Jean Augustine Shares Lessons from a Lifetime of Social Justice Advocacy at CCS AGM

All through Jean Augustine’s keynote address at CCS’ 2019 annual general meeting was a call to action around personal responsibility. “Opportunity dances with those on the dance floor. You can’t change the direction of the wind, but you can adjust your sail,” she said.

Quoting American author, poet and civil rights activist, Maya Angelou, Ms. Augustine challenged the audience to consider the notion that “if you don’t like something, change it, and if you can’t change it, change your attitude,” she said.

To say Jean Augustine has been devoted to the pursuit of social justice in the service of the greater good throughout her long and influential career as an educator, politician and community-builder would be an understatement.

By the time she retired from federal politics in 2007, she had won her seat in Etobicoke Lakeshore four straight times and had made history as the first African- Canadian woman elected to Parliament. She had served across government in a number of key portfolios — Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, and Minister and Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and Status of Women. She had brought forward legislation to protect low-income individuals, including single mothers. She had also led efforts to pass a motion designating February as Black History Month in Canada and championed legislation to erect the Famous Five statue, the only statue featuring women on Parliament Hill.

A long history of legislative achievement like this helps to explain why Ms. Augustine referenced the Charter of Rights and Freedoms during her remarks, quizzing the audience for the year in which it was enacted. She ardently believes that the rights, equality and various protections against discrimination enacted in the Charter and enshrined in the Constitution Act of 1982 matter and she fought for these values throughout her career.

“Take responsibility for yourselves; just do some good if you don’t know what to do,” she said.

Ms. Augustine’s professional life after politics was varied, but her commitment to social justice remained steadfast. She’s a proponent of the notion that strength of community and power of collaboration are instrumental in achieving positive outcomes.

“If you cross the river together, the alligator won’t bother you,” she said.

In 2007, the Government of Ontario asked Jean to lead the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the British slave trade. Later that year, she was appointed Ontario’s first Fairness Commissioner, helping to streamline access to employment conditions for foreign-trained professionals. In 2009, Ms. Augustine was appointed as a Member of the Order of Canada for her extensive contributions to Canadian society.

She founded the Jean Augustine Centre for Young Women’s Empowerment and today supports several scholarships at various post-secondary institutions to help provide a better future for young women.

“Take action, be the people we ought to be,” she said.

At the conclusion of the AGM, Ms. Augustine was mobbed for photos and spoke to many well-wishers.  It’s not hard to see why.