From Happy Hill to Parliament Hill: An interview with trailblazer Jean Augustine

The Honourable Jean Augustine.

Women's heritage, Black heritage

Published Date: Mar 20, 2018

Photo: The Honourable Jean Augustine.

Among her many accolades, the Honourable Jean Augustine has the distinction of being Canada’s first Black female Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister. An educator, community builder and politician, she worked to improve the position of women. Today, she continues to empower her community at the Jean Augustine Centre for Young Women’s Empowerment in Etobicoke, where she recently sat down with Beth Hanna (CEO of the Ontario Heritage Trust) to discuss a career of service and advocacy.

Beth Hanna: Can you reflect a bit on what the really important milestones have been for you on your journey?

Jean Augustine: I have to go all the way back to growing up in Happy Hill, St. George’s, Grenada, with a grandmother, with aunts and cousins. I’m sure there were men [laughs] in the family, but the ones I admired were these very strong women. My grandmother was the one who assisted my mother with us because my father died when I was nine months old. She was a very strong and affirming woman for me. And so I start with that sense of affirmation from women in my circle.

When I came to Toronto, the city was ripe for advocacy. We had no Charter of Rights and Freedoms then. We had no Human Rights Commission in the sense that we have it today. We had no community police relations and no Landlord and Tenant Act. We had to make sure that we advocated and pushed to make the institutions and decision makers understand that we were here as Black people, that we’re here as Black women, that we’ve had a whole history in Canada. There were all kinds of things [laughs] that I was engaged and involved in. Nothing illegal, but at the same time, a lot of things!

I also found some fabulous women who were pushing the barriers. People like Marilou McPhedran, who was just appointed to the Senate. Jane Pepino and others were looking at the whole issue of violence against women. They were concerned about what was happening to women when there were no rules, no police procedures and the court system when women approached judges.

I had that sense of service: Look to see where others are, look to see what is important to do, participate in community because it was essential. It was easy to see a place for myself among those groups trying to make change.

And, of course, when 1982 came around and we were amending the Constitution and women were left out of that discussion, and all those who organized around that – again, I was on that bandwagon saying: “How about us? How about a section that would deal with the issues as they pertain to women?” I could not be a bystander. I was always in the midst of trying to make things happen.

The Honourable Jean Augustine’s office

The Honourable Jean Augustine’s office

BH: You’ve seen some remarkable changes. How do you think we’re doing as women?

JA: I think Canada is a great country. We have some of the brightest and the best, and we’re recognizing those brightest and best as women. But it’s not perfect yet. There are still many issues that we have to deal with. We have to strategize on how to deal with anti-Black discrimination so we’re not excluded from the rooms where decisions are made. We have the right legal structures and policy direction. What we need is to have full implementation of all those things that we have on the books.

BH: How do you see our society shifting in the next five years?

JA: It seems to me that we’re on the right track and we’re heading more toward what we want to speak of as “equality.” I think, in another five years, we’re working again at the recognition around childcare, maternity leave and the ability of fathers to stay at home. Some of the cultural things have to be broken down in society: That if a man stays at home, he’s no less a man because he is the one that’s bringing the child to the daycare. As society keeps changing, we also need more understanding around the issue of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and people who identify in varying ways. We need to be able to accept that our society is multicultural, multiracial, multiethnic and multireligious and we have to respect the views of each and every one.

As Chair of the National Liberal Women’s Caucus, Jean Augustine championed legislation to erect the Famous Five statue on Parliament Hill. Watch her account of that momentous day in the digital version of Heritage Matters:

BH: What challenges have you faced taking on leadership roles and how did you confront them?

JA: Very early in Canadian society, I recognized that, as a woman of colour (because, again, I talk about intersectionality where my race, my colour, my immigrant status, all of those things come together), I recognized very early that if I had to make way in the society, I had to be as good as, and better than, many others. “As good as” meant getting the necessary qualifications. It’s getting my Teachers College, getting my Bachelor of Arts degree, getting my Master of Education degree, getting all of the necessary pieces of paper one needed to move oneself forward so that by the time I put myself forward, I have more than the requirement.

BH: What would you say to someone who was interested in running for office?

JA: I’m part of a group that’s working on getting more young women into politics. I started with a group called Samara, then Equal Voice, and now we have a group in the African Canadian community and it is really to say to young women, especially, to go for it.

We have to affirm each other. My life has not been perfect. I’ve fallen on my behind many times. I think it was Jesse Jackson who said: It’s not the falling down, but it’s the picking yourself up and continuing to go. Because when I came to Toronto, I started with domestic work – I usually say it like this: I came from Happy Hill to Parliament Hill. So, I know that sometimes people need a hand up. People need to have someone who can say: Get up, let’s go, I’ll help.

I think it’s important to give the message: Go for it.