Telling HERstory as part of Canada's 150 years of history

Telling HERstory as part of Canada's 150 years of history

April 8, 2017

If it were not for resilient and caring parents and her strong desire for success, Avril Addie’s story might have been much different.

Diagnosed with a learning disability in Grade Four, she was pushed into a vocational stream and told she would never be able to read.

There was more.

Years later, Addie returned to her high school, successfully gained permission to see her files and was stunned upon stumbling on an entry that read, ‘She struggled with her education because she was confused about her race’.

“That incensed me because my parents did a very good job of making sure I knew who I was,” said the product of a mother who immigrated from Jamaica and a Canadian father. “I struggled in my elementary years after I was diagnosed with dyslexia, but that inspired me and my mom and dad were determined that I would succeed in spite of obstacles.”

The holder of three degrees and a Toronto District School Board teacher for the last 13 years is among a diverse and distinguished group of 150 Black women featured in ‘HERstory in Black’ which is a digital photo series celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary of confederation.

Addie, of course, is ecstatic to be part of the series.

“To enter a room full of amazing and intelligent Black women for that photo shoot is a moment in time I will never forget,” she said. “Everyone was so beautiful, strong, welcoming and loving. There was just a feeling of extreme sisterhood. Sometimes, we are the only faces in some settings and we get used to be alone. Here I was among a group of women looking like me who are achieving and doing a lot of great things. I was totally honoured and privileged to be among them.”

Interested in musical theatre at a young age, Addie graduated from Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts where she taught dance.

“It was while doing those classes that I realized I liked teaching and there was a way to mesh it with the arts,” she noted. “My learning disability helped to improve my focus and I worked very hard.”

Addie, who resided in Malvern for nearly 25 years, graduated with honours from the University of Windsor with an undergraduate degree in drama & education, New York University with a Master’s in educational theatre and teachers college.

She spent six years at Nelson Mandela Park Public School in Regent Park before transferring to Lord Dufferin Junior & Senior Public School in 2010.

Addie said that loving and teaching every student as if they are your own kids is the key to success.

“In my place of work, I have to love children who literally don’t want to be loved,” she added. “To wake up every morning after having them hurl abuses at you the day before and for me to show up in that classroom hours later and say, ‘I am still here, I still care about you, I still love you and I am going to work with you until you love yourself’,  is what keeps me going.”

Most of the women featured in the historic series took their husbands, partners or family members to a cocktail reception recently at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) which profiled several of the women participants in the photo shoot online and on CBC Radio and CBC News Network.

Lee Anna Osei went a step further, cradling a basketball in her right hand.

 Lee Anna Osei

Lee Anna Osei

“This ball is my life,” said the recipient of the 2015 Wilfrid Laurier University Outstanding Woman Award that recognizes female students who combine athletic and academic achievements with an active commitment to community volunteerism. “This ball took me around the world, it helped me overcome adversity and it provided me with a base to build some of the most important connections in my life. It is also what I use to help others become meaningful societal contributors.

“I seldom get the opportunity to dress up because I am in shorts and T-shirts most of the time. When I got out of the car to come to this event, it occurred to me that I also had to find a way to stay true to myself. So I turned back and retrieved a basketball that was in the vehicle.”

Osei relished the opportunity to be in the company of TDSB school trustee Tiffany Ford and basketball agent Leisa Washington who are women she has looked up to for years.

But the woman who takes pride of place is her mother who works in a factory seven days a week.

“She came to Canada as an immigrant with a fourth grade education,” Osei pointed out. “She was carrying her second child, yet she found a way to make it work in a very new and demanding environment.”

Transferring from Emily Carr Secondary School in Woodbridge to Eastern Commerce Collegiate where she graduated as a four-time honour roll student and the school’s all-time assists leader was the first step in a journey that saw Osei attend two American universities and make a commitment to another before returning home.

With enormous visibility on her high school team that won back-to-back provincial titles, Osei attracted scholarship offers from St. John’s University and Cornell University in New York and the University of Miami which she chose.

An injury-plagued rookie season in which she was diagnosed with compartment syndrome ended with the Canadian transferring to Trinity Valley Community College in Texas where several of her Eastern Commerce teammates were playing.

Despite a foot fracture suffered in conference play, Osei contributed to the team finishing second in the country. After one season, she was contemplating moving again – this time to Robert Morris University in Pittsburgh – when it dawned on the student-athlete that home might be the best place for her at that stage in her career.

Her brother, who graduated from Wilfrid Laurier and was a chartered accountant, was hoping that his sister would attend his alma mater. She did, but he succumbed to mental illness in August 2012 a month after she was accepted.

In her three seasons with the university’s basketball team, Osei set the team record for the most assists in a season with 98 in 2013 and finished her career with 217 assists, third most in the school’s history.

The two-time Canadian Interuniversity Sport (CIS) Academic All-Canadian was an Ontario University Athletics (OUA) second-team all-star in her final season and an OUA nominee for the Joy Bellinger Award presented to the student-athlete who excels in academics, athletics and community service.

In June 2013, Osei founded Canletes Basketball that provides multiple services for amateur and professional players. She is also a trainer at Ultimate Hoops Inc. and the office administrator at the St. Albans Boys & Girls Club in the Jane & Finch community.

In acknowledging the contributions of the featured women, CBC executive vice-president of English Services Heather Conway said the public broadcaster is privileged to be afforded the opportunity to air their stories.

“I am often hearing that you were the first Black woman or the only Black woman and that you have been trailblazers,” she said. “While that’s something to be very proud of, I can tell you as a woman, and particularly a gay woman, that it can be a really lonely place to be the only one or the first. It’s so important to have these kinds of events so that you can come together as a community to know that you are not alone and to know that you are part of something bigger that will support and celebrate you.

“Each of you is part of Canada’s story. We are a young country and your story is part of our narrative. That’s why your stories matter to the CBC. They matter to Canadians. It’s part of our understanding of who we are, what we value and who we want to be. So, as you are making HERstory, you are also making Canada’s history.”

Emily Mills, a senior communications officer with the CBC communications, marketing & brand team for the last six years, conceived the idea for the groundbreaking project while travelling on a train with her family last December.

“It occurred to me that we were going to be telling stories of Canadians for the Canada 150 celebrations, but I wasn’t certain that the brilliant women that I know stories were going to be part of that story,” she said. “So instead of being uncertain, I said I was going to build something so I would see, hear and watch those stories. When I sent out the first e-mail on December 26 asking if anybody out there would help me if I wanted to tell the stories of 150 Black women, the response was instant and overwhelming. The CBC supported me all the way once I pitched the idea to them.”

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