Small is among the 99 new awardees of the Order of Canada in recognition of his long-standing work for celebrating Black Canadians. He also made history as the youngest Black Canadian to receive this honour.
Small was perplexed when he received a call from the Governor of Canada's Office about being elected to the Order of Canada. It was a surprise because he didn’t know he was even running for it. However, Small was soon overjoyed with excitement when he realized that he was joining a league of people who achieved great things.
I always believed that my artwork would make history, and being appointed to the Order of Canada confirmed it. “I see it as a positive sign that I should never stop doing it,” says Small proudly.
Small heard the news of the Order of Canada award a year after his father passed away, without whom Small probably wouldn't have been on this path. And he realized that things have a bigger meaning.
“I feel as if my father is looking out for me and assisting me,” says Small.
Small admitted that the award comes with more responsibilities and duties. “I am now representing the Order of Canada. My life from here on out must reflect the prestige of the award and represent my community in the right way,” Small explains.
Small’s personal experiences helped him grow. He was born and raised in Toronto, Canada. As a kid, he was enamoured with comic books which fueled his passion for the arts.
But growing up and seeing the activities of Black Canadians in the political realm, such as Jean Augustine and Alvin Curling, Small aspired to be a politician.
He maintained an interest in the arts but never seriously pursued it because he felt his parents would not accept it. So, he went to the University of Windsor to study sociology and criminology.
But a car accident, while he was in law school, got him to recalibrate his goals in life and pursue his passions. Unfortunately, his school performance suffered because of the accident, and he got kicked out of law school for failing just one subject. This was a low point in Small’s life. He felt bad for not achieving his goals, most importantly, for not realizing his father’s dream of seeing him as a successful lawyer. Later, he confessed his feelings to his father, expecting to be rebuked.
But, his father’s response surprised Small and stuck with him. “Your life is for yourself. You do what you want to do in your life. Don't live it for me,” Small recalls. This led him to a path of self-fulfillment as he felt liberated to pursue his passions in life. He started to embrace his artwork more instead of worrying about disappointing his parents.
Small is also grateful for people like Lynrod Douglas, the CEO of Black Pages, who was his employer and mentor.
In addition, Small owes gratitude to Hamlin Grange, who was his mentor at YMCA Black Achievers Program. Grange is a diversity and inclusive strategist who also happens to be among the newly appointees to the Order of Canada.
“Hamlin never had an air of superiority. He told me to exemplify other younger Black people, so they can feel worthy and capable. I didn’t think much of his advice until I matured and realized that his words were indeed true,” says Small graciously.
Legacy poster series – documenting the lives of Black people
“In art, you’re imagining something from the depths of your mind and creating it for the world to see. The idea of creating something that epitomizes a theme has always interested me,” says Small.
Since 1995, Small has been creating posters celebrating Black excellence for Black History month every year. The posters are meant to raise awareness about the achievements of great Black Canadian personalities. He calls it The Legacy Poster because the work provides him with a blueprint of what he should do to create a legacy both within his own family and for the community in general.
He has printed 29 posters so far featuring over 120 Black personalities. The poster is distributed to school boards across the country and the Bank of Montreal.
“Around 100,000 of the posters have been distributed so far over the course of several years. These posters continue to educate Black people. This leaves a legacy for me and my descendants who will proudly say, ‘my great, great grandfather did those posters’,” says Small proudly.
He believes his biggest achievement to date is his ability to continue the Legacy Poster project. “These posters have been around for 29 years. This is a win for both the Black community and myself. Not everyone can do that,” he says.
Although Small’s posters are useful for everyone, his primary target is Black youth. He hopes the posters would compel them to do something positive on behalf of the Black community from a very early age.
“I hope my work reaches the youth when they’re still young so they too can pursue a path of excellence and feel proud about their history,” says Small.
Besides the Legacy Poster, Small advocates for the Black community through workshops and public speaking at schools, corporations, and institutions. He discusses various themes such as Black history, white privilege, and anti-racism.
“I hope my work is relevant to the Black community. I never want to be in the way of somebody else who’s trying to come up. I want to inspire youth with my actions, work, and accomplishments,” explains Small.
Small will continue to create the Legacy posters every year for Black History Month, while donating some of his posters to the Archives of Ontario.
He’s currently working on a new project called Afrotastic, an app about the story of African Canadians from different provinces and fields.
His passion for comic books hasn’t faded. He is looking forward to finalizing and publishing his own comic book in the near future. He is also planning to create a poster series with a focus on African royalty.