More than half of Toronto identifies as a visible minority, making it one of the most diverse cities in the world. So when Al Ramsay found out he would be the first Black person to receive the Trailblazer Alumni award from the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University, he was floored.
“Of course I was honoured, but it also lit a fire under me. Ryerson is in the heart of Toronto, so it’s crazy that I would be the first. It has just re-energized me to tell the stories of so many others who are exceeding and excelling.”
Earlier this year, Ramsay was asked to deliver the keynote speech at the TRSM student conference. He says he and the alumni staff were looking at the wall of distinction, mainly decorated with straight white males and he even joked, “hey maybe my photo will be up there one day.” It didn’t take long for that to become a reality.
Ramsay was presented with the Trailblazer award on May 18th. “Al embodies the true spirit of this award and its importance to our school! His leadership and commitment in creating a culture of inclusion and diversity at TD Bank from customer, employee and community exemplifies what our institutions strives to encourage from our students and our alumni. We are incredibly proud to call him a TRSM Alumnus!” says Jane Lovett, Alumni engagement officer at Ryerson.
Ramsay currently holds the position of national manager of LGBTQ2+ business development at TD Bank. It’s the only role of its kind in all of North America. He started the bank’s first Black employee network as well as the first PRIDE network. He was the force behind getting a same sex couple featured in the bank’s marketing for the first time. And he is also credited with getting TD onboard with Pride Toronto as a major sponsor. After receiving this award, Ramsay is thinking about taking on another project - starting a Black chapter of the TRSM alumni association.
Al Ramsay with his mother and sister. Photo by Ryan Lai
In accepting the honour, Ramsay dedicated it to his parents, who he calls his heroes. His mother and sister looked on from the audience as Ramsay became emotional talking about his family. “My parents are my heroes, because everything they do is for our family and they do it selflessly. They are role models to everyone in my life – friend and family.”
Photo by Ryan Lai
Photo by Ryan Lai
Ramsay’s parents have been together for over 45 years. They left Ramsay and his sister behind in Jamaica to build a better life for them in Canada. Ramsay was just 13 years old when his parents left him in the care of his grandmother. He wouldn't be reunited with them for another 5 years. “But even when they were gone, we never felt abandoned. We knew what they were giving up for their family. So I will spend the rest of my life honouring them for their sacrifice.”
Ramsay arrived in Brampton, ON as a spirited young man, full of zest and commitment to learning as much as he could. He enrolled at the closest school to him, Sheridan College for two years before transferring to Ryerson where he completed his bachelor of commerce degree. He would become the first in his family to graduate from university, and Ramsay looks back on those days with great pride. “I had an amazing time on campus, mainly because I met up with a bunch of like minded students from Africa and the Caribbean who showed me the ropes of the big city. Many of them are still my friends today.”
But inside, Ramsay was struggling with his own identity. And that internal battle continued long after graduation and followed him into the workplace. He recalls being an intern and having a senior colleague recite bible verses at him, after overhearing one of his conversations. He was crippled with fear, thinking she would ‘out’ him and end his career. This caused him severe anxiety and depression.
Ramsay says it was also difficult coming out to his parents.
Al and his sister as children in Jamaica, dressed in their 'Sunday Best'
“My grandmother was a pastor, I was an altar boy, a bible champion. When I say I grew up in the church, I mean it!” he says with a laugh. “There was a lot of shame and guilt associated with me just accepting myself for who I am. I knew my parents would be accepting but I had to complete my own "internal journey" first before coming out to anyone.”
He says his ‘coming out’ story was fast tracked when he was about to be featured in a national newspaper for the work he was doing at TD. “I called my mom and said we need to talk. I had to stand up, it was a now or never kind of moment. But the best decision ever.”
Ramsay admits that as a gay man in Canada, he ‘lives in a bubble’, meaning he is loved and supported by family and friends and rarely feels at risk. The same can’t be said for his peers back home in Jamaica. He hasn’t been back to the island in 10 years. “I have this love-hate relationship with Jamaica. It’s crazy what is happening to LGBT youth there but Jamaica will always have a special place in my heart. All the good things about me, my work ethic, my drive, can be linked back to my Jamaican experience.”
Ramsay is now working with local activist Maurice Tomlinson to raise money to help LGBT causes in the Caribbean, especially helping LGBT youth who are truly disadvantaged and are most time are in dangerous situations. He says he wants to extend that to raise funds to fight anti gay laws in the Caribbean. “I’m heartened by the changes that were made in Trinidad,” says Ramsay, who hopes the same can be achieved in other islands.
Photo by Ryan Lai
What really gives Ramsay hope, is the changing attitudes among younger generations. “I’ll tell you something, when I came out to my parents, I blocked all my extended Jamaican family from my Facebook page. I just assumed they would not be supportive and I wasn’t ready to face that. But one of my young cousins seeked me out and sent the most beautiful note about love and respect. I just broke down in tears. I opened up my social media channels and the ocean of love and support that came through was overwhelming - not one person was negative. Things are changing, if only incrementally. So I’m really motivated, and happy to say that I will be returning to Jamaica this year.”
Ramsay’s career advice - speak up and get involved. “I never used to want to speak up, because of my accent. Can you believe that? How stupid was that?” he laughs. “You have to own it, you belong here, you deserve a seat at that table.” Get involved, he says. “I am on every diversity committee at TD Bank. And when I’m walking the halls, if I see a new young employee I make the time to stop and talk to them, ask if they need anything. Because I remember what it was like to be a young Black man trying to climb this corporate ladder, with zero connections. I strongly believe in the ‘each one teach one’ philosophy. Because if we aren’t here for each other, then who is?”
Read 2077 times Last modified on Friday, 25 May 2018 18:30
Camille Dundas is the co-founder and editor in chief of Canada’s leading Black Canadian online magazine, ByBlacks.com. She has won two national ethnic media press awards and a commendation from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Prior to that, Camille spent 10 years as a TV news reporter and producer, working on national shows for both CTV and CBC.
ByBlacks.com is the top-ranked award-winning online magazine focused exclusively on telling Black Canadian stories. With over one hundred writers to date covering a range of editorial content, we also provide a free business directory for Black Canadian owned businesses, free events listing and promotional services for our clients.