Jean Augustine's birthday celebration boosts Chair at York University

Jean Augustine's birthday celebration boosts Chair at York University

September 23, 2017

The Jean Augustine Chair at York University has received a financial boost from proceeds accrued from the trailblazer’s recent 80th birthday celebration that attracted nearly 650 guests.

Named after the first Black woman elected to the Canadian parliament, the Chair was set up nine years ago at a period when stakeholders were concerned about the state of education for marginalized youths.

Relaunched in August 2016 to renew community interest in the project, an endowment goal of $3 million was set.

About $1.8 million has been raised so far.

Rhonda Lenton, York University’s president and vice-chancellor, said the institution is proud to have a Chair in Augustine’s name.

“Jean has had an exemplary career as an educator and advocate,” she said. “As an architect of social justice and equity in Canada, she has served as a remarkable example for our students and the next generation of Canadian leaders and advocates…She’s a trailblazer, in every sense of the word, for the Black community, women, diversity and equity throughout Canada and for championing Black History Month in this country that has transformed how history is taught to future generations, empowering millions of Black Canadians, including many on our campuses not only to celebrate their heritage, but to share it.”

In 2007, Augustine made a special gift of historically significant items to York University, including her parliamentary chair, robes and portrait from the House of Commons, photos, commemorative items, gifts and a collection of papers documenting her time as an elected representative which will be archived in order to allow students and scholars’ access for research purposes.

“She has meant a lot to York University even though she’s a University of Toronto graduate,” added Lenton. “…Her history is a vital part of our history and her values and achievements embody the values and achievements of our university. This important relationship and the legacy of her leadership continue today. The effect of her philanthropy is enabling our students, our faculty members and our researchers to make an impact.”

The Faculty of Education, whose dean is Lyndon Martin, is known for its commitment to social justice, equity and inclusion.

“The Jean Augustine Chair is the most tangible demonstration of this in action,” Martin said. “The work done through the Chair matters and it makes a difference in the lives of students, teachers and communities in the Greater Toronto Area and beyond.”

Introduced as the new Chair when it was relaunched, Dr. Carl James said the endowment will help to further the analysis and dissemination of the Black Experience Project data, assess the role of financial awards in Black students’ access to post-secondary education, support the academic needs of Black youths through a leadership mentor program, evaluate the effectiveness of an in-school community agency program and examine the experiences of Black students attending suburban schools.

He made an urgent appeal to the community to support the Chair.

“I am hoping that since we are yet to meet our intended financial endowment target, you will continue or begin to work with us to attain our goal,” said James who was recently appointed an advisor to guide transformation in the province’s education system. “I invite you to think of the many ways we might help to construct the legacy that’s synonymous with education that we, as a community, hold as the means by which our young people might confront the barriers and challenges that conspire to limit their opportunities and successes in the society.”

Rising from humble beginnings in Grenada, Augustine has had a stellar career as a public servant.

Grenada’s Prime Minister Keith Mitchell, a cousin of Augustine, sent a birthday message via Skype.

As a young 10-year-old boy, I had to be writing to you in response to a letter that you wrote to your adopted mother and my aunt,” he said. “I was proud to be the source of the reply. You have been a stalwart of the Grenadian Diaspora community and you continue to be an inspiration and fountain of service to your community.”

Graduating from the West Indian Domestic Worker program, Augustine was an elementary school principal and Metro Toronto Housing Authority chair before entering politics.

She represented the Etobicoke-Lakeshore riding for four terms prior to resigning from federal politics in 2006 to make way for former Liberal Party leader Michael Ignatieff.

As the first Black woman appointed to Cabinet when she was named Secretary of State with responsibility for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, Augustine also filled the roles of Minister of State, assistant deputy chair of committees of the whole and special adviser for Grenada. She was parliamentary secretary to then Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and she chaired the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Parliamentary Committee and served on the parliamentary sub-committees on human rights, international trade, citizenship and immigration.

Augustine was the founding chair of the Canadian Association of Parliamentarians on Population and Development and Chair of the National Liberal Women’s Caucus.

As a result of two motions she initiated, February was declared nationally as Black History Month and the Famous Five Statue received a home on Parliament Hill, giving recognition to the contributions of women and Blacks in Canada

In addition, she was the province’s first Fairness Commissioner appointed to advocate for foreign- trained professionals and ensure the credentials of internationally-trained professionals are treated fairly.

“For decades, you have been a shining light for women in Canada and, in particular, Black and other racialized women,” Grenadian-born Debbie Douglas, the executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, told Augustine at the birthday celebration. “You have taught me and others how to be gracious under pressure, how to hone my critical thinking skills and how to successfully move forward the public policy agenda by knowing when to oppose and when to propose. I can’t begin to tell you how valuable that lesson has been for me professionally. I have witnessed how you embrace those who are team leaders and those who are struggling to find their place.

“Your legacy will live on in the hearts and minds of all those who study Canadian political history, who read the research reports from the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, who attend the school that bears you name, participate in the women and girls centre program at the Jean Augustine Centre for Young Women’s Empowerment and those who have had the good fortune to walk with you through your many careers.”

Actors Joseph Marcell, who met Augustine for the first time in Washington nearly a decade ago, and Danny Glover were at the birthday event.

Jean Augustine flanked by actor Joseph Marcell (l) and Dr. Carl James

Jean Augustine flanked by actor Joseph Marcell (l) and Dr. Carl James

“We are not celebrating her birthday, but a lifetime work in the service of the community and the Canadian people,” said Glover. “You know that even at 80, there is still so much work to be done.”

A few years ago, Augustine – the holder of six honourary degrees and mother of two daughters -- established a scholarship at George Brown College to encourage and assist single mothers in their decision to undertake post-secondary education at the academic institution.

She also served on the committee that helped organize the first Caribana celebration in 1967 and was a founding member of the Grenada Association of Toronto.

Member of Parliament Celina Caesar-Chavannes presented Augustine with a special Canada 150 pin made from the copper of the roof of Canada’s parliament.

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