U of T held its 22nd Black History Month Luncheon on February 24 at Hart House. The event — which featured former Governor General of Canada Michaëlle Jean as a keynote speaker — aimed to bring together the U of T community to celebrate Black excellence, history, and culture. 

Around 600 in-person and virtual attendees heard from Jean; Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow; U of T’s president Meric Gertler; and poet Randell Adjei — who the Ontario legislature named the first Poet Laureate of Ontario, a position created in honour of musician Gordon Downie.

In an interview with The Varsity, Glen Boothe, the event’s co-founder, said the luncheon is a place of showing what he described as “the symbols and representations of Black excellence.” 

The luncheon served dishes from the Caribbean, West African, South and Central American regions. Boothe said he tried to highlight as many different areas of the Black diaspora as possible with his food choices. 

Brief history of the BHM Luncheon

Boothe began working at U of T in the 1990s — just a few years after Canada formally recognized Black History Month. At the time, he said the university had no centralized events or celebrations of the month. 

He came up with the event over 20 years ago in the lunch room of the Division of University Advancement, which coordinates the university’s fundraising. In an interview with The Varsity, he described eating every day with colleagues bringing food from a variety of cultures. 

“I would bring in my jerk, they would bring their khichdi, and some people would bring in the noodles. Then I turned and just said, ‘Why don’t we take this to another level?’” said Boothe.

Boothe felt that food was the gateway to different cultures and that the event allowed to create a space for people in a time when “nothing was being done during Black History Month.”

“Ultimately, it’s about inclusiveness and bringing other people into your own culture,” said Boothe.

Michaëlle Jean’s remarks

Aside from diverse foods, this year’s luncheon featured keynote speaker Jean, who served as Canadian governor general from 2005 to 2010. In an interview with The Varsity, Jean said, “The challenges [for the Black community] that are still there” motivated her to speak at the luncheon. 

“What exclusion is creating in our country is a huge deficit… of possibilities, opportunities, energy, synergies, and ideas, a deficit of democracy, and the deficit of development. That’s why Black History Month is a reminder that we’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go,” said Jean.

Jean discussed how diversity and inclusion “shouldn’t be a trend.” She encouraged students to examine what is happening in the institution to identify necessary changes in the system. 

Public’s impressions

Martin Kengo, the manager of Black Initiatives at UTM who attended the event, also mentioned the need for changes and celebrations beyond one month of the year. Kengo suggested setting up a Black Excellence office at the Mississauga campus to “support [UTM] students and organize similar events.” 

Kengo called back to a quote Adjei said earlier in the event: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.” “I take that even to heart even for myself, as a self-identifying Black male,” he said.

Multiple U of T students and staff who came to the luncheon talked about the sense of community they experienced. Siobhan Stewart, U of T’s student life coordinator, said that as a fairly new member of U of T, she was finally able to connect with other staff on campus. “[The Black History Month Luncheon] just felt very warm, very inviting, and a really great opportunity to feel like student life has life,” said Stewart.