By Joel Wittnebel / Active Senior’s Digest
It’s described as a fire; a fire in the belly.
It burns, but it’s not painful. Its flames are not destructive, but filled with waves of creation.
And its light is the most important of all, illuminating radiance into the dark corners of our world where injustice tends to creep, out of sight to the general masses.
The people with this fire in their bellies have a heavy responsibility; a need and desire to see it that these injustices are found and exterminated. These fighters are rare in our society, but they come around occasionally in a generation and change things for all of us.
Jean Augustine is one of those fighters.
“If you have that social justice bone, if you have that social justice fire in your belly, you want to make things right, you want to make things equal, you want to see equity happening in the system,” Augustine says.
Starting on the streets of Toronto in the 1960s, Augustine has been fighting and advocating for equality for decades. From the rallies in the streets, Augustine worked to become Canada’s first Black female Member of Parliament, first Black woman in cabinet, and Canada’s first Fairness Commissioner. She is the main driving force and reason Canadians now celebrate Black History Month in February.
However, before she reached the upper echelons of Canada’s political realm, her story began on a small island in the Caribbean.
The early years
Augustine was born in the small town of Happy Hill, Grenada, the daughter of a sugar cane plantation worker who passed away from tetanus when she was still a toddler.
Following his death, she and her mother moved into a family home where Augustine lived with her grandmother and group of cousins.
At the time, education was limited on the island. While the kids were equipped in terms of elementary and secondary school learning, there were no options for post-secondary on the island, making such degrees a rarity. However, Augustine says it means people were schooled in other facets of life.
“These were people who were smart, these were people who were schooled in the knocks of life,” she says. “These were people who had a sense of what it is to be a person, to be a citizen of the world, to have values, to give back to society.”
Surrounded by this attitude in her early years, combined with the influence of the strong woman and “good values” at home, Augustine recognized that “one owed something to the world, and the world does not owe it to you.”
It was perhaps that desire to give back which saw Augustine seeking further education after high school, and at that time, it meant leaving the island. After taking up a teaching job in Grenada, her mind turned to Canada.
“Canada at the time was very interactive with the Caribbean,” Augustine recalls. “Canada was building schools around the Caribbean, Canada was engaged in the discussions that were going on around the federation and assisting with funds for the federation.”
At the time, still under British colonial rule, the West Indian Federation was formed by several islands in the Caribbean with the goal of becoming independent.
And while the federation eventually collapsed, Canada continued its supportive efforts, and offered a pathway for Augustine and many young women seeking work through the Canada-Carribbean Domestic Scheme. The program allowed for woman between the ages of 18 and 24 to come to Canada to work in the home of a Canadian family as a nanny. After a year, the program provided them with landed immigrant status.
In 1960, Augustine arrived in Canada.
Ripe for activism
Working her one year in the Forest Hill neighbourhood of Toronto, Augustine immediately enrolled in Toronto Teacher’s College, all the while finding herself at home among the Caribbean communities of the city.
She obtained her teaching certificate in 1963, and began her career as a teacher with the Metropolitan Separate School Board.
And while things seemed to be falling into place with her career, outside on the streets, it was a different story.
On a weekly basis, chanters and marchers took to the streets to push for change.
“There were so many things that we take for granted today that were missing at the time, and it didn’t come about because governments said, ‘let’s see what we can do for those folks.’ It was because of advocacy,” Augustine says. “Canada was ripe for activism.”
Whether it was unequal treatment towards immigrants, racism or tenant issues, Augustine says they pushed for change on all fronts. And the voices were powerful, with a large collection of Black people coming from either Nova Scotia or South Western Ontario and a large number of students coming in from Africa and the Caribbean.
It was a common occurrence for a Black person to be met by a landlord with an available unit being told, the unit is for rent, but not for you. Or for a Black person to attend a job interview and be told, “you’re not a good fit for the company.”
“Things like that were being said because we had no human rights commission as we know it today, and all of these things where you can challenge,” Augustine says.
On top of that, there was very limited representation in the media and Toronto culture.
“We had no Black faces on television, we had no radio stations of our own. We had no ownership of anything in the community,” Augustine recalls. “I got into advocacy. I got into challenging the system. All kinds of things had to happen.”
From education to politics
Through her efforts, Augustine saw several successes in the community, serving on the committee that organized the inaugural Caribana festival in 1967, and founded the Toronto chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada in 1973.
Her career was also blossoming with Augustine becoming a principal, aided by her continued efforts to educate herself, obtaining a BA and masters degree from the University of Toronto in 1980. She would work as a principal in the Toronto Catholic District School Board until 1988.
It was these efforts combined that Augustine says had many people thinking her a good fit for politics.
“I think as a school principal I was engaged in the community and making sure that I was making a difference in the lives of every child that was in the school system, working with educators and at the same time, working with the government,” she says.
Augustine also had experience working on several community and municipal boards, including chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority in 1988, a position she would hold until entering politics in 1993.
However, making the jump into the commotion of the political world was not an easy one.
“That was a difficult decision for me to make, because I was not really involved very much in party politics,” Augustine says. “And secondly, I had no women who had run federally that I could pattern or be a mentor to pattern myself…I had no tracks.”
Finding the path
She may not have had the tracks to follow ahead of the election, but she certainly created hundreds of her own on the campaign trail.
With a small population of Black people in her riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and running against a strong leadership contender in incumbent Conservative candidate Patrick Boyer, it meant Augustine had her work cut out for her.
And like her activism roots, she took to the streets to make change, knocking on doors at practically every home in the riding to meet with citizens and solicit votes.
“I think I touched every single door in this riding,” Augustine says.
It was a mammoth effort, and one that paid off when she was eventually victorious.
“It was a really joyful time to see everyone cheering and rejoicing and glad and happy after the work that we had put out.”
From the campaign trail to Parliament Hill, Augustine quickly became crucial in the Liberal government of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, being appointed as the Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister from 1993 to 1996.
At the same time, momentum was building around Black History Month and the lack of a federally proclaimed celebration. In 1993, the Black History Society of Ontario successfully petitioned the province to declare a province-wide celebration. After that, the Society approached Augustine with the hope that she would pick up the torch at the federal level. It was a task she jumped at immediately, as she already knew the lack of education and information available on the subject of Black history.
“That again started with the fire in the belly. Being a teacher and teaching social studies and hanging out with people who were coming from Atlantic Canada and were sixth and seventh generation Black descendants…and had not seen anything at all,” she says. “I always felt that was something that was missing and that if and when I did have the opportunity I would make sure that somehow curriculum writers, school boards and people across the country would begin to realize that we need to include those topics in our social studies and history programs.”
With the opportunity now at hand, Augustine took to work trying to find a way to turn the vision into a reality.
Choosing to do a party motion instead of a Private Members Bill saw Augustine employing the same shoe-leather effort that got her into the position in the first place. She used all of her spare time to speak with all House of Commons MPs to get them on-side with what she was trying to do. In the case of a party motion, all MPs across party lines must be in support, or the motion fails.
“We had to work and work and work with making sure we talked to all of the members, making sure I used my Question Period time to sit beside someone and explain what the motion was, why I would want Black History month, why I think it was important,” Augustine recalls.
Again, the effort was not done in vain, as the motion passed unanimously in December of 1995.
“I am tremendously happy now when I see how much this motion has given the credence to groups all across Canada, small towns, small areas, institutions, corporate bodies, churches, just every place in our country now, there is a celebration of Black History Month.”
Looking back at it now, the 81-year-old Augustine laughs at her younger self as the same amount of work that went into getting the motion passed, is now required throughout the month of February to visit as many Black History Month celebrations as she can.
Another pioneering step
Throughout the remainder of her political career, Augustine would take many more trailblazing steps, becoming an inspiration to young women across the country as she became the first Black woman appointed to a Cabinet position in 2002, and in 2004, was elected as Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons. It was a post she would hold until her retirement from politics in 2005.
However, while retired, that fire in her belly still burned and her advocacy continued. In 2007, she took another big step when she was appointed the first Fairness Commissioner by the Ontario government.
Augustine speaks candidly about the start of her time in the role. While her job would be to ensure that foreign-trained professionals could find the same opportunities when they arrived in Ontario, things were a bit chaotic at the start. Once again, Augustine was treading a path never taken before.
“It was a difficult one because nowhere else in the world was there legislation that spoke to regulations that said ‘you have to do this in your admission process,’” Augustine says. “So here, Ontario passes this legislation and the legislature themselves did not quite know how to make what they put on paper happen.”
With that said, Augustine was up to the task, and quickly went to work sorting out the position and its power to affect change in the system.
At the time, there were a lot of inconsistencies that had similar professionals arriving from other countries required to take different courses in order to work in the province. The process was also slow, and mostly done behind closed doors, with the recent arrivals in the country scrambling to figure out their next steps.
Through Augustine’s work with policy makers, she says they were able to iron out many kinks, speeding up the process and making sure that applicants knew where they stood in the system.
“We made a big, big difference,” Augustine says. “I think that when I first got into the job, just before that legislation was passed, on the front pages of the paper every day there was somebody talking about how a regulator treated them. There was all kinds of talk of how many doctors were driving cabs.”
As the changes rolled out in Ontario, many other jurisdictions followed suit, and Augustine had inquiries from countries around the world asking questions about the policy and how to implement one of their own.
In Canada, Manitoba followed suit, copying the legislation and Quebec pursued a similar direction as well.
The path forward
This year has been a benchmark for change, as movements like #MeToo and the work of Black Lives Matter dominate the headlines as people continue to fight for a number of causes and injustices across the world.
With all the success Augustine has seen in her career, and the changes she was able to make, she recognizes there is still work to be done.
“We’ve accomplished a lot and I think we have to give credit to policy makers and other people who have helped shape things, but we still have things, recommendations, that are not being implemented,” she says. “It’s a work in progress, our society is growing, things are changing and we need to make the changes.”
With that said, she knows that it’s now up to the next generation, the newcomers with that same fire in the belly to continue the fight, and continue to honour what has been done.
“I think we have to continue to push on, continue the struggle, but we also must be very cognizant of what went on before…we need the benefit of what went on before.”
On that vein, following the path that Augustine has forged would not be a bad place to start.