Awards honour memory of Jackie Robinson

Awards honour memory of Jackie Robinson

As a kid, York University professor emeritus Dr. David Bell would often go down to Maple Leaf Stadium to see the Toronto Maple Leafs – which was the New York Yankees farm team – play.

He also followed the careers of Hall-of-Fame baseball players Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays closely.

“Growing up, you are always looking for role models and people who are successful and belie a kind of stereotype that get thrown at you all the time,” said Bell who was the recipient of the Jackie Robinson Fortitude Award on December 2. “I am very proud of the fact that Jackie started in Montreal because there is a Canadian connection there. To be given an award bearing his name is simply wonderful.”

Bell is the third member in his family to receive the award named after the Major League Baseball (MLB) trailblazer who broke the colour barrier in April 1947 after spending the previous year in Montreal with the Dodgers triple “A” minor league affiliate team.

The inaugural award was presented in 2014 to his nephew -- Warren Salmon -- who started the monthly First Fridays networking event 22 years ago. Salmon’s mother, Bev Salmon who was the Ontario Human Rights Commission’s first Black female commissioner and a former Metro councillor, is also an award holder.

A political scientist by training, Bell was the dean of York University’s Faculty of Graduate Studies for six years before being appointed dean of the Faculty of Environmental Studies. He held that position for four years.

“When I moved to environmental studies, I was appointed a member of the provincial roundtable on the Environment and the Economy where I came face-to-face with some of these really significant sustainability challenges that are going to determine our fate on this planet,” said Bell who is the Learning for a Sustainable Future chair and co-chair of the Education Alliance for a Sustainable Ontario and Education of Sustainable Development Canada. 

“I really believe that. It took a while for me to get my own perspective on this, but I am now convinced that advancing education for sustainable development and building skills to help ensure that all of society can contribute to solutions that address today’s challenges and capitalize on opportunities is the way to go. It’s about the learning. We have to learn to live differently on this planet. We have to learn to live with a lower footprint and to respect nature and each other more than we have. The real challenge then for persons like me is to design education systems that will help that learning.”

Graduating with a doctorate from Harvard University in 1969, Bell – one of the few Black deans at a Canadian university -- taught for two years at Michigan State University before returning to York where he did his undergraduate degree. He retired a decade ago.

The eminent scholar, who studied with Ray Brown at Oscar Peterson’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music, is a jazz bassist who plays gigs in Toronto and Prince Edward Island where he and his wife have a summer home.

Bell is the son of Jamaican-born Herbert Bell who joined the West Indies Regiment before his 18th birthday. When his parents found out, he was quickly de-enlisted and sent to Boston to pursue engineering studies. Anxious to serve in the military, the family patriarch came to Canada and joined the First Battalion New Brunswick Regiment in 1917.

He was later transferred to the 206th Battalion in Siberia during the First World War where he was wounded and sent back to a Halifax hospital to recuperate. Leaving the Army as a decorated hero, he ran an automotive repair business in Toronto for 24 years before passing away in 1953.

Bell shared the spotlight last Friday with the province’s Education Minister Mitzie Hunter who was also presented with a Jackie Robinson Fortitude Award.

“She has the grace of Robinson and her knowledge and understanding has given her the uncanny ability to apply wisdom, humour and a sense of ability to the position that is equivalent to hitting a game-winning home run,” said civic volunteer Dewitt Lee who joined Warren Salmon in presenting the awards.

A graduate of Winston Churchill Collegiate Institute and the University of Toronto Scarborough campus with a political science degree, Hunter worked at Bell Canada as a regional director for five years before becoming president of SMART Toronto, an information community and technology industry firm.

She spent seven years at Goodwill Industries of Toronto, rising to the position of vice president, external relations & corporate secretary and two years as Toronto Community Housing’s first chief administrative officer, where she led the organization’s strategic and business support functions, including corporate communications, strategic planning, human resources and information technology, prior to joining CivicAction in January 2012.

Three years ago, she was elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario in a by-election. A year later, the Liberal candidate prevailed in the provincial elections.

Every First Friday event has a theme and this month’s was ‘Education’.

“When I found out that I was receiving this award on education night, that really got my attention,” said Hunter who tabled a private member’s bill that would allow Toronto to implement a ranked-ballot system for electing members of council and was the associate minister of finance with responsibility for the new Ontario Retirement Pension Plan (ORPP) before being promoted last June. “It definitely was not easy for Jackie Robinson, so I am delighted to be receiving this award.”

Since 2004, MLB teams celebrate Jackie Robinson Day on April 15 which is the day he made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Players wear his number – 42 – which every MLB team has retired.

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