By Neil Armstrong
PRIDE Contributing Writer
TORONTO, Ontario Wednesday, March 1, 2017 — The 33rd annual African Canadian Achievement Awards (ACAA) of excellence was the centre of pride, acknowledgement of success, and inspiring thank you speeches, complemented by some brilliant performances.
Held inside the Jane Mallet Theatre at St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts in Toronto on Feb. 25, the sold-out event saw Michael Van Cooten, founder, chair and CEO of the ACAA, adding some levity by singing a line from Harry Belafonte’s 1956 song, “Banana Boat Song (Day O),” – an adaptation of a Jamaican work song.
He did so to honour the African American, singer, songwriter, actor and social activist whose 90th birthday is today, March 1. Van Cooten also recognized a moment of silence for two past awardees who died recently — Raphaelita Walker and Dr. Inez Elliston – and Thomas Cyril Matthew who passed away in November.
The CEO of the awards said the goal of the ACAA is to find, recognize and honour African Canadians in a variety of different fields who have excelled. Fifteen such individuals were duly celebrated for their outstanding work, and an additional award was presented to a role model father figure.
Sharing a window into his story of immigrating to Toronto in January 1982 equipped with a diploma in telecommunications and two years of electrical engineering from the University of Guyana, Van Cooten said he looked for work but was unsuccessful.
The “excuse,” as he called it, was ‘no Canadian experience’ but undaunted by that hurdle he persevered. His first job was as a gas bar attendant pumping gas at Canadian Tire.
“My story is not unique. Many of you in this room have experienced the same thing, if not even more fantastic stories than mine. But, in spite of the discrimination and the racism and all of that stuff, this country opened its arms to us and gave us an opportunity. And it was then up to us to utilize that opportunity, to exploit it, and many of us have.”
In its 32-year history, this was the first time that an Ontario premier attended the event.
“Every single one of the award recipients is a hero and I say that from my heart, because each one of you talked about the obstacles and the barriers that you had to overcome to get to where you are. And I want to congratulate you for that. I think a lot in this job about government’s role in removing barriers; what more we can do every day to make the society that we live in more just, more fair,” said Premier Kathleen Wynne, who was accompanied on stage by Michael Coteau, Minister of Children and Youth Services and responsible for the Anti-Racism Directorate.
The premier said although Ontario does well, “we are so not there and right now, given what’s happening in other parts of the world, what’s happening south of the border, we have an added responsibility to stand together and to make sure we do everything in our power to remove barriers for everyone.”
Wynne noted that the Ontario Legislature recently formally acknowledged the United Nations Decade for People of African Descent.
She also highlighted the work that Minister Coteau is doing with the Anti-Racism Directorate.
“Systemic racism exists and we can’t deny that and we have to be vigilant and not fall back. We know that it is possible to move forward and that there’s more that we can do,” she said, noting that the 150th birthday of Canada and Ontario should be used as a time to “tell our stories to each other so that we can learn about each other.”
Also speaking at the awards presentation was Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s Minister of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship. He said Black History Month is an opportunity to reflect and celebrate the achievements of Black Canadians.
“As we get set to mark the 150th birthday of this great country, it is important that we celebrate and reflect on our past, but also better understand the challenges that confront us. While we sometimes don’t recognize it, black communities across our nation are very diverse as is their lived experience.”
He noted that Black Canadian communities are comprised of people of African heritage from various parts of the world. Some have been here for generations and others have recently joined the Canadian family.
“Together we bring richness and strength to our country’s fabric. All of us must acknowledge that the struggle against intolerance and the pursuit of equality remains, whether it is for indigenous, women, for LGBTQ, for racialized and religious minorities, in particular for black Canadians. We must better understand that systemic racism and anti-black racism exist in Canada.”
Hussen said to move forward, this is a responsibility “for all us, but, in particular, we as your elected leaders.
“My message today is that we recognize that we must collectively do better, to remind each other that we must continue to sit and expand the table and work together, we must continue to challenge each other because that is the beauty and the strength of our democracy.”
The Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Minister, who came to Canada as a Somali refugee, encouraged challenging each other and not to shy away from the tough conversations, but also the important actions.
He said the story of Black Canadians is part of our shared history.
A surprise presentation of a commendation by Mayor John Tory and Toronto City Council was made to Van Cooten by community advocate, Gwyneth Matthew Chapman, who later presented an award in memory of her father, the Thomas Cyril Matthew Outstanding Father Figure Award, to Dr. Allan Carswell.
Chapman said her father, who passed away in Saint Lucia, was an outstanding individual and she saw this quality in Dr. Carswell, 82, who last year stepped up and provided $600,000 to provide summer jobs for youth.
Jeffrey L. Orridge, the 13th commissioner of the Canadian Football League (CFL), received the Excellence in sports award, noting that, “This honour tonight is not about me. It’s really about we. We who strive, and try, and endure and ultimately succeed and accomplish together.”
Orridge said he is just a representative of all the great accomplishments that other people of colour, who came before him, have done, and that he is grateful and humbled.
“I realize that I don’t even belong in the same sentence or paragraph, even in the same chapter book as they do.”
He noted that the CLF has always had a history of being inclusive and embracing diversity and being progressive in their thoughts, starting with the late, great Bernie Custis, who was the first black professional quarterback.
The CFL also had the first female general manager, the first openly gay football player, and now the first black commissioner.
Marie Clarke Walker, the first non-white and youngest executive vice-president of the Canadian Labour Congress, who was the recipient of the Excellence in business award, acknowledged the ancestors on whose shoulders she stands “every single day,” and thanked her sisters and brothers of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Canadian Labour Congress, and her family for their support.
“Being the first, you have an added responsibility to ensure that you’re not the last. I take that responsibility seriously and make sure that the door remains open and others are pulled through,” she said, dedicating her award to all the strong black women in her life, including the women of Black Lives Matter Toronto and “those who mothered me and have mothered me on a daily basis, and who continue to stand for justice, even in the face of adversity.”
Clarke Walker said her children are her reminders that the work she is engaged in is for future generations – “whether it is the fight for universal childcare, the importance of Pharmacare, a better Canada Pension Plan so that no one has to retire in poverty, the banning of asbestos so that all communities can be healthy and safe, or the fight against racism, discrimination, particularly anti-Black racism and Islamophobia.” She signaled the importance of the labour movement and workers.
The award for excellence in community service was presented to John O’Dell, chair of the Black Community Consultative Committee for the Toronto Police Service.
He said he got into volunteerism as a result of an invitation from his aunt and his passion for looking after the rights of others.
The national representative of Unifor, one of Canada’s largest unions, was thankful for the women in his life “who are role models and my inspiration,” especially his mother, aunt, and grandmother.
He charged the youth to “always remember you are here for a purpose. The road of life is filled with twists and turns, ups and downs, and, most certainly, some disappointments, but you must be strong and determined and have perseverance and your purpose and dream will become a reality.”
O’Dell, who is also the president of the Guyana Ex-police Association of Canada, said he stood on the shoulders of other community volunteers like Sharon Joseph, Janice Gairey, Winston LaRoche, Kwesi Johnson and countless others. He urged parents to encourage volunteerism with their children and grandchildren.
Dr. Rinaldo Walcott, associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) of the University of Toronto and the director of Women and Gender Studies Institute, was recognized for his work in education.
He said he grew up in a house in Barbados with many sisters, and their parents absolutely believed in the promise of education.
“I think of my work in education as community work, as work that must always breach the boundaries of the university to engage community beyond those walls. I think of my work as political work, as work that must speak truth to power, as work that must demand Black lives matter everywhere in the world.”
Walcott referenced the public education work of women in Toronto, like Dionne Brand, Makeda Silvera and Debbie Douglas, among many others who helped “so many of us to be comfortable with ourselves, to claim our lives as gay and lesbian and bi and trans folk.”
He highlighted the work of black drag queen, Ms. Ross, who has performed in Toronto’s gay scene since 1971, noting that her presence as a performer has saved countless lives. The professor hoped that the ACAA will honour her soon for her life-saving and nurturing pedagogy.
The award for excellence in law went to Superintendent Ingrid Berkeley-Brown, of the Peel Regional Police, who said when she began policing 30 years ago, she was the only black female officer with the service.
“I faced a number of challenges over those years but, for me, quitting is not an option,” she said, recognizing the strength of her mother, a widow of 11 children who brought them all to Canada.
Berkeley-Brown said one of the tenets she lives by and shares with young people is that perseverance is key.
“As individuals, and certainly as individuals from the Black community, there’s certainly lots of obstacles that we have to overcome,” she said, but it is important to know “that we are capable of achieving our goals.”
Mark Beckles, head of RBC Insurance Advice Centre, received the excellence in management and leadership award.
He said the ACAA always presents an opportunity to reflect on the contributions that so many have made in the name of social justice, peace, equity, inclusion, in business, in politics, in government and in the community.
“There’s no question that we’re all better off as a result of their desire to serve causes greater than themselves, often times at great risk to themselves. For what we all shared was a common belief that if everyone made an effort to make a difference, to value each other, and to treat people with dignity and respect, that the world would be a better place,” he stated.
Beckles encouraged changing attitudes, perceptions, and biases, “we can challenge prejudice, and we can challenge injustice, we can challenge intolerance…we can purposely recognize the equality of women and the legal right of all individuals to love whom they choose.”
These are some of the things he said being a leader truly is, “to embrace values that are inclusive and to rigorously challenge those that are divisive.”
Anthony Cuthbert Joseph, publisher and editor of The Caribbean Camera, who received the excellence in media award, said he has been in the business for 25 years and Van Cooten for 33 years, — a commendable feat for any media entity.
He said his writers always seek out the truth and excellence is very important to them weekly.
Reverend Royston and Claire Jones, married for 47 years, were the recipients of the Matilda Van Cooten award for excellence in parenting.
Royston arrived in Canada from Guyana in 1970 to answer the call of ministry. He was joined a year later by Claire and their first daughter, Diba. The family subsequently grew with three more children: Shireen, Andrew and Psegga.
He was associated with the inner city mission work of the United Church of Canada that included churches in the College St.-Bathurst St. area, as well as St. Jamestown-Regent Park areas.
Reverend Jones commended the work that his wife has done in education, 10 years in Guyana and over 30 years here.
The award for excellence in medicine went to Sheryl Antoinette Bernard, whose mother had her at age 16 and left her in Jamaica before turning 18, to come to Canada to make a better life for her only child.
She acknowledged the late Dr. Joan Lesmond for being her mentor and friend on her academic and professional journey.
“There’s gratitude in my heart. I give thanks for my gifts and can confidently say I know where I am going because I know where I’ve been.”
Grace Carter-Henry Lyons, founder of The Heritage Singers that was recipient of the excellence in arts and entertainment award, said the group will celebrate its 40th anniversary on October 21 at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.
She commended Van Cooten for the ACAA, describing it as a “labour of love,” and then led the group in a medley of songs.
The Heritage Singers promotes the development of Caribbean folk music and theatre and shares it with the greater community.
The award for excellence in politics was presented to Eric Williams, a trustee of the Peel District School Board (PDSB) since 1977.
Sharing a joke about almost losing pages of his speech for a commencement ceremony some years ago and being told by the woman who found them that without the pages he would have been speechless, Williams decided to improvise his thank you remarks.
He commended all those who attended the ACAA to support him – the PDSB, Malton Black Development Association, Congress of Black Women, educators, and his family.
Receiving the award for excellence in religion, Rev. Dr. Kay Morris, Canada’s ‘First Lady of Gospel & Queen of Reggae Gospel,’ described her journey as being phenomenal and filled with challenges, but she transformed those challenges into stepping stones to her success.
“There is no success without adversity. If it happens overnight, then I wouldn’t say it’s success because you have to work hard for success. You have to have some sleepless nights, you have to have some folks hating on you,” she said.
Despite this, she advised pushing ahead as the only way to really achieve success.
“You have to stay focused regardless of what the odds are.”
Morris said God has catapulted her ministry on different continents and allowed her to cross religious, racial, and cultural barriers bringing a message of love, hope, peace and unity.
Dr. Tabo Sikaneta, a general internist and nephrologist at The Scarborough Hospital, accepted the award for science with his two “moral supports” by his side — his sons, Zane and Shamiso.
He said this award reminded him of another achievement award that received from McMaster University approximately 20 years ago — an MD and the right to call himself a doctor.
“At the time it felt as if I had been given a pair of shoes that were too big for me, and a challenge to grow and fit into them. It took several years and more training and experience before I felt I had achieved this, and before things such as boarding a plane and hearing the call “is there a doctor on board” were no longer a worry. I now once more feel as if I have been given a beautiful pair of shoes that are too big for me. They pose another challenging, if daunting, call to grow into.”
Dr. Sikaneta said he was grateful for the very public aspect of this award.
“In recognizing the work of others, and providing them with inspiring awards such as you have done, you show the younger generation, including Shamiso and Zane next to me, and their friends and many other young children, how very important and worthwhile it is to set and achieve goals,” he said.
The Young Achievers’ Award of Excellence, sponsored by RBC and presented by Jennifer Tory, the bank’s Group Head, Personal and Commercial Banking, introduced the recipient, Remi Ojo Jr., and read his biography, describing him as an all-round achiever who has excelled in academics, sports, entrepreneurship and giving back to the community.
She urged the audience to join her “in recognizing Remi Ojo Jr. as a most deserving recipient of tonight’s Young Achievers Award of Excellence“.
In his acceptance speech Ojo said, “It’s really special in the youth category because I believe it’s a unique opportunity to potentially inspire the next generation of youth to aspire, to follow their passions, strive for excellence, and become involved in their communities.”
The last award presentation of the night – lifetime achievement — was made to Delores Lawrence, founder, president and CEO of Nursing & Homemakers Incorporated (NHI), a multi-million dollar company providing healthcare employment to over 500 individuals.
It comprises temporary, permanent, casual and contract workers across Ontario who speak over 70 different languages.
Lawrence, who was born in Jamaica and migrated to Canada in 1969, studied in Canada and the United States before becoming a registered nurse.
Upon graduation, she worked at a major teaching Toronto hospital specializing in critical care nursing and at 28 became a nursing supervisor. Lawrence is a registered nurse with the College of Nurses of Ontario.
In 1985, she founded NHI, which she started with $5,000 of her Canada Savings Bond.
The company offers healthcare staffing and homecare services to clients in hospitals, long term care facilities, insurance companies, dentists and other healthcare companies.
NHI is known for its ethics, accountability and compassion which are evident in the high quality of service provided to its clientele and employees.
As a mentor, Lawrence has given leadership training to several young people, who have become successful in their own careers and entrepreneurship. A change agent, she specializes in executive leadership, governance, finance, business development and corporate administration.
Her leadership as a volunteer is demonstrated on the various boards she chairs or is a member of, which run the gamut from community organizations to government agencies and commissions.
Lawrence is known for her philanthropy; she has organized shipments of medical equipment to hospitals and infirmaries in Jamaica, and has coordinated her efforts with the Canadian Red Cross to provide hurricane relief to the island when disasters happen.
Lawrence has also facilitated visits by politicians and medical students from Jamaica to hospitals and long term care facilities in Canada.
Her philanthropy has opened many doors in various communities in Canada and internationally.
The recipient of many awards and recognitions, Lawrence was appointed to the Anglican Church Diocese of Toronto Executive and Diocesan Council from 2006 to 2015. She was co-chair of the diocese’s successful $50M fundraising campaign from 2004-2010, and was the chair of Operation Vote Canada, a non-profit organization founded to educate, motivate, promote and support the participation of Canadians in all levels of government.
Lawrence was appointed as a delegate by the Canadian government to be part of the first Canadian businesswomen trade mission to the USA in 1997.
She has received many awards, including the University of the West Indies Graduate Nurses Alumni award, 2002; African Canadian Achievement award for excellence in business in 2003; and the Order of Ontario in 2004 – Ontario’s highest honour for a civilian.
In 2013, she was the recipient of the Queen’s Jubilee medal, Province of Ontario Volunteer award, and the Order of the Diocese of Toronto award.
Other awards include the Black Nurses Network award for innovation and entrepreneurship, 2007; Jamaica Canadian Association Community award; Planet Africa award – enterprise, 2009; and the prestigious Harry Jerome Award, 2010. She was also named to Canada’s Top 100 Women Entrepreneurs list for a number of years.
Her strong civic engagement is demonstrated in her appointed roles: Honours and Awards Secretariat – Order of Ontario selection committee (2013 to present); the Ontario Judicial Council (2010-2014); board member and chair of Seneca College board of governors (2000-2006); member of the board and chair of Academic & Patient Care Committee of Sunnybrook & Women’s Hospital; board member of the Toronto International Film Festival Group capital campaign; chair of United Way of Greater Toronto (Caribbean Committee) and the Bishop Strachan School board of governors (1995).
Lawrence has also served in a variety of executive positions at the Black Business & Professional Association.
She holds a B.A. from York University, MBA from University of New Hampshire, Diploma in business management from Harvard Business School, is a graduate of University of Toronto/Rotman’s Institute of Corporate Governance Program and a graduate in Lay Ministry from Wycliffe College – University of Toronto.
There was also a special presentation, made by RBC, to Kiera Allum-Rowe, a student pursuing studies in the bio-medical sciences degree program at York University.
“RBC has engaged thousands of young Canadians across the country by giving them $150 with just one simple request – use the money to help make your communities prosper. Through our Make 150 Count program we bring to life the power of ideas of young people, celebrate their extraordinary acts of kindness and showcase how they build prosperity in communities across our nation,” said Laura Gainey, senior vice president, Service and Operations, RBC Insurance, about an initiative to celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday.
Describing Allum-Rowe as an amazing young woman, Gainey said she has done so much already in her young life and thanked her “for her incredible efforts and contributions to the community”.
“I worked extremely hard and being here accepting this award is proof of how hard I worked and will surely continue to,” said Allum-Rowe, noting that ceremonies such as the ACAA that focus on the accomplishments of black people, are essential.
In her remarks, Joan Pierre, producer of the ACAA, noted that on July 1, Canada will celebrate its 150th birthday.
Looking back at the gift Canada’s Caribbean community conceived of and created for Canada’s centennial celebration in 1967 — Caribana, an annual Caribbean Arts festival – she said a visionary group of Caribbean-Canadians birthed the idea.
Having spent seven years with Caribana, four as executive director — the first female to hold that post – Pierre said she discovered her passion and has lived it for24 years.
“This year, 2017, will be Caribana’s 50th anniversary. The festival has become the gift that keeps on giving, as Caribana, now the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, is a major tourist attraction in the City of Toronto, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors, and millions of dollars in tax revenue to the city, as part of an economic impact of multi-millions,” she said.
“The Carnival events have always been dominant in the overall festival, but in recent years have become almost the only events. It’s time we return to realizing the vision of the founders and ensure that a broader range of Caribbean festival arts are featured in the festival,” she advised.
Pierre hopes that organizers will look at history and re-establish a festival that includes a broader range of Caribbean festival arts, like dance, drumming, pantomime, theatre and folksong.
The awards presentation ceremony opened with Natalie Morris singing the Canadian anthem, “O Canada,” and the Black national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
There were also delightful performances by the father-and-son piano jazz duo, Quincy and Eddie Bullen; Shaina Sammone, The Heritage Singers, and the Dance Caribe Performing Company.
The emcees of the 33rd ACAA were well-known media personality, Nneka Elliott, and educator and former actor, Peter Deboran.