Dozens of high school and university students packed the Red Chamber on February 25, 2020 to meet senators and celebrate Black History Month.
The theme for this year’s celebration — Canadians of African Descent: Going forward, guided by the past — draws inspiration from the Sankofa bird, which is depicted with its feet facing forward and its head looking back. It is a reminder to reflect on the past while going forward; the seed in its mouth represents the wisdom of the past from which future generations will benefit.
After speaking with senators, students took in a photo exhibit on display in the Senate foyer called On the Road North, which tells the stories of some of the people who helped to end slavery in Canada.
Speaker of the Senate George J. Furey, Q.C. told students that “one of the fundamental roles of the Senate is representing minorities.” He pointed to the extraordinary contributions of former Senate speaker pro tempore Donald Oliver and former senator Anne C. Cools, who was the first Black female senator in North America. Surveying the crowded Chamber, Speaker Furey said, “I see our future — our next generation of leaders in Canada.”
Senator Wanda Thomas Bernard described Black History Month as “a time to honour, reflect and then commit to action.” She said advocating for equality can be demanding but that she takes “strength from our ancestors, knowing how much they did with how little they had.” “We can all do something,” she added. “What actions will you take?”
Senator Marie-Françoise Mégie encouraged students to “take their place” despite the obstacles that will stand in their way. “You can overcome them,” she said. “You will face obstacles because of the colour of your skin and some of you will face obstacles because you are women. You are all part of the struggle, but you are also on the winning team.”
Senator Rosemary Moodie was born in Jamaica, where blended families are common, and she never really paid attention to race. “When I came to Canada, I became more aware of my race,” she said. She urged the students to embrace their differences. “Once you embrace who you are, you can begin to understand what you can contribute,” she said. “Accept no limitation.”
Introduced as a strong ally, Senator Mary Coyle spoke about moving her young family to Botswana. She developed a close friendship with a woman named Lindelwa and named her daughter after her. Senator Coyle said the name means “the one we were waiting for” and told the students, “you are all the stars Canada is waiting for.”
A student asks a question during the Black History Month event in the Senate Chamber.