history, culture, traditions, and achievements of past and present Canadians of African Descent.
Samantha Christ Francois was on location to add colour to the celebration with her sonorous voice.
Click on the link to watch the remarkable messages and Samamtha Christ Francois performance.