Jerome Awards honour brilliance in myriad fields
April 28, 2017
Dr. Boluwaji Ogunyemi was aware that there is a bronze sculpture of Harry Jerome in Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
When the University of British Columbia chief dermatology resident physician learnt about six weeks ago that he was one of this year’s Harry Jerome Award recipients, he took some time out of his busy schedule to go to the public park surrounded by the Vancouver Harbour and English Bay and pay homage to the trailblazer.
“It’s something I had to do and I plan to go back,” said Ogunyemi who was one of 17 recipients of the awards that honour academic, professional and athletic brilliance and exceptional community service. “I am so surprised and excited to be a recipient of this award that has, in a sense, re-energised me. My interest is in diversity and inclusion in the field of medicine, both in medical education and in the practice of medicine in Canada. That is one of the things I am really passionate about and I am more motivated now after this great honour.”
Born in Virginia, one of three stops (the others were Minnesota and California) his Nigerian immigrant parents made in the United States before settling in Canada in the 1980s, Ogunyemi grew up in Labrador, Newfoundland where his father, Dr. Abayomi Ogunyemi, is a neurologist.
“My dad and my mom (Mary Ogunyemi has an MBA and is an entrepreneur) came to Canada to provide a better opportunity for their three children,” he said. “They left Nigeria with just $50 and they worked very hard and made many sacrifices for me. They are my role models.”
Though he was the only Black student in his high school graduating class of nearly 600, Ogunyemi said he never felt isolated or rejected.
“People are naturally curious because there weren’t many Blacks when I was growing up there,” he pointed out. “But they were very friendly and accepting and I never felt out of place.”
A joint honours sociology and medical science graduate from the University of Western Ontario in 2008, Ogunyemi completed a graduate diploma in clinical epidemiology and his medical doctorate at Memorial University in Newfoundland.
Health and medicine aren’t his only passion.
The Residency Doctors of British Columbia director of communications and Canadian Medical Association Journal reviewer is also an award-winning writer in the areas of diversity and inclusion and medical humanities and education. A regular contributor to the Huffington Post since February 2013, his work has appeared in the Globe & Mail, the Vancouver Sun, the New York Times and several other print and electronic media.
“While medical science is very fundamental and important, you are not treating a condition,” said Ogunyemi who is a member of the American Academy of Dermatology clinical guidelines governance committee. “You are treating a person, so you need to understand that individual’s story, where they come from and what their priorities are. I think, in order for me to be the best physician possible, you need the medicine and the humanistic aspect.”
Like Ogunyemi, Dr. Everton Gooden had a family member in the medical field to look up to.
“My cousin was a surgeon right here in Toronto,” said Gooden who was honoured with a Trailblazer Award. “At a young age, I had someone of colour who was my role model and that was huge for me. I feel as if I am lucky because far too many of our youths don’t have those role models in their lives. They prefer to follow sportsmen and other entertainers who are very talented and great at what they do. The reality though is there are a lot of other wonderful professions out there for young people to aspire to.
“When I get the opportunity to talk to students, I tell them to dream big and I remind them no dream is unattainable. That is what my parents told me. I tell youths to think of going to the moon. While they might not get there, they might very well end up in the stratosphere. Dreaming big increases your chances of success.”
The head and neck surgeon understands why Black and other minority youth gravitate to sports and entertainment.
“I had teachers tell me that a professional career is not for everyone,” recalls Gooden, a past North York General Hospital (NYGH) medical staff association president. “I and my siblings were very fortunate to have parents who were our navigators. They were very involved in our education because they know the value of a good education. The naysayers who didn’t believe I would make it this far were also very powerful motivators.”
Migrating from Jamaica in 1975 to join his parents Kenneth and Helen who came a few years earlier to prepare the path for their three children, Gooden graduated from George Harvey Collegiate Institute and successfully pursued biochemistry and his doctor of medicine studies at the University of Toronto.
The married father of three young children, ranging in ages from 12 to seven, is the chief of staff and chair of the medical advisory committee at NYGH and an assistant professor at the U of T.
His wife of 14 years, Dr. Nicole Isaac, is a radiologist.
Harry Jerome Awards were also presented to entrepreneur George Frempong, entertainer Sharon Riley, mining executive Keith Spence, playwright & filmmaker Cheryl Nembhard, York University human rights & equity studies graduate Leanne Prendergast, Dr. Barbara Trieloff-Deane, Revivaltime Tabernacle Inc. founder Bishop Dr. Audley James, Andre DeGrasse who was the first Canadian sprinter to win three medals in a single Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro last summer, former Kingsdale Shareholder Services Inc. president and chief executive officer Wes Hall, Schulich School of Business student Gabrielle Fletcher, long-time Carpenters Union member Chris Campbell, Ottawa Police Service sergeant Isobel Granger, Citizens for the Advancement of Community Development founder Ron Cunningham, Royal Bank of Canada Contact Centre vice-president Harriet Thornhill, McMaster University associate professor Dr. Juliet Daniel and Black Film Festival founder Fabienne Colas.
The Black Business & Professional Association (BBPA) administer the awards that honour the memory of Jerome who set seven world records in track and field and helped create Canada’s sports ministry. He was slated to be the keynote speaker at a celebration to mark the record performances of Canada’s athletes at the 1982 Commonwealth Games when he died suddenly a fortnight before the organizers contacted him.
Justin Trudeau was the first Canadian Prime Minister to attend the Harry Jerome Awards since Stephen Harper graced the ceremony seven years ago.
“We remember Harry for not only what he achieved, but for the man he was,” said Trudeau who was accompanied by his wife, Sophie Gregoire-Trudeau. “Once the fastest man in the world, he was also a dedicated student and a pillar of his community who extended opportunities to others. Whether he was providing Black youth with the sports equipment they needed to stay active alongside their peers or opposing the misrepresentation of African-Canadians on television, Harry never stopped fighting for a better world.
“Tonight, we celebrate extraordinary Canadians who, like Harry, chose to be agents of change. Trailblazers, young entrepreneurs, lifetime achievers, entertainers, the recipients of this year’s Harry Jerome Awards are shaping Canada into a place we will be even prouder to call home in the coming years.”
Trudeau reminded the audience that the Canadian Charter of Rights & Freedoms was entrenched in the constitution in 1982, the same year the Harry Jerome Awards program was launched.
“That is an amazing concordance which is wonderfully fitting since both are at their core a celebration of fairness, liberty and justice,” he added. “But as you all know, it has been a long road to reach progress and equality in this country. We are all here today because of the work of our predecessors, may they be Harry Jerome, Lincoln Alexander, Jean Augustine or even my dad and of the choices they made in the name of progress.”
Leader of the official opposition Patrick Brown also attended the awards and congratulated the recipients.
“Your accomplishments in your various fields reflect the value of perseverance, hard work, and the support of friends and loved ones,” he told them. “…I am so thrilled to celebrate this evening’s success with all of you.”
A moment of silence was observed for St. Michael’s Hospital echocardiologist Dr. Trevor Robinson, educators Dr. Inez Elliston and Dr. David Bell and community volunteer Raphaelita Walker who all passed away in the last four months.
Since the inception in 1983, a total of 415 Harry Jerome Awards have been presented to individuals and one organization – Eva’s Initiatives in 2005 – for excellence in myriad fields.