Thank you very much, Sarah. Thank you very much, Bishop Robinson, for being here as our wonderful co-hosts this evening. Thank you to the Canadian War Museum for welcoming us yet again in this spectacular venue of Canadian history for the launch of our federal celebration of Black History Month. And thank you to all of you who are involved here, including my friend Deepak Chopra, CEO of Canada Post, and all of the officials at Canadian Heritage who have put tonight together.
I have to say how excited I am to see a larger crowd than normal in this big beautiful venue as we continue a tradition that started 18 years ago with the adoption of the motion recognizing February as Black History Month in our Parliament. I must say that one of the very first things I did when I received the honour of becoming Canada’s Minister of Multiculturalism in 2007 – that was in January – my very first question was, what are we doing for Black History Month in February?
Back in 2007, the answer was, we’ve got a website, and I said we have to do a lot more than that. This is an important opportunity to give real, practical expression to what is best about Canada’s multiculturalism, to celebrate the success stories, to recognize sacrifices, to acknowledge triumph over adversity, which is the history of Canada’s black African and Caribbean communities.
And so we launched the celebrations on Parliament Hill in February 2007, and since then, we have continued with these traditions, with not only this evening but all kinds of culturally historic activities here in Ottawa and across the country.
One of the projects that we launched as part of our renewed, refocused efforts on Black History Month was the fantastic virtual history museum of black Canadian history. It’s on the website of CIC. If you haven’t checked it out, I recommend you do so, because you know, as my friend Rosemary from the Ontario Black History Month Society knows, and she’s one of the great pioneers of this month, there are all these wonderful little museums and archives around the country supported by volunteers, small charitable contributions.
They don’t get a lot of big government funding, but they’re keeping alive the flame, the Underground Railroad Museum down in Chatham, Ontario, the Africville Museum out in Halifax, and all of these other projects around the country. What we’ve done in CIC online is to give a window to them, a connection to them, some of their artefacts, many of their stories. That’s part of what we’re trying to do all across Canada. It’s to present to Canadians, particularly youth of all origins, of all culture of origin, the fact that people of African and Caribbean origin have been here since the founding of Canada and have made an unparalleled contribution.
That’s what we’re doing this year as we join our Black History Month commemorations with two very important anniversaries in our country’s history: the 100th anniversary of the beginning of the Great War in 1914, and the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Second World War, an opportunity for us so poignantly here in our National War Museum to commemorate the sacrifices of those who risked and gave their lives in the defence of our democracy, but to recognize that since the very beginning of our military history black Canadians played an essential role, of course.
My favourite story, and I often get stares of disbelief when I tell people that the very first Canadian to have won the Victoria Cross, the highest honour in the British Empire, in the Commonwealth, in Canada, was, of course, a former slave, William Hall, who went from Nova Scotia to the Crimean War, saved many lives of his comrades, and was rewarded with that highest of all honours.
So many others followed in his footsteps, even though it’s true the Canadian Forces weren’t always as welcoming to black Canadians as they ought to have been. There was always a role for them to play, including the No. 2 Construction Battalion, which was the only Canadian battalion of black soldiers to serve in the Great War. Later this evening, we’ll have the privilege to hear from a guest speaker, Robert Downey, whose grandfather was a member of the battalion.
In addition, Canada Post’s 2014 Black History Month stamps, which will be unveiled here tonight, I guess they already have been, will honour two historical communities that were located on opposite sides of this big country: Africville in Halifax and Hogan’s Alley in beautiful Vancouver. The population of Africville was mainly made up of black Canadians, while Hogan’s Alley was the first neighbourhood in Vancouver to bring together a large number of black Canadians.
Both of these communities played significant roles in our black Canadian history, and both were ultimately and sadly demolished in the 1960s, victims of the urban renewal fervour of the time.
As Minister for Multiculturalism, I encourage all of our fellow Canadians to learn more about these and the many other stories that weave the tapestry of our own history on the Government of Canada’s Black History Month page.
The Museum, as I already talked about, the wonderful life that that’s given to many of these small museums across the country, but with respect to these stamps, thank Canada Post. How many years have you been doing this? Since 2009, so for five years now Canada Post has…they only issue a certain number of special commemorative stamps each year, but they made the very, I think, insightful call back in 2009 to reserve two of the special commemorative stamps specifically for Black History Month.
I hope that when young Canadians see these images, when they hear these stories, when they hear about the Construction Battalion in the First World War, when they hear about William Hall, when they hear all of the other brilliant stories, that they will be inspired. They’ll be motivated. They will see a community that came over historic adversity to one of full inclusion of excellence, of achievement in Canada.
One person who personified that story of success, of contribution, of patriotism to our country, to whom I was very close, was my late friend John Dennison. When I told you about how we began to renew our celebration of Black History Month at the program for multiculturalism back in 2007, then situated at the Department of Canadian Heritage, there was a man there who had done many years of service in our public service who I met, John Dennison, who was very passionate about the recognition of our black history and who played an essential role in our renewal of Black History Month at the federal level.
John had over 25 years of experience working on multiculturalism issues at the Government of Canada. His hard work and dedication earned him a number of awards, including a Community Builder Award from the United Way of Ottawa for contributing to the engagement of the black community in the arts in this our capital city. He held an Award of Excellence from the North American Black Historical Museum and Society for exceptional contribution to improving awareness and appreciation of black Canadian heritage, particularly of the Underground Railroad in Canada.
As I say, I feel privileged to have known John and had thought so highly of his character, his statesmanship, his quiet dignity, that I appointed him one of our country’s citizenship judges just two years ago. I know he took great pleasure welcoming thousands of new Canadian citizens to our national family. In fact, last year at this exact event, he led the oath of allegiance to the Queen of Canada to recognize our shared citizenship.
Sadly, just a few weeks ago, John suddenly passed away after an illness, and we express our condolences to his family and to all the members of the Ottawa Caribbean community who were close to John. I’d like, in closing, to invite you to stand and join with me in a moment of prayerful silence for the repose of John Dennison’s soul and in gratitude for his life of public service.
[Moment of silence]
Thank you very much and enjoy the rest of the evening, folks. Thank you very much.