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Hon. Dr. Jean Augustine: Working to Improve the Human Condition

Hon. Dr. Jean Augustine has made history time and time again. In 1993, she became the first Black Canadian woman elected to the House of Commons, and the first Black woman in Cabinet in 2002. She was named the first Fairness Commissioner by the Government of Ontario in 2007. There have been many other pioneering moments before, during, and after these.

In 1995, she was instrumental in establishing Black History Month in Canada. Augustine has made a name for herself in politics, education, and social justice. Her unwavering commitment to service includes advocacy for victims of domestic violence, women, children, and marginalized groups throughout Ontario and across Canada. During her tenure as a politician, she helped forge ties among political allies and states.

Augustine continues to make her voice heard through her ongoing work on various local and national initiatives. The Edge was thrilled to chat with her about her epic journey.

You’ve enjoyed a career dedicated to public service; what have been your most significant challenges and successes?

When I started in education, we did not have the school boards communicating with parents or parents being interactive as they are today. You could count the number of us who were Black educators on your fingers. There were challenges as a Black woman, as an immigrant woman, and Black educator. At the same time, there was also a significant challenge of not seeing anything about Black or Indigenous people in my teaching curriculum modules. I also knew that being an educator put me in a unique position to do something about it.

There were also challenges as the Fairness Commissioner when people entered this country with certification, credentials, experience, and expertise. It was difficult for them to get into their field because the bodies that regulated the professions asked them to do many things. We worked with other provinces and brought other regions and countries on board.

As the first Black woman to hold these historical roles in Canada, did you ever think such an achievement would have become a part of your career?

I grew up in Happy Hill, Saint George, Grenada—a small village three miles from the city. I was an avid reader. I used to sit on the school floor or go to Sunday Mass and sit on the floor in front of the priest, have big dreams and the vision to make something of my life.

I say to young people, “It’s not where you’re coming from,” right? In those days, the families looked after the boys to make sure they went to post-secondary school. There were no preparations made for girls’ future education. So, my goal was always to be an excellent teacher and consistently pursue whatever was necessary.

The school boards didn’t keep the schools open early or late for community use, so it was essential to make and advocate for changes. I want to emphasize that I worked with others. I teamed up with others. I supported others. I added my skill to the skill of others so that we could make the changes we felt were necessary.

You served as the parliamentary secretary to then-Prime Minister, The Honourable Jean Chrétien. What was your experience?

I love the Prime Minister, and I think that, in return, he had great respect and love for me. They always referred to me as “Madame Augustine” and included me in whatever was happening. They gave me the space to do the best that I could, to be the kind of parliamentarian I wanted to be, and to spread my wings and fly. I’ll give you an example.

The Caribbean leaders of government would always come to Canada for the Caribbean Heads of State meeting with the PM of Canada. So, I suggested that Prime Minister Chrétien go to them rather than have all 14 of them come to Canada. Thus, the Canadian Delegation and the entire Canadian press corps went to Grenada. We did the work and then ended the conference with a big gala like we do here. We held an excellent reception on the deck of a Canadian military warship that had docked for the occasion. The combination of the Canadian uniform, the RCMP, and the Grenadian uniform was just something to see!

I was privileged to travel with the Secretary of State for Africa to about 14 countries asking for the different African countries to vote for Canada’s place on the United Nations Security Council. And that’s a big job because you’re not talking to bureaucrats; you’re talking directly to the country’s head to ask for their support. So, I’m saying this because my Cabinet colleagues, senior people, and the Prime Minister of Canada had confidence vested in me.

In 1995, you spearheaded the unanimous vote to designate February as Black History Month in Canada. Can you explain how this reflects your cultural heritage then and today?

Those who follow history…the parliamentary conversations [back then] had a lot to do with trade. After NAFTA and the Canada-US maneuvering was underway—just as they are today—around specific trade issues then, it was all finance, money, debt, deficit, cutbacks, and et cetera. It was a difficult time to be thinking of approaching colleagues with the question of social justice! But that is precisely what I knew I had to do.

My experiences had shaped me as a teacher. [I was] still mindful of [the lack of] content in the modules around Black or Indigenous peoples. Can you imagine selling the idea of Black History Month to 308 members of Parliament who were perhaps working on other matters? I had two options: to do a private member’s bill or to make a motion. I chose the latter and knew I had to be tactical. I remember approaching other MPs in the halls and elevators, telling them about my motion to establish February as Black History Month in Canada. I would give each a copy and ask for their support. I even met with and gained the help of the leadership of all five political parties in Parliament.

Today, having Black History Month means that teachers, educators, writers, artists, and others in every sphere of endeavour can talk about the history of African Canadians.

As a Black woman, was gender or race ever an issue or concern in your tenure as a cabinet minister? 

I never allowed myself to be a victim. I have always been an assertive and proud Black woman. I dealt with any microaggression swiftly and would speak candidly with the individual about the act of perceived racism. At the same time, it’s essential to underscore my intersectionality. I was a woman. I was Black. I was an immigrant. I was Catholic. So, when something happened, I would ask myself, “What intersection is at play now?” The fact is, sometimes we are stereotyped and underestimated—not allowed to manifest our total capacity. So, we must be vigilant against stereotypes or generalizations. We must remain confident about self-purpose.

What steps can we take to ensure that corporations and governments comply and implement diversity initiatives?

I am immensely proud to see that we have a vast array of legislation, policies, and guidelines addressing critical issues like equity, violence against women, stalking, and child protection. We can work out methodologies, but we sometimes fall short in implementation.

With regards to diversity, whether it is a corporate body or government, everyone must comply. The 1982 Charter of Rights says you can’t discriminate based on age, religion, and so on. We now have so many other statutory tools co-existing with our Charter: the Canadian Human Rights Act; the Canadian Bill of Rights; the Employment Equity Act; the Canadian Multiculturalism Act; the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act; and the Citizenship Act.

We have all the tools, but we need to ensure that we implement them.

We also know that there are some things that one cannot legislate, like love or compassion. But you could legislate and enforce policies to ensure that all people have equal opportunity and fair treatment.

You’ve established the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community & Diaspora including running the Centre for Young Women’s Empowerment. Can you speak to how effective this outreach program is? What still drives such energy and passion for helping and giving back to these communities?

I think it’s important to give back and share what I’ve learned—and that I pass the baton in the hands of many people. It’s vital that young people, especially our girls, can develop, learn, reach their full potential, and have that self-assurance that they can make a place for themselves and their families in this world. So, the education of girls has always been dear to my heart.

I work in a team with an excellent executive director and a board committed to young women and girls programming. As I represented Etobicoke-Lakeshore, I saw many young girls for whom programs would assist their self-confidence, worth, and aspirations. They look forward to coming to the centre daily to participate in activities that have aided their personal development and skill set. That is what the centre does.

To what extent did the pandemic influence the way you operate your organization? Have you made any significant changes, and how did you navigate through them?

It was difficult for us around March [2020] when the systems and programs were all closed. I had a partner, a donor, who was generous in his support of the centre. COVID-19 and the challenging business environment now meant he had to pull back on his support. So, I mobilized to find donors to keep going because I didn’t want to shut the door, knowing that we had over 200 girls depending on us. The centre was almost a daily home for them.

We acted quickly and transitioned to virtual operations to get new donors. With our tutors, volunteers, and coordinators, we helped over 200 girls during the year. We have now reached over 800 girls because going virtual exposed us to a broader, more expansive world. We are providing programs to girls across the GTA and even further afield. We also collaborate in a program with girls in Nigeria.

What is your perspective on how the Canadian government has approached policy and execution in response to the pandemic?

I think that the Canadian government has handled the pandemic and the fallout tremendously well.

It is gratifying to point out that governments at all levels worked in non-partisan ways. It is also important to say that the federal government has listened to scientists and performed their work based on their recommendations. If I had to give any marks, I would give full marks to the federal government for their participation, help, approach, and policy decisions to the pandemic.

If you were still holding the Member of Parliament’s position today, what would you do differently or want to see change for the greater good?

If I were in Parliament today, I would call for more non-partisan working relationships. We need to be everywhere. More of us need to engage and participate as role models for young people. When we work in the community, we should see our city councillors, our members of Provincial Parliament, our federal members, our trustees—all those people that we elect to represent us.

In light of the collective hardships experienced through the pandemic, what lessons has it taught us as a nation and you personally?

The pandemic created dissonance for many people worldwide. It forced us to look within, be with ourselves, and deal with hardships away from in-person community interaction. It has taught me that we live in a global village. What affects one affects all.

The pandemic also highlighted the critical role of women in society—whether as caregivers to children or seniors, as educators or nurturers in their homes or the virtual space. It showed us who the essential workers are in our Canadian society. We saw the faces of the doctors, and epidemiologists, and healthcare workers. It also showed us the kind of conversations that we must have around discrimination, racism, and the lack of diversity and inclusion in the boardrooms of all nations.

It also exposed the need for robust conversations around generational attitudes towards mass vaccine campaigns and how we can engage in protecting ourselves within the context of science and facts. As a society, we must also be mindful that we live in a global village—and that we also have a responsibility and duties to vulnerable populations in developing countries.

Tell us about the York U Chair initiative for which you’re fundraising.

The Jean Augustine Chair in Education at York University’s main focus is addressing the systemic barriers and racial inequalities in the Canadian education system to improve educational outcomes for Black students.

We have been working hard to raise funds to have the Chair fully endowed—meaning it will be here forever and in perpetuity, equipping educators and driving social justice issues [and] policy change for many generations to come. Since 2007, with York and community support, $1.8 million has been raised. We still have to raise one million more to achieve the goal of $3 million.

That fully endowed Chair in the Faculty of Education would have the capacity to promote fair representation and equality by diversifying the teaching workforce and developing essential policies and teaching guidelines. That is a powerful way to help shape a better future for the Black community and contribute to Canada as a whole.

You mentioned the word “legacy.” How do you want to be remembered?

Perhaps, we can make a strong argument about my Canadian history-making motion that put the Famous Five statue—the only one of women other than monarchs—on Parliament Hill. For many, though, it is my role in making Black History Month official in Canada.

I am also proud of the girls’ centre, the schools, the parks, and all those other things that bear my name.

But ultimately, I want to be remembered as a proud, hardworking, and action-oriented Black woman who did her best to make a positive difference—no matter what role or station she occupied. I dedicated my life to community and development.

Many generations from now, I want people to feel like if Jean Augustine could do it, so could I.

Jennifer M. Williams | Editor-in-Chief

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