Rosemary Sadlier has been the president of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS) since 1993. She is quick to point out that this is not a paid position, but one she voluntarily accepted and embraced.
Her passion and motivation for this work stem from becoming a mother and realizing that the old-stereotypes she encountered as a young, Black Canadian person, we're still alive and pervasive. Her own mother gave her a strong sense of self when she was the only Black child in the community. And when her own children came home dealing with the same issues, she felt compelled to join the movement. ByBlacks interviewed Rosemary before the OBHS kick-off Brunch this Sunday, January 26, and she spoke about the OBHS and some issues facing Black Canadians.
What is the key role of the OBHS? How is it different from other Provincial Chapters in Canada?
The OBHS is the first Black History Society that ever came into being in Canada. It was through the efforts of this organization that the City of Toronto declared February Black History Month in 1979. Through further lobbying, the Government of Canada declared February Black History Month in 1995. So, the effects of our work are not just confined to Ontario. They’re felt all over Canada.
We also have an international impact: We are the parallel organization of the USA based Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). We’re currently working to have Emancipation Day (August 1) events in Canada, and have the day recognized nationally. Because of the distribution of Blacks in Canada, and issues of funding, we don’t really have active Black History Society Chapters in all of the provinces.
What are the services offered by the OBHS?
We do presentations wherever we’re called to do them. We have exhibits and events such as the “Leaders of Tomorrow” youth conference and Simcoe Day/Emancipation Day celebrations. We also do consultations. Our website has a lot of information on it, and our Facebook page posts our current events.
What do you think is the most urgent issue affecting the Black Canadian community?
I believe there is a real lack of a sense of connection to this place. It’s hard to feel a sense of belonging in schools, and then it’s a challenge to find positions when you don’t fit into the mould of what employers want. Black Canadians are also over-represented in the prison system.
Do you think overall, things have gotten better for Blacks in Canada, and why?
There are certainly more Black Canadian professionals than there used to be, but for every Michael Lee-Chin, how many people are still disenfranchised or live in poverty? Toronto has 50% of the Blacks in Canada, but they're still not enough Black Canadians on boards, as well as in professions such as Justices of the Peace. We have to counteract this idea of who is entitled to assume certain positions. There are many roles in society with power that Blacks can and should access.
How do we challenge the status-quo?
We challenge the status quo by ensuring that people have a positive perception of Afro-Canadian contributions. We must challenge what people think they know about the community. The stereotypes have not changed since I was a child. For instance “If you’re black—you must be Jamaican!” It adds to the assumption that we must all think, act and feel in certain ways. The reality is that Blacks in Canada come from diverse backgrounds. Some of us have ancestors from the Underground Railroad days, and others have come in different waves of immigration. There are different voices and perspectives which should be heard.
What are the needs of the OBHS at present?
A home of our own. Right now we operate out of an office space which does not serve us well. When we want to have exhibits and events, we have to go outside. We hope to have a centre where we can permanently exhibit Canadian Black History, or at least have a place for reasonably-sized events to occur. We also need more volunteers for their passion and ideas!
Can you tell me about the OBHS Kick-off Brunch happening this Sunday, January 26, 2014?
This is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and bring people together. We’ve been having this event for over 15 years now, and this year we’re celebrating the 35th Anniversary of the official recognition of Black History Month. The event starts at 12 PM at Liberty Grand Entertainment Complex, 25 British Columbia Road (Exhibition Place). We’ve got people from government, corporations, the diplomatic corps and students, all coming together to be entertained and work together.
How can people find out more about the brunch and get involved with the OBHS?
What would you like people to think about as we approach Black History Month?
I’d like people to think about the theme this year: Freedom Seekers and Black Defenders. In the past, the Freedom seekers made themselves free utilizing the Underground Railroad. We’ve also had black soldiers fighting in old wars such as the War of 1812, and more recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. I’d like people to think about these heroes—those fighting for social justice and equity. And I want them to think about ways in which we can create and develop new heroes. Finally, I want to remind people that February is Black History month, but the OBHS operates throughout the year. I want people to get involved—pick up the phone, call us to do a presentation or ask us for information. I’d like for people to expand their knowledge of Black Canadian history and our present realities.