TRCA Celebrates Black History Month

February is Black History Month in Canada, and Toronto and Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) is joining people across the country to recognize and celebrate the many contributions of Black Canadians in shaping Canada’s culture, identity, and heritage.

The stories of Black Canadians are steeped in injustice, resilience, bravery, and determination to change not only their situations, but their communities and the structures that worked to marginalize them. They are inspiring stories that deserve amplification and appreciation to truly understand the history of Canada and its people, and to strengthen the nation for us all.

Celebrate Black History Month with TRCA

TRCA is shining a spotlight on Black Canadians who made history right here in our jurisdiction.

Throughout the entire month, Black Creek Pioneer Village will be sharing stories from the 19th century, allowing us to explore the past so that we can reflect on our present.

archival photograph of Black Ontarians living in a rural village in the 1800s
Image from the digital photo exhibit Real People, Real Places, created in partnership with the Archives of Ontario and displayed at Black Creek Pioneer Village. The exhibit showcases photographs of Black Ontarians from the 19th Century selected from the Archives’ Alvin McCurdy Collection.

Stay up-to-date on new stories by checking out #TRCABlackHistoryMonth on social media.

To kick off, we’re pleased to feature the Honourable Jean Augustine – a name synonymous with Black History Month in Canada.

The Honourable Jean Augustine

The story of the Honourable Jean Augustine is a fitting place to start. Although not from the 19th century, she notably introduced the motion to recognize February as Black History Month to the House of Commons while she was a Member of Parliament. Augustine is a contemporary heroine, and her story is one that reflects a passion for community engagement and social justice, and a dedication to public service.

Early Life in Canada

Born in Grenada, Jean Augustine moved to Canada in 1960 at the age of 23. Prior to 1960, the Canadian government discouraged Black immigration, seeing non-white people as undesirable, but changed immigration policies after the Second World War when there was a demand for domestic labour. Augustine initially worked as a nanny in the Forest Hill neighbourhood of Toronto as part of the government’s immigration program. It was an entryway to a country that she would shape in her later years.

Having been a qualified teacher in Grenada, Augustine returned to the field of education upon completing her one-year contract. Intelligent, hardworking and driven, she quickly earned her Ontario teaching certificate in 1963 and became an elementary school teacher. Augustine continued her own education while employed, gaining a Bachelor of Arts degree and a Master of Education.

Her career mirrored her academic advancements despite widespread anti-Black sentiments and inadequate resourcing to support minority groups. Augustine’s ability to affect positive change could not be denied, and it was inevitably acknowledged with her promotion to principal, then Supervisory Officer, foreshadowing her achievements and positions of leadership to come.

Social Work

Augustine’s accomplishments are admirable, but even more so upon realizing they weren’t for herself to enjoy. They were attained so she could better serve others, which is made clear from her commitment to social work. Augustine carved out time to invest in community organizations and grassroots efforts, advocating for the rights of minorities and women, and combating violence, drug abuse, and poverty.

Of note, in 1967, she served on the committee that helped establish Caribana in Toronto – the popular festival dedicated to promoting and developing Caribbean arts and culture. Then, in 1973, Augustine founded the Toronto chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada, later becoming its national president.

Public Service

Augustine’s social work merged with her career in 1988, when she was appointed Chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority, a multi-million-dollar social housing authority serving 300,000 residents. She thrived in public service, but it was not an easy journey. Yet Augustine was undeterred by the challenges and lack of representation in spaces of leadership. In fact, it seemed to drive her to be the public leader she wanted to see.

She pursued the goal with vigour, entering politics in 1993 as the nominated Liberal candidate for the Etobicoke-Lakeshore district. Augustine won the seat, making history as the first African-Canadian women to be elected to Canada’s House of Commons, and reprised her role in Parliament for four consecutive elections.

During her time as a Member of Parliament, Augustine continued to champion the rights of marginalized groups and occupied important positions in government. Her achievements include:

  • Working as Parliamentary Secretary to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien
  • Chairing the National Liberal Women’s Caucus for three terms
  • Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Status of Women, making her the first Black woman to achieve a post in Cabinet
  • Minister of State for Multiculturalism and Status of Women
  • Member of the Citizenship and Immigration Committee over several terms
  • The first-ever Fairness Commissioner for the Province of Ontario
  • Championing legislation to protect disadvantaged low-income individuals, including single mothers raising children
  • Securing unanimous legislative support to pass a motion designating February as Black History Month in Canada
  • Securing unanimous legislative support to pass a motion to erect the only statue featuring women on Parliament Hill, the Famous Five Monument

After her appointment to Minister of State, Augustine told The Globe and Mail, “it says to others and ourselves that Blacks can be in every place in our society. It’s important that no one be able to say that Blacks can’t perform in every segment of Canadian society, because we can.”

Augustine continues to have an impact on Canadian society even after her retirement in 2015, contributing as an educator and advocate. Her legacy builds on the achievements of the incredible Black Canadians who came before her and adds to the list of powerful role models for younger generations.

More Stories and Resources

The Honourable Jean Augustine is an inspiring Canadian of great historical and present importance. We’re proud to celebrate her life and achievements. Her story, however, is only the tip of the iceberg.

Check out #TRCABlackHistoryMonth on social media for new stories to get to know the Black Canadians and events that have shaped the communities in which we live and work.

Additional resources are available online to learn more about Black history. Here are a few to get you started: