By Neil Armstrong
A new documentary film, Steadfast — The Messenger and the Message, about the life of Grenada-born Jean Augustine, the first African Canadian woman to be elected to Canada’s House of Commons, premiered at a red carpet event held at the Scotiabank Theatre in Toronto, on April 2.
Three years in the making and directed by Fahim Hamid Ali, the one-hour film tells the uplifting story of the trailblazing former federal politician, social activist and educator.
In 1993, Augustine made history as the first Black woman to be elected to Canada’s parliament. She was elected in the riding of Etobicoke-Lakeshore in 1993 and served as Member of Parliament until 2006.
In 1995, she championed the federal motion to designate the month of February as Black History Month in Canada, and succeeded, with a unanimous vote across all party lines.
Steadfast — The Messenger and the Message captures and revisits her humble beginnings in Grenada and recounts her journey and achievements in Canada, since she immigrated here, in 1960.
The storytelling includes interviews with people, who have known Augustine personally, such as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau; her cousin, Keith C. Mitchell, Prime Minister of Grenada; the first Black Miss World, Jennifer Hosten; British actor, Joseph Marcell; Grammy-nominated rap artist, Freddy Will; and several Members of Parliament and political leaders in Canada, and beyond.
Through enactments and firsthand accounts, the film depicts the courage and determination with which Augustine fought for the rights of women, African Canadians and the socially disadvantaged.
Heartwarming scenes include her visit to Happy Hill in St. George’s, Grenada, where she grew up and where she taught at a St. Louis Primary School and Happy Hill Elementary School, before coming to Canada under the West Indian Domestic Scheme in 1960.
Under the strong leadership of women in her family, like her aunt, Catherine Mitchell, affectionately known as Auntie Muriel (mother of Grenada’s prime minister) featured in the film, she learnt to be resilient and to excel.
The late Sir Royston Hopkin sums up Augustine well, when he says in the film, “You don’t get seven doctorates from all over and be represented at that level, unless you’re worth your salt.” Unfortunately, Hopkin, the owner of Spice Island Beach Resort, passed away in February 2020.
Marcell describes her as an astonishing person, a titan, an extraordinary daughter of the Caribbean and a nonpareil. Prime Minister Mitchell underscored that Augustine was from humble beginnings.
It was not surprising that so many young people were in the audience at the premiere, because Augustine’s name is emblazoned on a school in her honour in Brampton — Jean Augustine Secondary School — and the Jean Augustine Girls’ Leadership Academy of the Toronto District School Board. And, she is also the founder of the Jean Augustine Centre for Young Women’s Empowerment.
The screening was also well-attended by many community leaders, friends and allies of Augustine, whose name is also on the Jean Augustine Park on Toronto’s Lakeshore Boulevard and, in 2020, the City of Vaughan named the Jean Augustine Complex and the Jean Augustine District Park in her honour.
At York University, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community & Diaspora, launched in 2008, is a university Chair in the Faculty of Education, which aims to advance access, equity and inclusivity to education through community engagement and collaborative action. Fundraising for the Chair continues with $1.2 million remaining to be raised.
In her remarks, Augustine said a part of the film’s title — “the messenger and the message” — came from a conference she attended in Europe as Canada’s minister responsible for multiculturalism. The discussion was about Canada’s multiculturalism policy and, after explaining it to the European parliamentarians, the speaker following her presentation described Augustine as the messenger and the message.
“This is why, when the proposal said it’s going to be Steadfast, I said add the messenger and the message, because I brought the message of Canada and the message of Canada is reflected in who I am — that I can come here as a domestic; I can work in the home of a Canadian family; I can find myself as an advocate and an activist in this society; I can push the agenda in several ways and that is the message of Canada,” said Ontario’s first Fairness Commissioner.
Augustine says her story is the immigrant story and, “so when we talk to our young people, and when we hold Jean Augustine’s story up as an example, it is the immigrant family doing the best we can in a new society, building together, working together across all lines, and making sure that what we say in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, making sure that what we lay down as policy and guidelines and legislation, that it represents all of us”.
Organizers of the screening noted that Steadfast is set to showcase Canada as a world leader in promoting human rights and freedoms, diversity, pluralism, women’s rights and equality, in addition to Canada’s commitment to respect, fairness, dignity, tolerance and acceptance for the diversity of life.
Valerie Augustine, daughter of Jean and lead coordinator of the documentary film, says they are in the process of planning more screenings with dates to be announced.
At the film premiere, the Ngoma Drum and Dance Ensemble performed and multi-Juno award winner and Grammy awardee, singer, Liberty Silver, sang the national anthem. The emcee was Andria Case of CTV News.