Photo above: Founder’s Award of Distinction recipient, Jennifer Tory (centre), pictured with her brother, Toronto Mayor John Tory (right) and Honourable Justice Gregory Regis, former Regional Senior Justice, Ontario Court of Justice (left). Photo courtesy of Bruce Ramsay.
TORONTO, Ontario – In an evening saturated with lauded tributes, high emotion and superb entertainment, the African Canadian community and friends of the community celebrated together at the 30th annual African Canadian Achievement Awards (ACAA), held in Toronto this past weekend.
Braving unseasonably frigid temperatures, messy, slush-filled and dangerous streets, attendees filled the St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts with palpable warmth, reminiscent of the idea that: individuals build families, families build communities and communities build nations.
Anthems (Canadian and Black) were sung by Shaina Sammone and Natalie Morris, and the blessing was offered by Canon Stephen Fields, who began with words that touched all: “As we gather for this celebration of excellence, we first pause to remember Elijah Marsh, whose life was cut short at the tender age of three.”
The Toronto toddler died two days earlier, after wandering away from his grandmother’s apartment building in the middle of a bitterly cold night dressed only in a shirt, diapers and boots.
Canon Fields went on to give thanks for the awards winners, calling each by name, and pronouncing blessings upon them.
Formalities dispatched, the evening began with entertainment by Spoken Word Artist Lamoi, who performed her poem, “Ode to the ACAA.” The powerful piece said in part:
what do you say to someone that’s been through it?
who has been hated because of the colour of their skin?
because of where they were born and where they live?
how do you appreciate that life?
that light that refuses to go out, but burns ever so brightly,
that will not extinguish but will cause to flare like the stars that are ceaseless.
what do you say to someone that ignorance has pushed down
only to rise again breathing stronger breaths?
you spend 30 years recognizing and acknowledging
the greatness we are told daily we do not embody.
30 years of celebrating the light that we have been told
is not any brighter than the darkness.
Hosted by Patricia Jaggernauth and Michael Challenger, the 2015 ACAA certainly let those lights come to the forefront of collective consciousness when they presented each award. There was an unmistakably prominent theme: You Can Achieve.
Before the awards presentations began, ACAA Founder and CEO Michael Van Cooten introduced Toronto Mayor John Tory; saying, “He possesses core characteristics and attributes that seem very rare for a politician.” Taking the stage Mayor Tory said the awards ceremony is important because not only do they celebrate role models for all peoples regardless of ethic background, “they allow us to better understand who all of us are as Canadians; because Black history and the celebration of achievement of contemporary Black History Makers is a part of Canadian history.”
The first award of the evening, Excellence in Arts and Entertainment, was received by Wes Williams—Maestro Fresh-Wes—“the Godfather of Canadian hip-hop.” Maestro’s advice to artists serves as advice to us all: “Don’t make records, make history.” Adorned in full black and with his son at his side, notes that to make history we must do something or say something that will lasts the test of time.
For Excellence in Business, Lanre Tunji-Ajayi thanked God, “with all humility and appreciation” for giving both her and husband Timothy Tunji-Ajayi the vision to start All Naturals Cosmetics Inc. She went on to point out the importance of family, while thanking her immediate and communal families for their support.
Interspersed with entertainment, and spoken word poetry opening the show, the evening was further enhanced by the vocal beauty of Selena Evangeline and Quisha Wint. The duo performed an appropriate and moving rendition of “Wind Beneath My Wings”—made famous by Lou Rawls in 1983—to appreciative applause.
Professor Erma Collins was awarded with Excellence in Community Service for her extensive career and stalwart community service. Collins noted, “As for volunteering, I am one of millions.” Sharing that, according to Statistics Canada, 47 percent of the Canadian population over 15-years-old were volunteers, contributing 2 billion hours of volunteer work in groups and communities, she accepted the award on behalf of all volunteers. “I hope each of us will bloom where we are planted, and continue to strive to make a difference,” she said.
Three decade veteran Cecil Roach received the Excellence in Education award. Roach said he was both honoured and humbled to receive the award. “I am honoured to stand among some of the luminaries who have received this award in the past.” He continued to note that, “One of the illustrious award winners whose name I will be beside is Donald Willard Moore.” Roach shares that Moore, an ACAA alumni, is special to his family, because Moore’s lobby against Canada’s “discriminatory immigration policies” ultimately afforded Roach’s mother the opportunity to arrive in Canada.
Even more talent graced the stage when the soulful melody of Shaina Sammone transported the audience into an almost trancelike state with an ethereal performance of Nina Simone’s “Four Women”.
She prepared the space for Mr. Van Cooten, who is also Publisher and Editor of Pride News. The consummate perfectionist took the opportunity to observe a moment of silence for four members of the community who passed away recently—Vincent Lai, Joan Bullen, Maureen Emanuel and Elijah Marsh.
Van Cooten went on to acknowledge and thank the invaluable contribution of ACAA President and Executive Producer, Joan Pierre, who has served for two decades. The soft-spoken Van Cooten said the show, its “elegance, professionalism and perfect flow would not be possible without the expertise, hardnosed management” of Pierre.
He said that the time was more than ripe to pay homage to the person who has spent the better part of a quarter century ensuring that others are honoured in exquisite fashion, with dignity and class. Much to her surprise, Pierre received the unprecedented, “Outstanding 20 Year Service and Leadership Award”, presented by a visibly excited Van Cooten.
Mrs. Pierre in her thank you remarks said she is rich every year by the individuals honoured. “They bring joy to me, to know that we have those individuals in our community, stepping forward every time to make sure that we shine—and they shine every year.”
The Founder’s Award, created to acknowledge an individual who has worked to further the interest and aspirations of the African Canadian, was received by Jennifer Tory. No group stands alone—and the African Canadian Community is no different. Tory is among the various individuals silently working in the background for the equal opportunity of the Black Community. “The achievements of African Canadians and how they are documented” serve as examples to all and helps “us to see how we are living up to our Canadian values,” Tory said. She quoted past ACAA recipient, the late Rosemary Brown, “We must open the doors, and we must see to it that they remain open, so that others can pass through.” Tory went on to note that Rosemary Brown, the first Black Canadian woman to be elected to a Canadian provincial legislature, “couldn’t have dreamed that her image would one day grace a Canadian stamp; but it did. And it’s up to all of us to make our stamp in our fields and in our communities.”
Energetic hip-hop dance from professional performance crew DAEI Elite made fingers snap, feet tap and head bop as they showcased their versatile talents. Created by dance educators Tonya Burke and dancer/actress/celebrity choreographer and judge Tré Armstrong the group elicited squeals of appreciate and applause throughout their eclectic set.
Excellence in Law was received by Mark Saunders— Deputy Chief of Specialized Operations Command, Toronto Police Services. “Serving the community has been one of the greatest pleasures that I’ve had the opportunity to do,” he said. Saunders expounded the importance of the event, in an environment that does not teach Black History as a regular part of its curriculum. Noting the value of giving back, he said that what made leaders, “was giving back.” He continued, “If you do not give back, then you are not fulfilling your role as a leader.” Saunders has a special message to the young women and young men: “Know your roots; never be ashamed of who you are; and if you want anything, all you have to do is try.”
Canada’s first native-born Black Judge, George E. Carter, who was unable to attend, was bestowed with the Lifetime Achievement Award.
Contemporary jazz sextet Kalabash, who also performed as the show began, led the audience into intermission with the musical melange that is their signature. The group focuses on using the steel drum as a lead voice in a jazz ensemble, while experimenting with the layering of rich jazz harmonies over the folk and popular rhythms of the Caribbean; from Reggae, Son and Salsa in the north, to Calypso, Soca, Rapso and Zouk in the Eastern Caribbean.
Rich celebration and entertainment continued when Gary Beals belted R. Kelly’s, “I believe I Can Fly” much to the pleasure of a swaying audience—all that was needed was lighters raised high in the theatre.
President and Executive Producer of the ACAA, Joan Pierre, returned to the stage, with script in hand. Her succinct message was one of humble pride that the community continues to produce leaders from whom to select ACAA winners. She notes that the Awards Show has “paid tribute to over 450 distinguished members of our community whose achievements have had an impact on the broader Canadian society.” Pierre says new waves of leaders are now making their own lasting impact upon the community and society; some of those leaders being inspired and mentored by people we have brought to the forefront through the African Canadian Achievement Awards.” She continued, “This is exactly what Michael Van Cooten had in mind when he conceived of Pride News Magazine, and ultimately, the awards show—we salute you for your vision.” Her final words will serve as a call to action for all: “Let’s all lean in, and ensure that we keep the awards and recognition flowing for the next generation of achievers in our community and the next after that.”
Sponsored by Pride News Magazine, the Excellence in Media award was received by CBC’s Matt Galloway. In accepting the honour, Galloway says that the business of news is both a real pleasure and “an incredible responsibility.” He asserts, “If the media tells the wrong story or focuses on the wrong angle, you can create a narrative that can be very damaging, that can be stigmatizing, that can destroy a community, [and] that can take away hope from that community.” The news veteran went on to say that if you look beyond the headlines, there can be found “great stories that are going on in communities that might find themselves in the headlines.”
Excellence in Medicine was presented to Dr. Victor Obasuyi, who said, “The power of great mentorship can never be overemphasised.” He went on to thank his own mentors and encourage those present to do their part, individually and collectively, to ensure the continued success of a people.
For the third welcoming time of the evening Kalabash took the stage, treating ears to euphoric sounds that made shoulders sway uncontrollably—not in wanton abandon, in gentle movements that called to the hips and feet to join. Their excellent performance easily seduced applause several times while their set was still underway.
Victor and Sharmon Carrington, recipients of the Excellence in Parenting Award had sage words. Mr. Carrington says it is his, “belief that the parenting process is the most important process that advances and determines the direction of the world.” Mrs. Carrington echoes her spouse’s sentiments in saying that “our youth are the most important resource any country can have; therefore parenting is an important aspect of developing its youth. The success of our country depends on parents.” She continued, “Fight for your children, do not give up on your children.”
Recipient of the Excellence in Religion was Fredrica Walters. Senior Pastor of Faith Family Church, she remembered those persecuted for their faith across the world. The Jamaican native thanked her family for their contact support in her work to “reach, equip, send and transform community.”
In his traditional style, comedian Jay Martin brought the house to a belly busting laughter with his brand of humour that examines the variances of Caribbean and North American culture.
Canadian Olympian Ohenewa Akuffo accepted the Excellence in Sport Awards with grace, poise and humility. She says she is thankful that her father encouraged her to be anything she wanted to do. Akuffo also shared that Jennifer Tory has silently, and unknown to Tory, been an inspiration to her as a woman in corporate Canada.
Mark Beckles of RBC presented the Excellence in Youth Award, sponsored by RBC, to Quincy Bullen. Mr. Beckles said that RBC cares in particular about “investing in places where we’ve lived and worked.” A part of that investment, says Beckles, is in the arts. He noted that Bullen’s “musical ability can only be described as genius.”
Having lost his mother less than two weeks before—and burying her the day before—Quincy Bullen rose to the occasion of community involvement so he could acknowledge the honour from his elders and from the village.
In receiving his award, Bullen with slightly shaking voice thanked his mother. “I leave behind my childhood, but I embrace the times ahead…the achievements ahead,” he said. The musician tells that his desire is to give the message to other youth that they can do anything they want to do. Before exiting the stage, hair glowing like a crown, Bullen said he wanted to leave the audience “with a little trinket.” Simply he said/sang, “Africa unite, Afri-Africa unite Africa unite Afri-Africa unite….” And the audience joined! “Africa, stay beautiful,” he ended.
Quisha Wint returned to the stage, to deliver an almost reverent version of “I Will Always Love You,” much to the elation of the audience.
So we come full circle on an evening not soon to be forgotten by any in attendance.
how do you appreciate 30 years of Pride, of Black excellence,
and the hope that renews and rejuvenates.
“do not let your fire die. please we beg you.
let the flames of your greatness illuminate our not quites,
our not yets, and our not at alls.
Do not let the hugeness of your heart
perish in the fear that grips the soul, because it is through you
we know our desires can be won, it exists,
it is real, it is possible, and it can be ours.”