Black History Month begins today, celebrating the legacy of Black Canadians and their communities. Black Canadians have made significant contributions to international cooperation throughout Canada’s history, and hold key roles in Canadian international cooperation efforts to this day. To celebrate Black History Month, we want to share the stories of two Black Canadian women who played leading roles in Canadian international diplomacy and development.
Canadian author, diplomat, activist and writer Mairuth Sarsfield was the archetype of a global citizen. Born in Montreal in 1925, she studied in New York and Ghana before beginning her career in media. She went on to organize a Canadian exhibit at Expo ‘67, and the Canadian pavilion at Expo’ 70 in Osaka, Japan. Mairuth took these roles in the face of racist and sexist discrimination, blazing a trail for future women and people of colour in Canadian diplomacy and media.
In 1971 she joined Canada’s Department of External Affairs, before moving on to the newly founded United Nations Environment Program. Working as a Senior Information Officer for the Program in Nairobi, Kenya, she developed and launched the global campaign “For Every Child a Tree,” which pioneered reforestation and environmental conservation efforts. The City of Cleveland celebrates Mairuth Sarsfield Day on October 22nd each year in recognition of her work with the United Nations and For Every Child a Tree. After her diplomatic career, Sarsfield became an author, drafting books until her passing in 2013, aged 83.
Jean Augustine immigrated to Canada from Grenada in 1960 at 23 years old. Augustine worked as an elementary school principal and administrator, while growing her presence in the community. She consulted on Canada’s official multiculturalism policy in 1971, and was named National President of the Congress of Black Women of Canada in 1987. In 1993, she would go on to become the first Black woman elected to Canadian Parliament, serving in Etobicoke-Lakeshore until 2006.
Over her time in government, she would recieve unanimous consent for her motion to recognize February as Black History Month in Canada, and chaired the Canada-Africa Parliamentary Group. Augustine traveled extensively in support of Canada’s international development efforts, as part of her service in roles such as Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, Minister of Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, Chair of the Foreign Affairs and International Trade Committee, and Chair of the Human Rights Committee. Augustine, now 84, is still an active member of her community.
For more stories and information on Black History Month in Canada, you can visit Heritage Canada’s website or attend their February 17th celebration.