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Defenders for Human Rights
Rosemary Sadlier

Rosemary Sadlier Human Dignity

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GRADE LEVELS = 7 to 12  /  SUGGESTED TIME = Three 60 minute class periods

“Somebody will know what to do. Get some advice.
“People care.
“You’re human, what you feel is what other people feel. …
“You will prevent injustice from being perpetuated.”

Rosemary Sadlier gets things done. By her own admission, perfection in the process is optional.

“Je suis vraiment fière d’être ici.”

These were the first words Rosemary told a reception, whose attendees included Jean Chrétien and members of the Canadian Black Caucus.

And she was proud to be there. The sentence was true, concise, and well-spoken.

Those words were also the only ones she remembered from her written speech, tucked safely in her suitcase several floors away, and the only words she remembers from the speech she gave instead.

The path to making history is never a smooth one.

The reception, after all, was for the first National Black History Month, in February 1996. And Rosemary, as president of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), had pushed for former Member of Parliament Jean Augustine to bring it to the House of Commons mere months before.

For Rosemary, Black History Month is balm for a wound that’s troubled her since she was child: “the experience of always being in a position by chance or by design, of having to defend my existence.”

“It’s something I’ve always had to do. It’s something I’ve had to think about. It’s something I’ve had to express. It’s something I’ve come to understand from a side of other people. … I’ve had to do that from the earliest times I can remember.”

As a child, she would play on her street in Toronto. Once, a friend innocently asked what faraway place Rosemary’s father had come from.

Rosemary, not having an answer, went inside and asked, and watched arms tense, and eyebrows furrow, and lips purse. Every one of her father’s features was unsettled by her question.

“There’s a whole baggage-load. There’s a million questions, a million assumptions that go with that,” Rosemary says.

For her father, he didn’t hear “Dad, where do you come from?” He heard a question that had always followed him, and the implication – “you’re not part of ‘us’ and you don’t belong here.”

Despite his ancestors having lived in this country since 1783, Rosemary’s father was constantly asked where he was from because of the colour of his skin.

Rosemary thinks this is to do with ignorance, not malice. She says Canadian black history doesn’t have enough presence in either our collective memory or our curricula for people to know that there is any black history in North America, let alone Canada. That is, beyond slavery, the Underground Railroad, and the civil rights movement.

“What happened between 1834 and 1967? Something happened. A few things happened! … What is that history? What is that contribution that people of African origin have made from the beginning and continue to make up until the present time?”

It is an ignorance that followed Rosemary through school, where, throughout, she was the only black kid in her classes.

In high school, her guidance counsellor would tell her that her only future was as a secretary, “making pretty what other people give you.” She respects that work, but it wasn’t what she wanted – she wanted to make her own plans. But, he said, as a black woman, that was all she had.

Once she found her own way into social work, there were more hurdles. One employer explicitly told her that they thought they had called back a white person when she applied for the job. Rosemary sat down in that interview knowing she was wasting her time.

There was a sense that the people who are supposed to be doing the helping are supposed to be white, and the people who are supposed to be helped are supposed to be everybody else,” she says. “There I was showing up to be this person to help, and it was just jarring for them.”

The balm that Black History Month provides – from its beginnings as a Toronto event that required an annual renewal to now – doesn’t heal, but it helps.

“On some level,” Rosemary says, “it almost forces people to then do something.”

For her part, Rosemary fights for black history and culture within Ontario, through her continuing work with the OBHS. Negro Creek Road in Northern Ontario kept its own name rather than taking the name of an Irish immigrant, because Rosemary wanted to ensure the black people who once populated the road would not be forgotten.

National Black History Month is, in her words, “a biggie,” though, and it’s a biggie that made education about Canadian black history and culture a priority at least once a year in schools across Canada. The dream, she says, is to make it a priority in history classrooms year round.

“It’s vitally important,” she says. “(Canadian black history) is something that everyone should know. It’s the way forward if we’re going to become that society that we claim we already are.”

As for how she sees black history becoming more present in the classroom? It needs to be required, not recommended.

“Schools are the greatest instruments of socialization that we have. If the schools are not required to do this, I think it sends a message that this is sort of fluff. It’s peripheral. ‘Oh, if you get around to it in February that’s enough.’ And that’s not the message that Canadians, I think, should have.”

“For me, it was incredibly rare that there were really strong, amazing moments when you felt like there was justice. If you never see it, you’re constantly trying to create it. You’re constantly trying to make it happen, whether it’s on a conscious or unconscious level.”

“Hopefully people come to know more. I think with knowledge comes the opportunity for a real expression and a real appreciation of what inclusion means. You can’t have inclusion if you don’t understand that diversity, because you’ll be forever questioning and wondering.”

“You need to really appreciate that this is a person. This person has rights. This person has responsibilities. This person has needs. This person has dignity. This person has something to offer and we need to be able to respect that. I think ultimately that’s what human rights is.”