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Black History Gets a Seat in Classrooms (Originally Published in Centretown News)

In Education, Writing (all kinds) on September 9, 2016 at 3:00 AM

Few people know that Matthew DaCosta, black fisherman and Micmac interpreter for Samuel de Champlain, played a role in Canadian history.

Historical information on black Canadians is almost absent in our classrooms and libraries.

“I’m on a hunt now to try and find information (on black Canadian history), but I haven’t been very lucky,” says Marva Major-Cosper, Connaught School. “That gives an example of the need that’s out here because we don’t’ have a resource centre of information. It’s so necessary.”

If the efforts of the James Robinson Johnston committee are successful, professors, scholarships, and a resource centre in black Canadian studies will soon be available.

The committee will endow a chair for studying black history at a Canadian university.

“Almost everybody else has got a chair such as the centre for Aboriginal studies at Carleton University. I think there are 13 chairs across the country for the Ukrainians,” says Carl Nicholson, a member of the committee organizing the Johnston chair.

“Almost everybody has an academic entity that is focusing in on their contributions and accomplishments in this country.”

Paul Blackmore says the chair will not just benefit blacks, it will benefit all Canadians.

“It’s just another type of knowledge and knowledge is wonderful. This is not just for black folks, this is for everyone who wants to know.”

James Robinson Johnston was the first member of Nova Scotia’s black community to graduate in law in 1898.

Johnston’s community involvement, his beliefs that the interests of blacks would best be served through education and his excellence as a law practitioner are the reasons why the chair has his name.

Johnston helped start an orphanage for neglected black children in Nova Scotia. He also gained prominence in local politics.

The Johnston chair will create no a high profile university position sustained by the money put into it and its neither university-wide or department based.

There are committees across Canada working on making the Johnston chair available in universities by September 1994.

The Johnston chair committee plans to build a resource centre with materials that will relate to black Canadian studies, including academic journals and literature.

Major-Cosper says this centre would provide information for a better view of historical contributions by blacks.

“If we had that type of institute, hopefully what we would see are teachers at the faculty of education having those resources at their fingertips,” she says.

“No longer could they say they don’t know anything about it can’t be taught. The knowledge would be there, it would just be a need for it be tapped into.”

The Ottawa committee began around September 1992, and there are 16 members. The committee developed through word of mouth and has attracted different people.

“There’s no limit to our committee. Our committee isn’t just built up of black people. It’s a mixture of people who are from all over,” says Naylor Ashley, heading the Ottawa Johnston committee.

Committee member Fran Lowe has a mixed European heritage, including Irish and Scottish, and is president of Fran Lowe Associates Inc., at 190 Bronson Ave.

But for the Johnston chair to work, it needs money.

The committee needs to raise $2.5 million.

The national Johnston committee is nearing their target. Close to $1 million has been raised.

Last year, the Ministry of Multiculturalism and Citizenship gave $400,000 to the chair. The rest has come from Nova Scotia’s provincial government, private corporations and individuals.

Fran Lowe’s experience with her fundraising-consulting firm, helps the Johnston committee form fundraising strategies.

A reception on Parliament Hill launched the fundraising on Dec. 2.

Lowe says the committee was trying to reach political and business sectors to raise awareness of the need for funds.

“It was to bring in some of the sectors that we had identified as good potential for wanting to support the cause, and give them a chance to hear from the people who were closely involved with it,” she says.

The committee has raised nearly $5,000 in Ottawa since Dec. 2. But they are $200,000 short of their target.

The benefits of the Johnston chair to the black community are many.

Scholarships for three black graduate students selected form across Canada will also be given each year. A corporate fundraiser for the chair has already offered to personally put forward job applications submitted by scholarship winners.

“We need to see that our young people are coming up in a society that they can find a place in. It’s through education of the general public that this is going to be done,” says Ashley.

Knowledge of the committee alone is already encouraging some black students like Paul Blackmore.

Blackmore is a Centretown resident studying law part-time at Carleton University. He has been in Beachville, Nova Scotia, the first indigenous black Canadian settlement.

“If I’m still in school at the time the chair starts, I’d be interested in getting a third degree in black studies.”

Committee member Carl Nicholson shares Blackmore’s view on the chair.

“Many people look at black people and have some preconceived ideas about us. For example, very often, we are asked where do you come from? Generally, people don’t know that black people lived in Canada for at least the past 395 years.”

There are also plans for the chair to invite black scholars from diverse cultural backgrounds and areas of expertise to educate communities across Canada on black Canadian history.

Blackmore says black Canadian history needs to be known by all Canadians.

“Why should we learn about the Irish history? Why should we learn about English history? It’s because it’s all part of Canada. You also don’t have to be black to learn about women’s studies.”

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