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Zanana Akande first Black woman in Ontario’s legislature

by Ann Farrell | April 23, 2004

Commenting on Black History Month, Zanana Akande says she believes this history should be celebrated all year, although its special recognition in February is better than nothing. She feels there is a lot of ignorance about the Black community’s contributions to society.

For instance, Underground Railroad families founded a school in southwestern Ontario. It was a good school, says Akande, and whites also attended it. But that the Blacks established it isn’t always acknowledged.

“How is it we say, ‘It doesn’t matter if you’re Black,’ but it does matter if you’re white?”

Zanana Akande is important to our history. She was the first Black woman to sit in the Ontario Legislature – as part of Premier Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party (NDP) government – between 1990 and 1994.

After being elected in Toronto’s St. Andrew/St. Patrick riding, she was immediately appointed Minister of Community and Social Services and also served as Parliamentary Assistant to the Premier. However, she resigned as minister on the death of her husband in 1991, as she believed it would be impossible to serve adequately as cabinet minister and find the time needed to provide support for her teenaged children during this period of bereavement.

Akande was then made responsible for the design and implementation of the jobsOntario Youth program, which created over 5,000 active jobs for youth across the province during the summers 1991 to 1994.

Asked what she thought her achievements were as a Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP), Akande replies, “We helped to keep the rudder straight, and not destroy the hope of the most vulnerable people.”

The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation – the party that later became the NDP – first awakened Akande’s socialist leanings. She worked with its youth branch, the Co-operative Commonwealth Youth Movement. Long before she became a party member, Akande contributed to it and sometimes acted as scrutineer during elections.

Born in 1937, Zanana Akande was raised in Toronto by parents who immigrated to Canada from St. Lucia and Barbados, where they had worked as teachers. They were forced to abandon their profession here as, at that time, Canada prohibited Blacks from holding teaching positions. Nevertheless, according to Akande, her parents encouraged her to strive for a good education, and also to aspire to work in a professional field.

She grew up in a community that bordered on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue. The population then included many immigrants from China and Europe. Spadina was home to a bustling Jewish community.

Although Akande has spent much of her public life fighting for the rights of Blacks, at elementary and high school she encountered less discrimination than is sometimes reported now. This may have been because there were few Blacks in her school, especially as a collegiate student at Harbord Collegiate.

She also believes that, because many of her fellow students were Jews, they were all too aware of the problem of discrimination. According to Akande, the two groups bonded, sharing responsibilities in the school. All the same, she says, Blacks were aware of society’s prejudices and “We kept ourselves safe and well.”

Her fellow student was Stephen Lewis, who later became the leader of the Ontario NDP and is currently the United Nation’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa.

By the time Akande graduated from high school, Blacks were admitted as teachers in Toronto, and she decided to follow in her parents’ footsteps. She holds a B.A. and M. Ed. from the University of Toronto, and also graduated from Normal School (the teacher training institution of that period). Later, she attended the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

It was at her first teaching job that Akande faced overt discrimination and met it head on. She was at George Syme Community School, where she had already worked as a student teacher. There was a request that she eat her lunch in the basement. This took place in the 1960s – supposedly a period of increased enlightenment. Professional colleagues had made the request. Akande, properly insulted, reported the incident, and was told the situation would be taken care of. Nevertheless, she refused to eat with these teachers, and for the remainder of her time there arranged to take her lunch off the premises.

On entering politics, Akande outlined her three objectives:

  • Improve conditions for long-term care – “Old people are poor people,” she said;
  • To see the co-ordination of health, social and educational services so that common goals could be achieved, and departments work together to enhance services, rather than suffer from overlaps;
  • Employment equity – according to her, “When people have employment equity, they should benefit from it; when diversity is encouraged, people should benefit from it. It is up to society to provide opportunities for these things to happen.”

In government, her particular interest was the education of disadvantaged children, whether their problems were mental, physical or emotional. She worked towards accommodating them in smaller, less institutionalized settings. One of the things that impressed her was just how functional many of these children are – capable of living and working in far less restrictive settings. They didn’t need to be in institutions, Akande says, although some opted to remain in a setting they were used to, and where they had friends.

As a consultant after she left Parliament, she designed and coordinated programs for pupils with special needs, including gifted students and immigrant children adjusting to the Canadian system. As a principal, she was responsible for the redirection of large inner city schools with culturally diverse populations.

Akande is currently president of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. It was founded in 1975 with an ambitious programme that included increasing public awareness and providing forums for dialogue. It also seeks to encourage equality of opportunity, carry out research, and provide consulting, facilitation and mediation in public and private sectors. Overall, it strives to network and build alliances with other community-based organizations, and promote understanding around anti-racist issues.

The alliance has a resource centre and is open to the public. Akande reluctantly admits it has not effected all the changes needed, “But it has stopped it from getting worse.” Like many similar organizations, the Urban Alliance is hampered by lack of, or decreased, funding.

Her work with the Urban Alliance is only one of her many community-based endeavours that include board membership of the United Way of Greater Toronto, the Family Services Association, the Elizabeth Fry Society and Doctors Hospital (since closed). She has also served as president of the Canadian Alliance of Black Educators and the Toronto Child Abuse Centre.

As a recipient of many awards such as the African Canadian Achievement Award for Education and the Award of Distinction from the Congress of Black Women, Akande’s contributions to the community characterize her overall motivation and work: focus on the related issues and a commitment to effecting positive change for people.

She says, “A city as large and culturally diverse as Toronto owes whatever success in racial harmony it enjoys to the constant vigilance of its citizens, its officials, and its organizations.”

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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