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Black History Month - Reflecting on the past, and looking towards the future for Black Canadians

The Honourable Jean Augustine and Funmi Oyapero are two trailblazers in their respective fields, paving the way for the next generation of Black Canadians. In 1993, Dr. Augustine became the first Black woman elected to the Parliament of Canada, and just two years later,  she single-handedly brought forward a motion to create Black History Month. Recently, CityNews’ Faiza Amin spoke with Dr. Augustine and shared the comments spoken at Parliament when Black History Month was first introduced:

To this day, Dr. Augustine continues to reiterate the importance of celebrating and recognizing the important work of Black Canadians, and encourages young Canadians not only remember our Black Canadian heroes, but to continue their pioneering legacy. One of these young Canadians is Funmi Oyapero.

At just 18 years old, Funmi is establishing herself as an entrepreneurial leader after launching The Wholesale Princess (originally Goddess Girl Cosmetics) in 2018. A Ted Rogers Scholarship recipient, Funmi was nominated for the scholarship by Jean Augustine Centre for Young Women’s Empowerment, a Centre that is dedicated to empowering girls and young women between the ages of 7 to 17 through programs focused on art, life skills, academic success and leadership.

We asked both Dr. Augustine and Funmi a few questions around Black History Month, their inspirations, and thoughts for young Black Canadians:

Could you explain your journey to introducing a motion in the House of Commons to celebrate Black History Month in Canada? What, or who, was your inspiration for pushing the Bill through Parliament?

Dr. Augustine: My zeal for this recognition started from my time in education when I saw little in textbooks or curriculum modules about Black people and also Indigenous peoples and I was making it up to include in my Social Studies lessons.

Knowing of the celebrations in the US and replicated by the Toronto Negro Women’s Association with a proclamation by the City I was moved to act when the Ontario Black History Society was told that the Federal Minister does not do Proclamations. In my advocacy around the response I was told that as a MP I had two courses open to me if I wanted to take on the issue…1) a Private Member’s Bill and 2) a Unanimous Consent Motion.  I chose the second option but it meant ensuring that all members knew and agreed that I could do this and give me their support when I rise to put the Motion.

Can you describe the importance of Black History Month and what this means for all Canadians?

Dr. Augustine: Black History Month (BHM) helps us to focus on the history of Canadians of African descent and to recognize that historically the Black population of Canada has played an important part in the development of this land, its culture, its economy, and its political structure.

BHM is a time for ALL Canadians to learn and be aware of the rich and colourful community that has been a part of Canada since 1603 before Canada became a nation.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Funmi: … Ever since I was younger, I have been so intrigued with Black history and everything that such monumental figures fought for before my time. To think that at one point in history I would not have been given the opportunity to even prove myself to the world simply because of the colour of my skin is hard to imagine. There was an entire generation of women who were smarter, stronger, fiercer, and more talented than me who were never able to fully showcase their abilities to the world simply because of the colour of their skin. Yet they still came together as one to fight for everything that I take for granted today.

I think, who am I to give up on anything that I don’t succeed at the first time, when I have an army of ancestors who were not afforded the same opportunities? They created their own pathways, redesigned their own destinies. I look in the mirror everyday and see more than just myself, I see everything that I can be, because of them. I see Maya Angelou, Coretta Scott King, Alice Walker, Harriet Tubman, Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Oprah Winfrey, Michelle Obama, Beyonce, Kamala Harris, Jean Augustine, and so many more inspirational woman who broke glass ceilings, and made it possible for women like me to be able to be able to touch the sky today.  

Who from the Black community inspires you?

Funmi: There are many people from the Black community who inspire me everyday. My own mother and father who relocated their family from Nigeria to Canada with no help almost 15 years ago. Leaving everything they knew back home to give me the chance at having a better life than they did. My father earning a PHD in North America regardless of English being his second language and using education as his launchpad to success inspires me to never give up pursuing higher education regardless of how hard it can get at times. And watching my mother start a successful business in Nigeria and to see how effortlessly she handles it daily inspires me to keep going when I come across difficult times with my business.

Additionally, Rosa Parks is a very influential woman in Black history in my life. Her story reminds me that even the smallest acts of courage can leave a large impact in society. Her story reminds me to speak up when I feel injustice happening around me and to not be afraid of the consequences that may arise from society looking at me as just another, “angry Black woman.” Because “angry Black women” were just Black women with strong voices that they were not afraid to let others hear.

What words of inspiration would you say to young Black children of today?

Dr. Augustine: To the youth, I say there is nothing you cannot do if you put your mind to it and be prepared to work hard.  Nothing comes easily. Have a dream. Be respectful. Don’t be afraid to seek help and advice.

Funmi: Rosa Parks once said, “You must not be fearful of what you are doing when what you are doing is right.” Do not be afraid to say what needs to be said, or do what needs to be done, even if you may be the first to do it. You just need to be willing to take the first step and try.