27 October 2018 Posted By : Kathryn Greenaway, Montreal Gazette

Book features Canadian black history not found in school text books

Co-authors Akilah Newton and Tami Gabay didn’t have to look far afield to find groundbreaking black Canadians to write about in Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids Volume 1 (Bright Confetti Media Inc.).

The West Island gave them the late Noble Gloria Leon Baylis, mother of Pierrefonds-Dollard MP Frank Baylis. She won the first human rights case in Quebec. And West Islander Yolande James was the first black female MNA in Quebec and Quebec’s first black cabinet minister.

The Saturday book launched at the Pierrefonds Cultural Centre began with a panel discussion with the co-authors, Baylis, James and Anne Cools, the first black female senator in North America.

Newton, who lives in Kirkland, is the founder of Overture with the Arts, a non-profit organization  dedicated to making the performing arts accessible to all young people through special events and school tours. Gabay, who lives in Vancouver, is a writer and producer and co-founder with Newton of Bright Confetti Media. The two met years ago when Gabay was a producer at MuchMusic and then reconnected three years ago at a wedding. There was talk of working together.

“We wanted the book to inspire children to dream big,” Newton said. “And we wanted the book to be young enough for children to be able to retain the information and mature enough for teachers and parents to appreciate.”

Educator and historian Natasha Henry verified the research.

The Kootenay Lake School District has ordered 300 copies and Newton is hoping to strike deals with both the English and French school boards in Quebec. (There is also a French version of the book.)

Newton discovered many the accomplished black woman during the research process. The late Vancouver-born sprinter Barbara Howard is just one example.

Howard won two medals at the 1938 British Empire Games. She is thought to be the first black female athlete to represent Canada at an international competition, is the first person of colour to be hired by the Vancouver School Board and was inducted into the Canadian Sports Hall of Fame in 2015.

Because accomplished black women were less likely to be talked about in history books, Gabay and Newton made sure that at least half of the people featured in the book were women.

“These people, both men and women, should be celebrated and taught about year-round, not just during Black History Month,” Newton said. “This is not just about black history. It’s Canadian history. It’s human history.”

The book begins with an alphabet’s worth of high-achieving black Canadians, moves on to a timeline detailing, province by province, the arrival of the first black settlers and segues into an activities section. To complete the activities, the reader must refer to the information in the prior sections.

“We definitely didn’t learn about Canadian black history in school,” Newton said. “We learned about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and Rosa Parks. I remember thinking that there must be Canadian equivalents.”

And there are.

In 1946, Halifax-born Viola Desmond entered the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow and sat in the “Whites Only” section. She refused to move and was arrested and jailed. Her case received a lot of attention and helped turn the spotlight on the growing black-Canadian equality movement. In the United States, Parks took her stand, refusing to relinquish her seat to a white bus passenger, in 1955.

Black settlers were not always welcome as they established themselves in different parts of the country. Newton said striking the right tone when telling their story was important.

“There are so many stories of courage and perseverance to tell,” Newton said. “Canada is a beautiful country, but it has its flaws. We don’t want history to repeat itself.”  

The two authors are already working on Volume 2 which should be ready in time for Black History Month.

To order a copy of Big Dreamers: The Canadian Black History Activity Book for Kids Volume 1, visit the Bright Confetti Media Facebook page. The book should be in Chapters stores by the end of the month.

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