York U celebrates Canadian changemaker Jean Augustine, full funding of endowed Chair in her name
A dedicated educator, a tireless social activist and a passionate politician; few members of the York University community have had as extraordinary and lasting impact on society as the Honourable Jean Augustine, Canada’s first Black woman to be elected to the House of Commons and the first to be appointed to federal cabinet.
Last week, community members joined Augustine at York’s Keele Campus to celebrate an announcement of funding from the federal government to support the endowed university Chair in her name.
The Hon. Kamal Khera, Canada’s Minister of Diversity, Inclusion, and Persons with Disabilities delivered the news, “Having access to equal opportunities and a brighter future should not depend on the color of your skin or your origins. Our government is committed to dismantling systemic barriers wherever they persist in our country,” she said. “Partnering with organizations like the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community, and Diaspora, we are creating pathways to education for Black youth and future Black scholars, thereby building a stronger, more prosperous Canada.”
The $1.5 million federal contribution represents a major milestone for the endowed Chair – now fully funded with more than $3 million, thanks in large part to many years of dedicated grassroots fundraising efforts led by Augustine, supported by her devoted network, and backed by matching funds provided by the University.
President Rhonda Lenton delivered heartfelt remarks on behalf of York, reflecting on the importance of the work the Chair will support, including scholarly research, programs, partnerships and new opportunities for Black communities in Toronto and beyond.
“We are grateful for the generous support of the Government of Canada which will build on Jean Augustine’s legacy and vision and enable the Chair to continue in perpetuity — fostering the success of current and future Black scholars and students, and addressing systemic barriers to advance access, equity and inclusivity in education,” Lenton said.
Augustine paid tribute to those who have supported her vision over the years, “Since 2008, we have been diligently raising funds to secure this vital community resource. The generous donation we received has allowed us to reach our goal, and our community is deeply grateful for this invaluable contribution,” she said.
The announcement follows a history of determined fundraising since the Chair was established. Efforts led by Jean Augustine herself, and community-inspired efforts like the “25K in 25 Days” campaign in 2021 ensured success in raising $1.08 million towards the endowment, which was then matched with a further $1.08 million by the University.
Prof. Carl James, who currently holds the Chair, and Faculty of Education Dean Robert Savage also spoke to those gathered, including Member of Parliament Arielle Kayabaga, and former Dean of the Faculty of Education Paul Axelrod, among many esteemed community members, partners and advocates.
James is the current Chair and a recently appointed distinguished research professor in the Faculty of Education. His work builds on Augustine’s vision. A renowned researcher and prolific writer, James is widely recognized for his research contributions and for leading efforts to enhance educational and social outcomes for Black youth across Canada. His groundbreaking research on streaming – the exercise of choosing between ‘applied’ or ‘academic’ courses, found to disproportionately affect Black students – ultimately led to the provincial government ending the practice in Ontario high schools.
The real-life impact of this work was evident at a free documentary film screening later in the day at the Price Family Cinema on York’s Keele Campus, where students from James Cardinal McGuigan Catholic High School and Monsignor Percy Johnson Catholic School cheered in a standing ovation after receiving news that the Chair had been fully funded.
The documentary Steadfast – The Messenger and the Message, follows Augustine’s journey “from Happy Hill to Parliament Hill,” and traces her beginnings as a teacher in Grenada and deep connection to her Caribbean roots. The film highlighted how her early experience informed her work and social activism in Canada – from establishing Black History Month in Canada in 1995, to the community-engaged work the Jean Augustine Chair advances today.
Initiatives like the Day at York program (providing Black students enrolled in grades 7-12 an opportunity to explore their post-secondary education options) or the Black Internship Program (Co-op) Credit (designed to increase Black leadership and education engagement through skills development and experiential learning) are only two examples of how Augustine’s legacy has shaped the University and neighbouring communities in positive ways.
In a post-screening conversation with bestselling author and fellow York honorary degree recipient, Itah Sadu, Augustine reflected on both her age and her impressive list of accolades and accomplishments: “You can’t put 86 years into 57 minutes, but we tried.” More than 60 years since arriving in Canada, Augustine’s impressive legacy continues to grow – outpaced only by her passion for public service, community, and the power of education.