Ovid Jackson leaves indelible imprint on Owen Sound
February 20, 2019
Concerned about city spending and where the money was going, Owen Sound resident and former high school teacher Ovid Jackson’s complaints often fell on deaf ears.
That was until a colleague challenged him in the staff room to run for city council.
Guyanese-born Jackson accepted it.
“He brought home the nomination paper that evening and said, ‘I am going to run for council and I want you to sign your name on it’,” recalled his wife, Verona Jackson, who was a Canada 150 Molson Community Leader Award recipient in 2017.
In 1974, Jackson defeated 15 other contenders with the third highest number of votes to become the southwestern Ontario port city’s first Black alderman.
As an immigrant seeking the votes of a mainly Anglo Saxon constituency, he admits it wasn’t easy.
Jackson, however, had a simple plan to woo voters.
“I didn’t see colour,” the University of Western Ontario graduate said. “The base was the people and I operated from that perspective.”
Re-elected for four two-year terms, he successfully ran for Mayor in 1982 on a platform of enhanced technology usage, infrastructure modernization and transforming the city into a regional business centre.
Jackson was Canada’s second Black Mayor after Haitian-born medical doctor Firmin Monestime who made history in 1963 in Mattawa, a small town in northeastern Ontario.
Richard Thomas, an Owen Sound city councillor since 2014, first met Jackson 32 years ago when he went to work for CKCO TV as the local news correspondent.
“During the years I covered municipal council, I found Ovid to be a good leader and a real gentleman with a great sense of humor,” said Thomas who has published eight novels and seven non-fiction books. “His focus was on the economic future of the region and it was during his tenure that Owen Sound annexed property from neighbouring Sydenham Township.”
Earning the trust and respect of his constituents, Jackson served four three-year terms until 1993 when he became the first Black politician and first Liberal to win the rural Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound riding in the federal elections.
Becoming a Liberal was easy for him.
“I had a job with the provincial Conservative party, but it just didn’t seem right and I couldn’t see myself aligning with the party,” said Jackson. “While I understand a lot of the New Democratic Party (NDP) policies, I didn’t think it was the party for me. I am a left winger with a heart. I entered public service because I wanted to make a difference and make the community better. I became a Liberal member because of its programs of caring for the aged, the young, health care and education.”
A predominantly farming community that generates millions of dollars annually in gross sales, Jackson always ensured that the hardworking farmers’ issues were brought to the table at the federal level.
“Part of my job is to walk around in my community and listen to residents,” he said in his first speech in the House of Commons after the 2000 federal elections, “What I am hearing from my farmers, who by the way have provided cheap, affordable and healthy foodstuff for us over the years, is that there are some hardships in one commodity group in particular, that of grains and oilseeds.
“This group says that it requires some help right now. My job in the House is to say to the government and all my colleagues that we should make sure that this commodity group gets some help immediately for the short term and that in the longer term it is protected from some of the tariff protections of other countries.”
Jackson was a Member of Parliament for three terms until 2004 when he suffered his only election loss to Conservative Larry Miller.
While his wife was disappointed he didn’t get a cabinet position in the Jean Chretien government, the veteran politician, who turned 80 on February 3, didn’t share the same sentiment.
“I thought Chretien didn’t want to put me up front and burn me out, “said Jackson who turned down an opportunity to become a senator on the assumption that he would have been re-elected in 2004. “I chaired several parliamentary committees and was quite happy doing that.”
Lyle Love, who met Jackson in March 1982 when he was hired as the Owen Sound city manager, went on to become his parliamentary secretary.
“Ovid worked hard as an MP in providing assistance to his constituents, regardless of their political persuasion,” said Love who was one of two recipients of the Owen Sound Volunteer of the Year Award in 2013. “He fought and succeeded in having the visitor centre in Tobermory which is the hub for the Bruce Peninsula National Park and the Fathom Five National Marine Park built and was well liked by fellow MPs. I believe it all boils down to Ovid’s fairness and respect he gives to all regardless of their political stance or place in society. He and his wife are quality people who are committed to helping their community.”
Being selected to monitor the 1993 South African elections remains one of the highlights of Jackson’s political career.
“I had just arrived in Ottawa and Andre Ouellet who was the Foreign Affairs minister at the time delivered the news,” the 2010 Order of Ontario appointee 2010 related. “The icing was meeting Nelson Mandela who became that country’s first Black president.”
Jackson also monitored the 1996 Palestinian elections in which Yasser Arafat was installed as president, moved the throne speech for Chretien to open the 1994 parliamentary sessions and accompanied the former Prime Minister that same year to a dinner with late Guyana president Dr. Cheddi Jagan who was shocked to find out that a Guyanese was sitting next to the Canadian PM.
As a Member of Parliament, he chaired the transport & government operations standing committee, served on the citizenship & immigration, health, transport and policy development standing committees and was the parliamentary secretary to the treasury board president and the minister responsible for infrastructure.
In the early 1990s, Jackson was instrumental in the launch of Community Foundation Grey Bruce that manages over 140 endowed funds in various areas, including education, arts & culture, health care, environment, poverty reduction and recreation.
“Ovid has a long list of achievements, but in my mind one of his most visionary ones was leading the creation, with former city manager Lyle Love, of the foundation,” said Thomas who spent 20 years working in radio and television before starting his own communications company in 1999. “The philanthropic organization which supports community initiatives is, in my view, his most important legacy.”
At a celebration in 2014 to mark the foundation’s 20th anniversary, former Prime Minister Paul Martin, who was the keynote speaker, shared the story about how he learned about community foundations from Jackson.
“One day he was talking about community foundations to 10 or 15 Members of Parliament, and he was explaining it, and they were not more knowledgeable than I was at the time,” said Martin. “And he was saying this is the kind of thing that should be in every community and he was doing a tremendous job, so I sat down to listen. At that point, he said, ‘let me tell you why community foundations are so important.’ And just as he started, I was called away. When I came back 10 minutes later, he’d finished. So I looked at him and I guess I’d been Minister of Finance for about three years to that point, so I said to him, ‘Look Ovid, I didn’t hear why community foundations are so important. Why are they so important?’ To which he said, in front of everybody, ‘because finance ministers are so miserable’.”
The journey to Canada and the federal parliament started in Guyana where Jackson was an automotive mechanic and national basketball player.
The Ravens club centre was a member of the Hewley Henry-led Guyana team that defeated Suriname for the first time in 1962 and the side that toured Trinidad & Tobago and Barbados a few months later under the leadership of Howard University graduate Brian Dummett who passed away on Jackson’s birthday in 2017.
“Ovid used his height very effectively and was very strong on both the offensive and defensive boards,” recalled Caribbean sports personality and former Guyana Basketball Federation president Joseph “Reds” Perreira who was Jackson’s coach in the 1961 home series against Trinidad & Tobago. “He was a good player.”
It was during his brief basketball career that Jackson met his wife of 56 years.
“My best friend (Patsy Henry was a close friend of Hewley Henry) encouraged me to attend games and meet Ovid,” said the retired Georgian College professor who ran for the Liberals in Bruce-Grey-Owen Sound in the 2006 federal elections. “That’s where I fell for him.”
She lost to Miller who defeated her husband two years earlier.
Dropping out of Berbice High School because his parents couldn’t afford the enrollment fees, Jackson attended Georgetown Technical Institute where he secured an 18-month scholarship in 1959 to study in England.
In the midst of an 80-day general strike that crippled Guyana in 1963, Jackson returned to England and worked as a mechanic for two years.
Learning that Canada was in need of skilled mechanics, he brought his family here in 1965.
“I had friends in this country and they told me it was a good opportunity,” said Jackson who accompanied Chretien on a seven-nation African tour in 2002.
Just three months into his first job, he lost sight in his right eye in an industrial accident.
For the faint of heart, the devastation might have floored them for a long time.
Not Jackson who is made of steel and was determined to rebound quickly and make his mark in Canada.
He went back to the classroom, became a licensed high school technical teacher and taught in Owen Sound for 27 years until his historic elevation to the federal parliament.
“I went to Owen Sound because I couldn’t get a job in Toronto,” said Jackson who coached basketball in schools and the community. “I also got an offer to go to Ottawa, but I decided to go to Owen Sound where I expected to get my certification and then come back to Toronto. That, of course, never happened. I just fell in love with the community that reminded me a little bit of New Amsterdam where I was born and raised.”
Health & wellness advocate Che Marville, who unsuccessfully ran for the NDP provincially and federally, is extremely proud of her uncle’s accomplishments.
“Ovid has always been an explorer and trailblazer, someone who always imagined something better and would work towards that vision,” his niece said. “His strength of character, courage and voracity for life are boundless. He’s a quiet hero for me because no matter what the obstacles are, his clarity of purpose defines his mission. For some people, the loss of sight would be a determinant of one’s trajectory. That doesn’t apply to him. He always says, ‘We are not defined by our limitations, but by our internal limitlessness’.
“He and his wife inspired me and demonstrated that you can do anything you imagine which they did. Even as I ran for a different political party, he supported me without question because he believes in the power of democracy and the freedom of ideas and discourse. I think in years to come, Ovid’s political and community contributions will be studied not for his anomaly, but as a model for political strategy and community building.”
Happily retired in Owen Sound which was the Underground Railroad northernmost refuge for slaves fleeing from the southern states, Jackson remains active. He takes long walks, does daily 15-minute workouts and – with his wife -- spend six weeks annually in the winter in Barbados.
They also relish the time spent with family, including their two children and seven grandchildren.
Andrew Jackson recently retired from the Toronto Transit Commission while his sister --Dr. Sonja Bruin -- is a physician in Manitoba.