The Government of Canada officially celebrated Black History Month in February 1996 for the first time, thanks to the Honourable Jean Augustine who successfully passed a motion in the House of Commons to have February recognized as Black History Month.
“I was so proud when the House of Commons unanimously passed the motion I introduced,” said Ms. Augustine. “We’ve seen a lot of changes over the years as a result of a simple motion to recognize February as Black History Month – Black history is now taught in classrooms as part of the curriculum, and it’s also talked about more and more by young people and in the media.”
In addition to making Black History Month an official national celebration, Ms. Augustine made history by becoming the first Black woman to be elected to the House of Commons, and later the first Black woman to serve in Cabinet, as Minister of State for Multiculturalism and Status of Women.
Her journey into politics as a woman of colour wasn’t without a struggle. Ms. Augustine, who was born in Happy Hill, Grenada in 1937, lost her father when she was just nine months old.
“I grew up in a household where my grandmother had to help my mother put food on the table,” she said. “I had very little growing up.”
Ms. Augustine came to Toronto in 1960 after signing up for the Canadian Caribbean Domestic Scheme. She worked as a domestic worker for a Forest Hill family before earning her permanent resident status and enrolling in teacher’s college.
“The Toronto I came to in 1960 was very different from today – I could walk for hours on end and not see another Black person,” said Ms. Augustine. “And there were people who did not feel that Black people had a place in Canadian society.”
After graduating from teacher’s college in 1964, Ms. Augustine worked as a schoolteacher, vice-principal and principal, before deciding to switch career paths. She became the first Black Canadian woman to be elected to the House of Commons in 1993, and became the Parliamentary Secretary to former prime minister Jean Chrétien the following year.
“There we no Black women and no Black role models for me to model myself after before I entered politics in the early 1990s, so I never really saw myself becoming a politician at that time,” she said. “I just saw myself as an educator. But people around me kept telling me to go into politics. And there were things in society that needed to be fixed.”
Ms. Augustine was a strong advocate for women’s rights, immigrants, and passionate about increasing promotional opportunities for visible minorities. She was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada, Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and in 2012, she received the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.
In 2016, the Peel District School Board announced it was naming its newest secondary school after her – fitting, since it was Ms. Augustine’s experience as an educator that inspired her to advocate for February to become Black History Month.
“There was very little that was written for and about the Canadian Black community, and the presence of Black people as part of Canadian history,” said Ms. Augustine. “It was a passion of mine to see how we could make this happen – to have Black history be part of the curriculum, and Black people acknowledged and celebrated in the Canadian mosaic.”