Profiles, Standing on the Shoulers of Greatness: The Honourable Jean Augustine

This February is the 20th Black History Month Canada has celebrated. In 1995 the first black woman to be elected into the House of Commons, Jean Augustine, got a motion passed in Parliament to have February officially recognized as Black History Month.

Late last year I had the opportunity to interview Augustine (you can read the whole article here).

Augustine stressed the importance of learning and sharing when it comes to the history and cultures of others. In a city like Toronto there’s people from every corner of the globe. We all have different faces and names and foods and traditions and history. Those things are very much a part of who we are. For Augustine, Black History Month is a way for people of all races to learn and celebrate the contributions of black Canadians and indulge in the culture of black people from various parts of the world.

Me and The Honourable Jean Augustine
Me and The Honourable Jean Augustine

How significant was it to you to be named the first black female into the House of Commons?
I consider it important in the scheme of things, we were in this country since the 1600s, so me being the first black woman elected into the House of Commons I didn’t see it as a personal victory, it’s a victory for all of us.

With the current state of politics, how do you feel about the representation of women and people of colour?
I think we’re not there yet. I think we’ve got a lot of educating to do. I think we have to realize we have to participate in the political arena because that’s where decisions are made. It’s important to support each other because I find often times what’s missing is the support. We have to realize that support comes in different ways. We have to get out and walk the block with people who are running. We have to make sure we support the people running with financial assistance and the support to promote themselves. And thirdly we have to get out there and talk and be engaged with our friends to provide that support.

Throughout your career you’ve been recognized for your work with women and people of colour as well as single-mothers and immigrants, why did you make these groups your priority?
Well when you look at me and you see my own history you can see why it is a focus. I can’t ignore the fact that I am a black woman. I can’t ignore the fact I know what poverty is. I know what goes on with newcomers and people who come into tough socio-economic times. And I’m very aware that you can’t do everything alone or within your own group, you have to get out there and participate in the general public. People of all different races, nationalities and gender. For me, that means connecting with everybody.

Can you tell us about the centre named after you in Etobicoke (Jean Augustine Centre for Young Women’s Empowerment) and why it’s important?
For young people and in fact people of all ages, coming to peace with things and knowing themselves and their place in the world can be difficult, what do you think some of the biggest obstacles are?
The big obstacle for young people lies in the fact that the opportunities and the mentors are not there like they should be. The guidance they need at certain periods of their life is missing. And often times it’s the lack of knowing how to grasp at opportunities when they present themselves. It’s about learning and being resilient and not letting failure knock you down in such a way where you can’t get up.

How do you think we can develop the school system so that it creates a support system or sense of community?
I think we have to work diligently with educators and people who create curriculums so that the curriculum reflects us. We also have to have parents involved with the system, attending parent-teacher nights. We have to remind children that education is important because it is the basis of whatever they’ll do in the future.

How important is education when it comes to starting conversations about social issues?
We have to be open to the things that face us on a daily basis. Knowing your community and participating in it, brings about an awareness about the challenges facing a community. That learning and knowing about what is going on in a community and volunteering makes lives better for those who need help. Making lives better for other people often makes life better for yourself.

At U of T Scarborough, students have lobbied the Student’s Union to have an Equity and/or a Women’s Studies course made part of the breadth requirements, meaning you need them in order to graduate, what do you think about that idea?
This is why it’s important to be involved with the curriculum. I think it’s important for universities and schools to address the needs of their students. So any program or any school should look at themselves and see who’s in their classrooms? Who are the staff? We should see some reflection of the staff in the student body so those issues that affect the students can be responded to by the faculty and staff.

You were a teacher before you came to Canada and you spent some time as a principal here, did any of your experiences influence the mentality you had about seeing a reflection of the student body in the staff?
That’s exactly it. My classrooms were always a place where students could learn about their heritage. I think I was into multiculturalism before it was recognized as the nature of Canadian society. We spent a long time talking about the world and talking about people coming from all over the world to Canada and how we have to live together and work together. This is why I got the Black History motion consent in the Parliament of Canada. I was teaching black history and the history of black Canadians way before I went into Parliament. So as an educator I thought it was important for young people to know about themselves and their own culture as well as their classmate’s culture. Those things speak to inclusiveness, diversity and it also teaches them to respect one another and each other’s culture.

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