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By Lincoln DePradine
Angela Robertson admits that Black History Month (BHM) is important, even though she says that she has a “contested relationship’’ with the annual event.
“I believe it is a time to affirm both our presence and our contributions as Black people,’’ said Jamaican-born Robertson, executive director of Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre.
“But, I also feel that Black History Month is a time when we need to address and call out, and call upon others, to address anti-Black racism and to work for the just change that we all desire,’’ Robertson added. “It’s a contested month because I think Black History Month also needs to be a moment for White folks to talk about white supremacy and not just for Black folks to talk about racism.’’
Robertson, a former government employee attached to the Ontario Women’s Directorate and the 2017 recipient of an honourary Doctor of Laws degree from York University, made her comments February 17 at an online Black History Month discussion on “confronting anti-Black racism, beyond occasional acts and trends’’.
The event was organized by the Labour Community Services (LCS), a coalition whose members are committed to tackling matters of poverty and injustice.
LCS partnered with Toronto Community Benefits Network (TCBN) in hosting last week’s BHM event that was moderated by Ginelle Skerritt, recently appointed CEO of York Region Children’s Aid Society.
“The blood, sweat and tears’’ of people of African descent went into building Canada’s physical infrastructure, said Rosemarie Powell, executive director of TCBN, which is focused on diversity in the construction sector.
TCBN’s goal is ensuring Toronto becomes “an inclusive, thriving city in which all residents have equal opportunities to contribute to healthy communities and a prospering economy’’.
“We deserve to be here and to benefit from the economic prosperity that our labour has produced,’’ said Powell. “By negotiating community benefits agreements into major infrastructural projects, TCBN is ensuring that the next generation of builders includes more Black people.’’
Other speakers that contributed to the discussion were LCS chair Abdi Hagi Yusuf, labour leader Andria Babbington and educator Gary Pieters.
“One of the biggest challenges that we are dealing with is how do we, once and for all, root out anti-Black racism from all of our institutions,’’ said Pieters, a school principal and a commissioner with the Ontario Human Rights Commission (OHRC).
Rampant and open racism is oppression of Black people, who are protected by the OHRC code, said Pieters.
“There’s no reason why large organizations should have the pervasive and rampant anti-Black racism that exists in them,’’ he said.
Babbington, president of the Toronto and York Region Labour Council, said that with the global attention brought about by the 2020 police killing in the United States of African-American George Floyd, there was “a sense of hope and encouragement to ending systemic anti-Black racism’’.
However, she said the “widespread attention’’ of two years ago no longer exists and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic “has been used as an opportunity for people to focus less on fighting anti-Black racism at a time when “Black lives are still threatened, physically and systemically’’.
Her hope, said Babbington, “is that we come together and make strides in confronting and ending anti-Black racism’’.
One of the specific issues discussed was youth, challenges facing them and how young people could be assisted in overcoming problems confronting them.
TCBN, for its part, has been encouraging youth to consider seeking jobs in the construction industry, said Powell.
Without a college diploma or university degree, just a high school education, a young construction worker can get a good-paying job, she said.
“And, because it’s a unionized position, year over year, the salary increases without them ever having to go to their employers and demand an increase of salary,’’ Powell explained. “It’s been a really good partnership with our labour allies in making some of this happen.’’
Powell said she would like to see TCBN’s model “replicated more broadly’’ in other employment sectors.