Alexandra Stella Isaac | Supplement Coordinator
Featured Image: The Honourable Jean Augustine sat down with our supplement coordinator for an exclusive interview. | Courtesy of Jean Augustine
I got to have a conversation with the Honourable Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected to the House of Commons. Madame Augustine also served as the Secretary of State to the Prime Minister in 2002 and is the reason Black History Month is celebrated nation-wide.
Madame Augustine has also impacted York directly. She created the Jean Augustine Chair in Education and has donated her personal documents to the Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections located at Scott Library. Madame Augustine has been a pioneer in the Canadian landscape since she came to Canada in the summer of 1960 under the Domestic Scheme.
You grew up in Grenada and you moved to Canada. What was that process like?
I was born in 1937 and growing up as a young girl there were very few opportunities. The boys were sent away for university and there were very few options for girls after high school. I could either be a nurse, a teacher or work public service. The opportunity came and I wanted to get a post-secondary education.
What was your experience like when you first arrived in Canada?
The 1960s were ripe for activism. We had no charter of rights and freedom, we had no human rights code and legislation, we had no landlord and tenants, we had so few promotional opportunities in corporate Canada, and we had no faces in the media. My early days were spent in activism to push forward to ensure that we were included.
Where did the impetus for this activism come from?
The impetus came from wanting to see a just society- wanting to see equality and wanting to see inclusion. As we were building Canadian society, working hard, we wanted recognition for that. Remember in the background was civil rights in the 60s with Martin Luther King in the U.S.
Right! So did these movements speak to each other? Did the movement in the United States inspire you to have a Civil Rights Movement of your own in Canada?
I’m not too sure we were looking for a Civil Rights Movement here because the movement in the United States was very specific. I think it was the awareness and the recognition of the situation of people of African descent.
You started in teaching, what made you want to go into politics?
I was very much engaged and involved with the community- community activism and community building. I was appointed to different boards and was I was providing leadership in varying community organizations. I was asked by the political parties to run. In 1993 the only two people to ever run and win at the federal level were Lincoln Alexander and Howard McCurdy. I was the first Black woman.
When Black people or more specifically, Black women, are in roles that you held, how important is it for us to be honest about the situation of Black folks?
I was very cognizant of the fact that I was the first African Canadian woman to be elected, I was very cognizant of the role modeling that that presented. I was very cognizant of the fact that I had to succeed in order to lay the groundwork for everybody else who would come after me. I was very concerned about the young people: that they would learn the political system and see themselves represented.
So you held yourself to high standards?
Well one has to! As you know the old saying: you have to be twice as good.
Was the motion for Black History Month the first motion you set in place?
No, I was involved in several committees. I was engaged in a whole series of parliamentary activities and sat on different committees. The motion of Black History Month was always at the back of my head because as a teacher, there was nothing in the history books and nothing in the social studies program about people of African descent or Indigenous people. I thought it was important for the young people coming through schools.
When I came here, I was hanging out with people from Nova Scotia, with Indigenous people and with African people. I needed to know the history of those people. I needed to know the history of the people they called the ‘New Canadians’ as well as the ‘Old Canadians,’ the people who had been here for generations.
The motion was very to the point. Black people have been here for generations, we were part of the building and development of Canada. We are not just one African Canadian people and I called on my colleagues in the House of Commons to support my motion to make February Black History Month in Canada.
You obviously inspire a lot of people, you inspire me! But who inspires you?
I know a lady called Grandma who always said, “Girl you can do it! Girl go do it! If there is something you see that needs change, you go ahead and change it!”
I got that affirmation very early in life and early in life I dedicated myself to a life of activism and to a life of service. I have had the opportunity to be in leadership positions to make things happen and I’m very grateful for that.