The Order of Canada is one of our country’s highest civilian honours, with recipients meant to uphold the motto “they desire a better country”. That motto is most fitting with the desires of artist Robert Small, who is among this year's 135 appointments. For more than 25 years, he’s been using his art to help create a better Canada for Black Canadians by highlighting their oft-underplayed and undervalued accomplishments.
Small says that while he felt honoured when the Governor General’s office called with the news of the award, he was also worried about being the only Black person to receive it this year. Last year, Denham Jolly was the sole Black recipient. But 2021 is a year of change. Small was happy to discover he was in excellent company with folks such as Nova Scotian health advocate Sharon Davis-Murdoch, Olympian and recognized international expert in sports law Justice Hugh L. Fraser, and Bruny Surin the four-time Olympian and Hall of Famer who helped Canada win gold in the 4x100m relay at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games. Other Black appointees also included anti-racism educators and authors Carol M. Tator and Frances Henry. And Jackie Richardson of Thornhill, Ontario, received an honorary appointment “for her contributions as a Canadian jazz legend, and as a leader and mentor to young performers in her community.”
But being worried about whether other Black figures have been given their proper recognition, makes so much sense for Small, because addressing those issues is what he has always been trying to do.
Small is the creator of the LEGACY posters, released annually for Black History Month. Many people may have seen them in schools and government offices across the country, as well as in branches of the Bank of Montreal. These posters show depictions of important Black figures with information about their lives, struggles and accomplishments.
Starting out 28 years ago, after just graduating from the University of Windsor, Small had no idea that his journey would lead him to become a member of the Order of Canada.
He started creating the Black History Month posters after working with the owners of the Black Pages Directory, Lynrod Douglas and Millicent Redway. After being exposed to their entrepreneurial life and how their products and events supported the Black community, this example set a template which he would use to guide his own entrepreneurial path.
He faced many struggles starting out, including competition from non-Black businesses and individuals who tried annually to undercut his poster by offering similar ones for free while he was selling his posters to make a living. But Small says that ended up working to his advantage. After hitting the pavement talking about the posters to dozens of people, he became so well known for his passion for the Black history poster project, that most people assumed all the posters were his. The so-called ‘competition’ essentially served as free advertising.
The Legacy posters may be what he became known for, but Robert Small has never stopped working on creating educational uplifting content for Black people, especially youth. His website shows activity books focused on science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics (S.T.E.A.M) from an Afrocentric perspective, as well as other original artwork and the option to book Small for speaking engagements. He mentioned to me that “there needs to be a balance between focusing on education and entertainment during Black History Month.”
And his upcoming works focus very much on the future improvement of the Black community through education. He’s creating an app called Afrotastic, due out in February 2022, that will allow users to take quizzes on important Black figures and events throughout history. Building on that theme, the Black Legacy posters for 2022 will be about Afrofuturism.
“Afrofuturism is a re-imagining of a future that is abundant with arts, science and technology as seen through a Black lens. LEGACY 2022 will envision a future where Black people have prospered by learning from examples of Black Canadians such as Isaac Olowolafe Jr., Komi Olaf, Claudette McGowan, Dominique Dennery, Anan Xoli and Sharon Murdoch.” Copies of the poster can be ordered at www.thelegacyposter.com.
Join us at ByBlacks in celebrating Robert Small and all other Black members of the Order of Canada. Thank you all for your hard work and efforts in creating a better community and country.