Jean Augustine (née Simon), PC, CM, first Black female MP and Cabinet minister, social justice advocate, teacher, principal (born 9 September 1937 in Happy Hill, Grenada). Jean Augustine was a trailblazing politician and social activist: elected the first Black female Member of Parliament (1993), appointed the first Black woman in Cabinet (2002), and named first Fairness Commissioner by the Government of Ontario (2007). Her legacy includes the federal declaration of February as Black History Month, a motion she introduced in 1995.

Early Years

Jean Augustine was born in Happy Hill, Grenada, the daughter of Olive and Ossie Simon, a sugar cane plantation worker. The family was shaken when Ossie died of tetanus; Jean was a toddler and Olive was pregnant with her second child. The family moved in with an older woman called “Granny,” where the Augustine children were encouraged to succeed in school.

An A student, Augustine expressed interests in music, radio broadcasting and teaching. She became a teacher, but the pay was low. After learning about opportunities in Canada, Augustine applied for a nanny position through the West Indian Domestic Scheme. The program, which operated from 1955 to 1966, enlisted women aged 18 to 35 with a minimum eighth grade education to fill the growing need for nannies in Canada. In exchange for working in family homes for one year, the young women were given landed immigrant status (see Citizenship). Augustine arrived in Canada in 1960 and worked for one year in the Forest Hill neighbourhood of Toronto.

Teacher to Principal

Contract completed, Jean Augustine enrolled in Toronto Teachers’ College. After earning her Ontario teaching certificate in 1963, Augustine joined the Metropolitan Separate School Board as an elementary school teacher. In 1968, she married Winston Augustine, and they had two daughters, Valerie and Cheryl. (The Augustines divorced in 1981.)

Augustine was an activist in Toronto’s Caribbean communities throughout her teaching career, volunteering with grassroots organizations to strengthen immigrant and women’s rights and to combat violence against women, drug abuse and poverty. In 1967, she served on the committee that helped organize the first Caribana festival. In 1973, Augustine founded the Toronto chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada, where she later became national president.

Augustine was ambitious; in order to advance her education and prospects, she attended the University of Toronto, where she earned a BA (Hons) and later a master of education (1980). Her efforts led to the promotions of vice-principal, and then principal in the Toronto District Catholic Schoolboard, where she served until 1988.

Augustine was appointed chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority on 24 November 1988, remaining in the job until she entered politics in 1993.

First Black Woman in Parliament

Jean Augustine was nominated as Liberal candidate for the Etobicoke–Lakeshore district in Ontario on 25 October 1993. An enthusiastic, intelligent and charismatic woman, Augustine won the seat and became the first Black woman elected to the House of Commons. Of approximately 65,000 voters registered in the district, only 700 were Black. Augustine was re-elected in 1997, 2000, 2002 and 2004.

As a new Member of Parliament, Augustine tackled issues that were important to her riding, to women and to Canadians. Appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister of Canada (1993–96), she was Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s trusted voice on committees, at international meetings and in Parliament when he was absent from the House of Commons.

Black History Month

In the mid-1990s, Jean Augustine played a crucial role in establishing Black History Month in Canada. Though individual communities had held celebrations as far back as the 1950s — e.g., in Halifax and Toronto — none existed federally. However, in 1979, the Ontario Black History Society made significant headway when it convinced the City of Toronto to formally declare February as Black History Month. In 1993, the Society successfully petitioned the Ontario government to declare a province-wide celebration. Motivated by this victory, they approached Augustine about extending Black History Month across the nation. Augustine enthusiastically supported the idea. As she mentioned to the Canadian Museum for Human Rights:

I was an educator.… I recognized that the classroom curriculum was saying very little about African Canadians. The same thing was done to Indigenous peoples — if there was any reference, it was either in the footnote or as a sideline. Black Canadians were not part of the script and were not shown contributing to Canadian society.

With that in mind, Augustine put a motion before Parliament to recognize February as Black History Month, asking, “That this House take note of the important contribution of Black Canadians to the settlement, growth and development of Canada, the diversity of the Black community in Canada and its importance to the history of this country.” The motion passed unanimously in December 1995, and February was proclaimed Black History Month in Canada.

First Black Woman in Cabinet

As a Member of Parliament, Jean Augustine served as Chair of the National Liberal Women’s Caucus for three terms. She was also elected chair of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade in February 2002.

Augustine was appointed Secretary of State (Multiculturalism) (Status of Women) on 26 May 2002, making her the first Black woman to achieve a post in Cabinet. The same year, she was selected to be a member of the Queen’s Privy Council of Canada. On 12 December 2003, she was appointed Minister of State (Multiculturalism and Status of Women).

After her appointment, Augustine told The Globe & Mail, “It says to others and ourselves that Blacks can be in every place in our society. It's important that no one be able to say that Blacks can't perform in every segment of Canadian society because we can.”

In 2004, Augustine was elected Assistant Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons.

A member of the Citizenship and Immigration Committee over several terms, Augustine sat on international boards and associations related to women’s rights, human rights, HIV/AIDS, economic development and industry, and immigrant rights, as well as racism and discrimination.

Ontario Fairness Commissioner

After retiring from politics in November 2005, Jean Augustine continued her career in advocacy. In March 2007, the Ontario government appointed her the province’s first Fairness Commissioner. The Office of the Fairness Commissioner (OFC) ensures that qualified foreign-trained professionals (e.g., in medicine, teaching) can get the required licences to practise in the province.

During Augustine’s tenure, the OFC influenced hundreds of improvements made to licencing procedures in Ontario — improvements that made the process easier to navigate, more transparent and impartial. After eight years at the helm of OFC, Augustine retired in March 2015.

Legacy

Community service has defined Jean Augustine’s life and career. In 2014, that service was recognized with the Jean Augustine Legacy Scholarship, made available annually to a Humber College student from the Etobicoke–Lakeshore area “who has overcome obstacles and is actively involved in the community.”

Augustine also has a strong connection to York University. In 2007, many documents and records of her life and political career were donated to the university’s Clara Thomas Archives (see Clara Thomas). The Jean Augustine Chair in Education in the New Urban Environment was established at York University on 25 June 2008. According to the university, the chair researches “educational issues involving immigration, community engagement and cultural diversity” and seeks to “improve schooling in metropolitan cities.”

In 2014, the Jean Augustine Centre for Young Women’s Empowerment opened in Toronto, part of the PACT Urban Peace Program. The centre highlights “education, nutrition, mindfulness and real-world job training.”

Honours and Awards

In 1987, Jean Augustine received the first Kay Livingstone Award from the Congress of Black Women of Canada. In 1994, Pride magazine awarded her with the Canadian Black Achievement Award. In 2002, she was sworn into the Queen’s Privy Council, and in 2007 Grenada’s University of the West Indies praised Augustine with their Caribbean Luminary Award.

Augustine was inducted as Member of the Order of Canada in 2007, “For her distinguished career as an educator, politician and advocate for social justice in Canada.” Augustine was granted the prestigious appointment of Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2014, and in 2016 a Brampton, Ontario, high school was named in her honour. Augustine was granted an honorary doctor of laws by the University of Toronto, and has received honorary degrees from the University of Guelph, McGill University and York University.