Jean Augustine Biography
Never Knew Her Father, Earned Teaching Degree, Stunning Victory at the Polls, Appointed to Cabinet
In 1993 Jean Augustine made Canadian political history as the first black woman ever elected to the nation's House of Commons. Nine years later, Augustine achieved yet another historic advance when she became the first woman of African heritage to serve as a cabinet minister in Canada. "Being the first black feels good, yes, but more than that, it says to others and to ourselves that blacks can be in every place in society," she told Vernon Clement Jones of Toronto's Globe & Mail newspaper in the spring of 2002, not long after being appointed Canada's newest Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women. "It's important that no one be able to say that blacks can't perform in every segment of Canadian society because we can."
Never Knew Her Father
Augustine is one of a large number of Caribbean immigrants who came to Canada in the years following World War II. She was born on September 9, 1937, in Grenada, an island nation in the southeastern Caribbean Sea that was then still part of the British colonial empire. She grew up in a village called Happy Hill near Grenada's capital of St. George's. Her father, Ossie Simon, was a sugarcane-plantation worker, but he died before she was a year old after a deadly bout with tetanus, which he contracted during a visit to the dentist.
Augustine's mother, Olive, was already expecting a second child when her husband died, and the entire family was adopted by an older woman in the village, whom they called "Granny." Granny had no children of her own, but owned some property and was moderately well-off. Such communal and charitable arrangements were more commonplace in West Indian society during Augustine's youth. Granny's was a household in which Augustine was encouraged to excel in school, and she did. She won a scholarship to a local Roman Catholic school, where she earned top grades. During her high-school years, she founded an all-girl band and also hosted her own youth program on a local radio station before graduating a year early.
Augustine's first job was as a schoolteacher in Grenada, but her pay was less than $10 a month. On Sundays she would write letters for other Grenadians who had never learned to read or write, but wanted to keep in touch with relatives living overseas. This experience exposed Augustine to people who had left the West Indies in search of better economic opportunities, and at the age of 22 she herself moved to Toronto, Ontario, Canada, to take a job as a nanny. She arrived on a special visa the Canadian government gave out to citizens of other nations inside the British colonial realm, which required her to work one year as a domestic servant. After that period was finished, she would then be free to stay in Canada permanently if she wished.
Earned Teaching Degree
Augustine was fortunate, however, for she had been placed with a Toronto pediatrician's family who were of a generous spirit, and they recognized that the new caretaker for their children was overly qualified for the job. They helped her find an office job at a medical-billing firm, and she took night-school classes at the Toronto Teacher's College and babysat for the family in her spare time. After earning her teaching degree, Augustine taught elementary school in the Toronto public school system. She eventually became one of the first black school principals in the country.
Augustine had long been active in black political and social organizations in Toronto, which began to emerge as a richly multinational and multicultural hub during the 1960s. The very first meeting of the Grenada Association was held in her apartment, and she also served on a committee that helped to organize the city's first Caribana Festival in 1967, which later became one of Toronto's most important annual tourist events.
Augustine's community service work led her into politics. She served on municipal task forces on drug abuse and crime, and became active in the Liberal Party, one of Canada's two main political parties. In 1985 she was named to the transition team for new Ontario premier David Peterson. As thanks for her service, Peterson made her chair of the Metro Toronto Housing Authority, the largest landowner in Canada. Augustine served in that post for six years, and came to the attention of the national Liberal Party leadership as a result.
Stunning Victory at the Polls
In 1993, Liberal Party leader Jean Chrétien nominated her for a place on the party ticket for the coming general elections, which allowed her to bypass the usual party nomination process. She was the Liberal Party candidate for a seat in the House of Commons from Etobicoke-Lakeshore, a section of Toronto. Her victory at the polls that year was all the more significant given the fact that her riding, or electoral district, did not have a strong black political base; in fact, of Etobicoke-Lakeshore's 65,000 voters, just 700 were black Canadians.
Augustine became the first black woman to serve in the House of Commons, and joined one other African-Canadian there, Ovid Jackson, a fellow Liberal Party MP (member of parliament) also of Caribbean heritage. She earned some unfavorable publicity, however, when reporters asked her on election night about how it felt to be Canada's first black woman parliamentarian. "I didn't run as a black politician," Chatelaine writer Cecil Foster quoted her as saying. "I ran as a competent woman who is Canadian." Though some viewed her statement as a rebuff to the black community in Canada, Augustine's supporters pointed out that she had long been active in serving the African-Caribbean émigré community in Ontario.
Appointed to Cabinet
Chrétien had become Prime Minister thanks to the Liberal Party's victory at the polls in that 1993 election. He named Augustine to a two-year stint as his Parliamentary Secretary, which gave her a prominent place during legislative sessions in the House of Commons with a seat located just behind the Prime Minister's. Her duties included responding to questions on behalf of Chrétien or his cabinet ministers when they were unable to attend House of Commons sessions. She also earned high marks for her primary role representing Etobicoke-Lakeshore, and she went on to serve on the foreign affairs committee in the House of Commons. Her constituency returned her to the House of Commons in the 1997 and 2000 elections. In May of 2002, Chrétien made Augustine Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women in Canada. She was the first black woman in the cabinet in the 135-year history of Canada's federal government and served until 2004. She was reelected to the House of Commons that same year by a large majority.
Augustine is divorced and has two grown children. Back in Grenada, she is a well-known figure and object of national pride. After her impressive first House of Commons win, Grenadians presented her with a plaque that read simply, "From Happy Hill to Parliament Hill." She remains grateful to Granny, who died in 1967, and to her other family members and friends who have also passed away. "I know they would have been so proud to know that I've come to this country," she told Foster in Chatelaine, "and I've reached the highest place in the land."
Chatelaine, November 1994, p. 52.
Globe & Mail (Toronto, ON), June 7, 2002.
"Jean Augustine," Liberal Party of Canada, www.liberal.ca/bio_e.aspx?&id=35023 (July 6, 2005).
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