Why empowerment takes many forms for the Hon. Dr. Jean Augustine

You might recognize the Honourable Dr. Jean Augustine as the first African-Canadian woman elected to the House of Commons; a former MP for 13 years; the Minister of State Multiculturalism and Status of Women Canada; a school principal with two public schools named after her; the driving force behind the placing of the Famous Five statue on Parliament Hill.

And if you’ve been following WXN’s Canada’s Most Powerful Women: Top 100 announcements, you’ll know her as this year’s Accenture Inclusion Vanguard Award Winner, too.

We could go on, really. Her accomplishments are as numerous as they are impressive. But if there’s one thread that winds through them, it’s one of empowering others. It’s just taken many different forms throughout the years.

Augustine the educator

Growing up in Happy Hill, Grenada through the 1940s, Augustine knew early on that she wanted to teach. In fact, teaching was her first job. So when she immigrated to Canada in 1960 to become a nanny, she was already qualified in education – but still had a journey ahead of her.

Education remained her focus early on in her career. She completed her education at Toronto Teachers College and earned her bachelor of arts at the University of Toronto. And while earning her masters of education, she taught elementary school with the Metropolitan Separate School Board in Toronto.

In the coming years, she rose from teacher to principal. Still, she never forgot her roots – or the kids she taught. “When I walk the streets and meet young people who I taught and who remember what I taught them, I feel I have made some contribution to their lives,” she told the National Post. “I feel that’s a really big achievement.”

Augustine’s now at 82 has never stopped teaching. She has two schools in her name. She continues her work with the Centre for Young Women’s Empowerment, where girls age seven to 17 learn everything from self-confidence and leadership skills to martial arts and yoga. York University’s Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora aims to advance access, equity and inclusivity in education.

Augustine the activist

After arriving in Toronto, Augustine noticed there was work to do. “There were so many things that I saw that needed activism, especially because I was an immigrant, black, Catholic woman,” she told the National Post. “Sometimes I was the only black face in the room or the only woman.”

She became active in Toronto’s Caribbean community, serving on the committee that organized the first Caribana festival in 1967. She founded the Toronto chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada (later becoming the organization’s national president). And she did all of that while volunteering with grassroots organizations fighting for women’s rights and combating violence against women, drug abuse and poverty.

She also spent time as the chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority where she provided leadership to people living in difficult housing situations.

Noted for her leadership in her community, government leaders approached her for help on important issues like the development and launch of Canada’s multiculturalism policy and training teachers in diversity and equity.

Augustine the politician

On Oct. 25, 1993, Augustine did something no African-Canadian woman had ever done: she won a seat in the Parliament of Canada.

Her work in her community and her activity in the Liberal Party put her on the radar of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, who nominated her for a place in the coming election. Her stunning victory came at a time when her riding was less than one per cent African
Canadian.

In office, Augustine kept her activism going, championing a historic motion designating February as Black History Month in Canada and the Famous Five statue on Parliament Hill that honours five Alberta women who fought so that women could be considered “persons” under the law.

Before leaving her position as MP in 2006, she had served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Minister and Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, Chair of the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee, Chair of the National Women’s Caucus, and in her final year, Assistant Deputy Speaker.

After leaving Parliament, Augustine did one last tour of duty as the first Fairness Commissioner in Ontario, where she set new standards for regulatory bodies on conditions for foreign-trained professionals. She stepped down in 2015.

Augustine the award winner

This year, Augustine added the Accenture Inclusion Vanguard Award to her list of distinctions – and she was honoured to do so, she told the National Post.

“I’m deeply honoured that I was selected, simply because diversity and inclusion has been my life’s work,” she said.

The Accenture Inclusion Vanguard Award resonated with the firm’s values and commitment to offering an inclusive environment where all people have a strong sense of belonging, can be their authentic selves, and have equal access to opportunities.

The Inclusion Vanguard award recognizes a leader, male or female, who has made a profound, thoughtful and measurable impact on diversity; who champions others; who betters the experience in the community around them. Through her work here in Canada, Augustine has done just that.

 

This award joins other accomplishments she has earned: the Order of Canada, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal, seven honorary doctorates, and her appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire for her work in education and politics, to name a few.

Still, her work isn’t quite done yet. As she said in a response to a Speech from the Throne on Feb. 5, 2004, “I am living proof that we live in an open and inclusive society. But as long as people express that they have experienced racism and discrimination, we still have work to do.

“I am confident that the action we have already taken will benefit many generations after us. We must continue to act.”

To learn more about Jean Augustine, and our 2019 Top 100 Winners, visit our Top 100 winners page.