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Canadian Black History Month theme announced in North Vancouver

John Braithwaite, Valerie Jerome and Harry Jerome were among those honoured at Tuesday's announcement.

It’s easier to know where you’re going when you understand where you’ve been.

It’s in that spirit that government of Canada has chosen the official theme for Black History Month events in 2024: Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate; Future to Build.

Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities Minster Kamal Khera was joined by members of the Liberal Black Caucus and local Black dignitaries to make the announcement at North Vancouver's John Braithwaite Community Centre on Tuesday.

Khera cited the community centre’s namesake as one of thousands of Black Canadians breaking down barriers and empowering Black communities.

John Braithwaite came to North Vancouver as a social worker in 1956 to work at North Shore Neighbourhood House, which he went on to lead as executive director for more than two decades. In 1973, he become one of just three Black people elected to office in B.C. when he ran for City of North Vancouver council, where he spent total of 23 years before retiring from politics.

“John Braithwaite’s years of service and unwavering commitment to this community has changed thousands of lives for the better and helped to make North Vancouver the vibrant, beautiful place that it is today. He is forever part of this city,” said Khera. “His story and the stories of so many other black trailblazers are exactly why every February we celebrate Black History Month.”

Black History in Canada is as much about recognizing the pain of overt and systemic racism as it is about celebrating Black achievement, something Valerie Jerome could speak about first hand.

“My family came here in 1951. It was not a healthy welcome,” said the Olympian, educator and sister of star athlete Harry Jerome, who also has a North Vancouver community centre named for him. “We were stoned from the school grounds. A petition was taken up to keep us from purchasing the home we bought. And it was not a good life.”

Jerome praised Mayor Linda Buchanan for seeing that the community centre named for her late brother is being rebuilt, and former West Vancouver Mayor Mary-Ann Booth who presided over her council’s decision to rename the track at West Vancouver Secondary after Harry Jerome as well.

“I’m very pleased,” she said. “These facilities will be very heavily used by young people who will find out, whether they like it or not, who Harry Jerome was and the courage and the tenacity of our family.”

Jerome recounted her family’s story in Races, a book published in 2023.

In keeping with the theme of celebrating what had once been glossed over by history, Don Valley East MP Michael Coteau noted that the story of Viola Desmond didn’t become widely known until the early 2000s – many decades after she was arrested in 1946 for refusing to leave the “whites only” section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre.

“This story predates Rosa Parks. This is an important Canadian story. And 20 years later, the current government made sure that it was represented on our $10 bill,” he said. “It’s because there’s a strong community who wants to tell good stories, and Canadians are embracing those stories. This is our history.”

While Black History Month has only been officially recognized in recent decades in Canada, contributions by black people stretch back hundreds of years, he added.

In 2022, the Heywood family of North Vancouver came forward with research that showed their ancestors’ early founding and settlement of North Vancouver came from a family bank established on profits from the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

Khera used Tuesday's event in North Vancouver as an opportunity to announce $275,000 in funding for B.C.-based Black history events and initiatives, including $24,000 for the Solid State Community Foundation, which leads anti-racism work in Metro Vancouver high schools.

“We believe that with combating anti-Black racism [in schools], it will be an integral part to play in combating racism in general,” said Solid State representative Kanye Patrick.

London-West MP and Parliamentary Black Caucus member Arielle Kayabaga praised the work of groups like Solid State for championing diversity and anti-racism work that will benefit all generations.

“I’m inspired by the grassroots work that is ongoing across Canada. And this grassroots work is going to create a future that is safe for all and provide opportunities for all, including my children.”