Letter from the artist

A celebration of Black beauty

Letter from the artist

To me, Black History Month means the celebration of Black heritage, culture, beauty, and the unity of everyone around the world with African ethnic descent. I tried to tie all these concepts into the cover piece by depicting a laughing Black woman decorated in gold, with the pan-African flag colours in the background. The pan-African flag colours — red, black, and green — represent the bloodshed of Africans who died in the fight for liberation, the colour of their skin, and the fertility of their land. I thought it was an important flag to include because of the ideology behind it: solidarity between all Indigenous and diaspora ethnic groups of African descent, which is a major theme of Black History Month.

Makena Mwenda designed the cover of The Varsity‘s Issue 18 in celebration of Black History Month.

“A 700-year phenomenon”: Before Malcolm X lecture series bridges Black, Islamic, and American history

Mustafa Briggs illustrates the historied presence of Black Muslims in the Americas

“A 700-year phenomenon”: <i>Before Malcolm X</i> lecture series  bridges Black, Islamic, and American history

“When did Islam arrive in the Americas?”

On February 10, UK-based Arabic and international relations scholar Mustafa Briggs asked this question to the Victoria College Chapel audience in framing his new lecture series, Before Malcolm X: The History of Islam in the Americas. This month, Briggs is touring Canada and the United States with the series, in addition to his previous series, Beyond Bilal: Black History in Islam.

Briggs’ presentation dove into the undertold history of Islam in the Western hemisphere. He sought to challenge the popular narrative that Islam began in the Americas in the 1950s and 1960s, during the era of the Nation of Islam and the civil rights movement, with popular figureheads like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali.

Through his research, which included speaking to U of T graduate alum in West African Islamic history, Abdullah Hakim Quick, he found that the story of Islam in America goes back much further. Muslims, specifically Black ones, have been present in the Americas for hundreds of years.

Briggs pointed to Black Muslim voyagers who, some argue, beat Christopher Columbus to the Americas; enslaved West African figures who “left behind diaries and treatises in perfect Arabic;” and the “Muslim warriors who fought for freedom in South America and The Caribbean before the abolition of slavery.”

The sold-out event was moderated by Imam Yasin Dwyer, and was organized by the Muslim Students’ Association (MSA), The Muslim Chaplaincy of Toronto, the Somali Students’ Association, Emmanuel College, and the Women’s Circle.

The MSA executive wrote to The Varsity about organizing the event: “We made a conscious decision to celebrate black history month by inviting Mustafa Briggs to give a talk on aspects of African American History that people normally don’t hear about; his presentation allowed us to bridge Black History Month and Islamic history.”

Islam across the Atlantic Ocean: empowerment and resistance

Briggs opened his talk by introducing the theory that there may have been Black Muslim contact — originating from the Mali Empire in West Africa — with the Americas in the fourteenth century, before the arrival of Columbus. He noted that if this theory were true, it made “the presence of Islam here a 700-year old phenomenon.”

He then moved onto the more definite history of the transatlantic slave trade, which enslaved many people from Muslim-majority nations and empires in West Africa. Islam not only underlined the identity of many of these enslaved Africans, but also their resistance.

Discussing how the first slave revolt in the Americas occurred in the Caribbean, Briggs described how, on the island of present-day Haiti, enslaved Wolof Muslims rose up against their Christian enslavers in 1522, over 200 years prior to the famous Haitian revolution of 1791.

Also giving the example of Bahia, Brazil — Briggs noted that South America was a major destination for enslaved Muslim Africans who were empowered and united by the common cultural practices of Islam, which they continued to practice. In 1835, the Muslim population of Bahia took part in the Malê revolt.

Briggs described how, in both the Haitian and Brazilian cases, the authorities “feared that [the enslaved Africans] being Muslim encouraged them to rise against their masters and fight for freedom.” They pursued practices such as forced conversion to Christianity to attempt to control them and “erase the popular memory and affection toward Islam that these people had.”

Briggs also illustrated how the high level of Islamic education that West Africans had received enabled them to pursue remarkable lives, despite their enslavement. He reviewed the famous examples of Ayuba Suleiman Diallo, Omar Ibn Said, Yarrow Mamout, and Abdulrahman Ibrahim Ibn Sori.

“These are just four examples of the stories of thousands and thousands of slaves similar to them, [who] came from families established in learning, and were highly literate and educated individuals,” Briggs remarked.

“These [four] were the first openly practicing Muslims in the USA. So you can see that the history of Islam traces back… hundreds of years.”

The twentieth century: the resurgence of Black Islam

“Many of these enslaved Muslims travelled to [the Americas] and were persecuted and were not allowed to practice their religion,” noted Briggs. The transatlantic slave trade “was built so that people would forget where they come from and who they were. So when they came to America, they were given new names, they were Christianized.”

“But many silently prayed that their descendants would one day be able to return to their religion and join them in practicing Islam,” he continued. In the twentieth century, many of these prayers were answered, according to Briggs.

He described how Islam re-emerged and spread among African-Americans in the 1900s, which included notable examples like Noble Drew Ali’s Moorish Science Temple of America in the early part of the century; the Nation of Islam, which led to figures like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali; and concurrent orthodox Sunni Muslim movements, such as Shaikh Daoud Faisal’s Islamic Mission of America, which opposed the Nation of Islam’s Black separatist stance in favour of integration.

Returning to the title of his presentation, Briggs closed with the importance of making connections between Islam, Blackness, and the Americas across history. “When we speak about Malcolm X, we shouldn’t just see him as an individual,” Briggs stressed.

“We should see him as someone who represents a legacy and a history that interlinks continents, such as Africa and North America, and the Islamic community of West Africa and North America, for a period of over 700 years.”

A search for identity, Christianity versus Islam, and anti-Blackness

When asked about how he gained interest in his scholarship, Briggs reflected on his personal search for his history and identity. He grew up in a Christian Gambian family in the UK, even though most of Gambia and his extended family were Muslim. By contrast, he descended from liberated Africans who had been Christianized.

“When I went back to Gambia, I found out that a lot of my cousins were Muslim. Why were they Muslim, and why were we Christian?” Briggs recalled asking. “This led to me learning about the transatlantic slave trade — about how Islam spread. I felt robbed of the knowledge.” Briggs eventually converted to Islam as a teenager.

When The Varsity asked Briggs to compare the spread of Islam in West Africa and the Christianization of enslaved Africans in the Americas, he pointed to one key distinction: Christianity was used by non-African enslavers to oppress and erase the identities of Africans, while Islam coexisted with, and preserved, West African culture.

“The [West African] leaders converted to Islam, but they didn’t force their people to Islam,” he responded. “In fact, West Africans used Islamic scholarship and the newfound literacy that they had through the Arabic language to preserve their own language, their own culture, and their own religion.”

The Varsity also asked Briggs about the contemporary legacy of anti-Blackness in the Muslim community. “It’s a lived reality that we all know exists, that we’ve all experienced in one way or another,” he responded.

He later discussed how solidarity between Black and non-Black Muslims required tackling the issue of anti-Black racism, and providing Black Muslims with a sense of empowerment and belonging.

Nonetheless, Briggs also expressed some optimism, as his tours suggest that there is interest in addressing anti-Blackness. “I feel with the new generation, things are changing,” he noted. “I never approach [a] university. Universities invite me, because people want to learn and go beyond the horizon.”

The MSA executive wrote to The Varsity: “The MSA recognizes the issue of anti-Blackness within the Muslim community and the effects it has on Black Muslims. It is important to lend our voices to be allies, but not to speak over the experiences of the marginalized, even within our own communities.”

“These prejudices have taken root deeply within all our communities, but it is our collective responsibility to ensure that these prejudices are tackled, regardless of how difficult of a task it may seem.”

Studying science or medicine? Black Researchers Initiative to Empower will ‘BRITEn’ your day

Undergraduates, graduates: all Black students are welcome

Studying science or medicine? Black Researchers Initiative to Empower will ‘BRITEn’ your day

Imposter syndrome, not seeing people similar to you in your classes, and being the first in your family to attend graduate school.

These are experiences that underrepresented members of the University of Toronto community, including Black students, face. To overcome feelings like imposter syndrome — the feeling of being underqualified or undeserving of your accomplishments — Black Researchers Initiative to Empower (BRITE) strives to lift up the students around them — both at the undergraduate and graduate level.

The Varsity spoke to Ikran Ali, a third-year PhD student at U of T’s Institute of Medical Sciences (IMS) and the president of BRITE; Zahra Yussuf, a second year Master’s student in pharmacology and vice-president of BRITE; and Mohamed Adam, a recent Master of Science graduate from the IMS and BRITE’s treasurer about their mission to support undergraduate and graduate students at U of T who are studying science and medicine. BRITE does this by providing them with opportunities for learning and mentorship through meetings and community events.

The inspiration behind BRITE

Ali joined BRITE last year to meet like-minded students who share similar experiences navigating the graduate school system while being underrepresented.

“I had personal struggles like imposter syndrome where I didn’t really see many people who looked like me in my classes,” said Ali, reflecting on her start to graduate school. “I felt out of place… like I didn’t belong, that I was a fraud.”

Ali reflected that she has also had academic struggles, such as difficulties finding guidance for scheduling committee meetings, applying for scholarships, and learning how to work effectively as a graduate student.

Adam shared similar experiences with Ali. “When I first started [graduate] school, I didn’t see people that looked like me,” he said. “I thought I needed a space to feel comfortable, and that’s how I got into this club, because being with other Black researchers [enables you] to express yourself, and also form connections that really help you toward throughout your academic career.”

Yussuf noted that these challenges can also apply to undergraduates considering graduate school and alumni who have recently completed their degrees. She reflected that it can be difficult to figure out the graduate school admissions process, what to look for in a supervisor, and how to find employment after graduating by yourself.

Ali reflected that finding a place of belonging empowers you to think, “Yeah, I can do this.” She continued, “There are other people who are in my same position, and you have them to support you.”

To Ali, the creation of community is especially important for students who are first in the family to attend graduate school. “A lot of us are first generation,” she said. “A lot of us don’t know people who’ve done this before. So just to be able to help each other out, it’s really important for the club and for us.”

Providing learning opportunities for students

To support undergraduate and graduate students, BRITE has hosted professional and social events throughout the year.

On January 31, BRITE hosted a workshop to help undergraduate students find research opportunities over the summer. “We found graduate students, including our club members, to mentor those undergrads who are looking for those positions,” said Adam.

“We [also] have social events because, once again, one of our missions is to create that space where students can feel comfortable. We think that’s really important,” he added. Among other events, BRITE hosted a “Navigating Grad School & Social” session in October, and a game night in November.

BRITE will be hosting a screening of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks on February 28, which will be followed by a moderated discussion on race and informed consent in health care.

Lessons learned from experiences in BRITE

Reflecting on their experiences with BRITE, Adam said: “I think I learned how to become a better mentor, how to share resources, and how to network better, just through being a part of BRITE. I have [also] met a bunch of new people.”

Ali noted that BRITE has enabled her to “to see that we are qualified to be where we are, and be confident in what we’re doing, [while] not comparing ourselves to different people who are at different stages of their graduate or academic careers.”

Yussuf reflected on the value of being “[surrounded] by people who are [there to] support you, because that makes a massive difference in how you feel, and your confidence, and how you go about your degree, and your overall experience. And I think it’s so important.”

Ali encouraged research students seeking advice to take the initiative to find opportunities. “I know a lot of people are too shy to ask for things, but there’s only so much people can [do to] help you if you’re not telling people what you need. And so [if you are] just… able to break out of your shell and ask people, a lot of people are willing to help.”

Adam agreed, saying, “Don’t be too shy to seek out help because more than often, we are willing to help, because we’ve been in the same position before.”

“We really want to see other students succeed as well.”

“Empowering ourselves up”: UTSC hackathon spotlights Black and women coders

Hundreds of participants build products, learn coding at 36-hour Hack the Valley 4

“Empowering ourselves up”:  UTSC hackathon spotlights Black and women coders

Hundreds of participants built products and learned coding at Hack the Valley 4, a University of Toronto student-led hackathon from February 14–16 at UTSC’s Instructional Centre. Hackathons are collaborative computer programming events.

Highlights of the hackathon included a Black in Tech Summit, together with a Women in Code Summit, which explored the experiences of programmers in underrepresented groups.

Why host Hack the Valley 4?

“The main goal [of the hackathon] is to develop the hacker community,” said Ralph Maamari, a fifth-year UTSC computer science student specializing in software engineering, and the president of Hack the Valley 4.

To Maamari, this means encouraging participants to become interested in computer science. He hopes that they can grow their enthusiasm to attend more hackathons, pursue their own coding side projects, and potentially land internships at top companies in the world.

“We want to introduce hacking… [also known as] programming, to first-year students, if not to older students as well,” added Prashant Patel, a third-year UTSC mathematics and statistics student and executive assistant of the hackathon.

Over the 36-hour period, coders developed products over a wide range of fields. Unlike many hackathons, Maamari noted that Hack the Valley 4 did not set defined goals for coders to work toward. Judges evaluated the event’s products on the categories including functionality, creativity, and level of technical difficulty. Sponsors also offered prizes for their own categories.

Maamari and Patel also highlighted the hackathon’s commitment to sustainability and equity. The event followed a “Global Hackathon Sustainability Standard,” which aims to minimize waste and recycle meals. It also hosted two summits that featured panel discussions about the experiences of Black and women programmers in industry.

Black in Tech Summit

Ahmed Duada, an innovator, discussed how his experience at Next 36, a program that supports Canadian entrepreneurs, empowered him to co-found his own venture, Wanda. The company delivers groceries directly into the fridges of apartments in downtown Toronto.

He explained that the venture’s pricing is similar to the cost of groceries downtown, as the firm purchases groceries away from downtown at lower prices. To build trust, he added that employees are salaried and wear body cameras, whose footage is viewable by the service’s clients.

Anisa Tahil, a software engineer at Zero Gravity Labs, discussed her transition from biomedical engineering into computer science after graduating from Ryerson University.

She talked about her entry into a three-month coding boot camp by Lighthouse Labs, which involved intense workdays from 9:00 am to 9:00 pm. The program enabled her to gain experience in coding with the language Javascript and the framework React JS, and later secure a job in software.

Reflecting on her undergraduate experience, Tahil recalled, “I was definitely in a program where a lot of people did not look like me. It was very difficult in terms of finding people that you can relate to or finding people that [you] can speak with about the same things that you face.”

She was part of a small minority of Black women in the engineering program — “not only biomedical engineering, but across all of the engineering fields.” She added, “And then moving on to the workplace, [I was] one of the very few Black people there as well.”

What motivates Tahil is her goal to be a role model for underrepresented people who want to follow a similar path. “There’s a lot of people who are Black [who] feel… discouraged because there’s people out there that will… tell them [they] shouldn’t be in a certain field.”

“For example, from an early age, you could have a guidance counsellor [who tells] you, maybe you shouldn’t take this class. It’s too hard. Things like that get to people, and I just feel like being in this field, you have to be strong, you have to [have] a strong mindset,” she continued. Tahil hopes her success can inspire others.

Raho Mohamed, a recent graduate of Ryerson University and a current student at the same boot camp, agreed with Tahil.

“It is hard [to work in software] because you sometimes feel like you can’t really relate to people who don’t come from the same background as you,” she said. Mohamed recommended finding a mentor for support.

“But I would [also] say, don’t doubt your abilities. Try your best,” Mohamed continued. “Once you get there, you can inspire more people to [succeed].”

Women in Code Summit

The Women in Code Summit was co-organized by the Women in Computer Science, Statistics and Mathematics student organization at UTSC.

A surprise panelist, Disney Lam, shared her experiences as a production engineer and team lead at Facebook. Her team’s focus includes ensuring that Facebook’s advertisements are targeted properly and helping users by ensuring the firm meets privacy standards.

As a production engineer, she noted, “it’s even more male-dominated than regular software engineering.” She recalled how at the start of her employment, a male colleague treated her in a demeaning and disrespectful manner.

“Eventually, I was like, ‘No, I’m going to ignore this person,’” she said. “[I’m going to] continue building my team, and keep on landing projects to show that I’m good.”

Her attitude resulted in her promotion. As a tech lead, she now leads a team, of which 50 per cent are women.

Andrea Chen, a hackathon coach at Major League Hacking, also encouraged attendees to make the most out of hackathons, even if they are beginners at coding.

“If you are not a coder, but you’re still here at a hackathon, there’s still so much value you could bring,” she said. She noted that participants can bring skills in design and research to their teams that do not rely on coding experience.

Chen also reflected on dealing with negative self-talk. “You [can spend] so much time putting yourself down and constantly [undervaluing your achievements],” she said.

“When I think about how other people in the room, like maybe my male friends, are always constantly hyping up their own projects,” she continued. “What if we just spend that time, instead of breaking ourselves down, empowering ourselves up?”

“The time we spend putting yourself down is the same time we could be… building ourselves up.”

For those who struggle to build confidence, Chen suggested approaching it in a competitive way. “[If] I can hype my project up more than [my male friends] in that sense, and that kind of leads to [building] a fake kind of confidence.”

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

NSBEHacks 2020: How a hackathon created community for Black U of T STEM students

University, high school students win first place for software that could help people with autism

NSBEHacks 2020: How a hackathon created community for Black U of T STEM students

Where can Black STEM students find a sense of community at the University of Toronto? This is a question that the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE) U of T chapter sought to answer by hosting its second annual NSBEHacks hackathon from February 8–9 at the Myhal Centre for Engineering Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

The hackathon, which was a computer programming event at which teams collaborated to develop a product over the course of two days, was free for entry and welcome to people of all ethnicities and races.

Finding a community and building confidence

“What we hope the participants get out of it is a sense of inclusion and [understanding that] you’re part of a larger group,” said lead organizer Joshua Pius, a third-year computer engineering student at U of T, to The Varsity. He noted the value of students finding a sense of belonging, especially those who are underrepresented as a student group in STEM.

Idilo Abdalla, another lead organizer of the event and a third-year electrical engineering student at U of T, explained that the opportunity to develop a product can also build confidence among participants.

“We want to create an environment where people feel that they are able to actually complete a project and build something technically,” she said. “They can then leverage these skills to take to other hackathons [and] other events.”

In addition to building skills from developing their product, the hackathon also featured educational workshops for students to learn more about using services such as IBM Watson Cloud, Graph QL, and the Google Cloud Platform.

“Being the first Black student hackathon in the GTA, the purpose of NBSEHacks is to understand what people in the Black community are going through,” said Mohamed Hirole, a lead organizer and third-year electrical engineering student at U of T, to The Varsity.

“[It also creates] a safe space for them to want to feel like they can become more involved in tech.”

In conversation with Clarity, the first-place team at NSBEHacks

The first place team of NSBEHacks, Clarity, was recognized for its achievement in building a product to help people with autism learn to understand emotions through tone.

The team was comprised of Brian Nguyen, a grade 12 high school student at Weston Collegiate Institute; Huzaifa Ahmad, a second-year computer engineering student at Western University; Tarela Okoronkwo, a second-year chemical engineering student at Waterloo University; and Aman Puranik, a second-year student in biotechnology and economics at Waterloo.

“[People with autism] sometimes have trouble registering and understanding emotions through tone, voice, and facial expression,” said Okoronkwo to The Varsity.

“So our app took speech, converted it to text, and reading that text, it was able to output an emotion associated with what was said.” The product uses text-to-speech software to convert the audio into text, and then, using International Business Machines technology, analyzes that text for tone, emotion, and sentiment for the user.

It shows the user a colour, which is dependent on audio’s sentiment, to help them learn to associate speech with different emotions.

Nguyen said to The Varsity that the software could find applications in schools. “A lot of kids learn… social skills at a very young age,” he said. “Being able to implement this technology while kids are [often] socializing and still very young… helps them develop those social skills [in an important time for growth and development].”

Clarity hopes to further develop the app by potentially implementing facial recognition software based on Microsoft technology, which could help students learn to interpret facial expressions in conjunction with the software’s speech analysis.

From the Ward to Little Jamaica: how Black people made Toronto

Gentrification is erasing the city’s roots

From the Ward to Little Jamaica: how Black people made Toronto

Blackness does not exist in a single form. Our experiences differ depending on our upbringing, religion, socioeconomic class, and numerous other factors. One way that these differences in culture arose was as a result of the patterns of Black settlement across Canada’s vast geographical area, developing various Creole cultures and societies.

Dr. Delia Douglas, an instructor at the University of British Columbia, draws on the importance of paying attention to the relationship between geography and Blackness in Canada, and “understanding how past and present exclusions influence the conditions of belonging for Black bodies and Black communities.”

According to the 2016 Census, approximately 3.5 per cent of Canadians identify as Black. And in honour of Black History Month, I want to acknowledge the contributions that Black people have made to the city of Toronto — contributions that have been and continue to be systematically erased through the capitalist practice of gentrification.

Then and now: St. John’s Ward and Nathan Phillips Square

When I think of the past, the pioneers of Black Canada, I think of St. John’s Ward. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the early 1840s, Toronto had a population of approximately 47,000 people. St. John’s Ward, more commonly known as “the Ward,” is typically considered to be Toronto’s first multicultural and multiethnic area. Its modern boundaries consisted of what is now referred to as Toronto’s downtown core, having been concentrated between University Avenue, College Street, Yonge Street, and Queen Street West. The Ward was home to approximately 11,600 people: Irish citizens escaping the potato famine, Jews fleeing persecution in Europe, Italian labourers, and Chinese immigrants.

What most people are unaware of is that the people who started this community of immigrants in the Ward were free Black individuals and runaway enslaved Black people from the United States.


The 1856 and 1861 censuses found that roughly one thousand Black people were living in Toronto, with half of this population residing in the southern area of the Ward. For them, this space was more than just a geographical Black community; it was the centre of Black culture as well. A Black debate society met every Monday evening at 120 Yonge Street. The African Methodist Church was a centre of the community and spiritual life. There were shoemakers, taverns, and Black-run businesses.

The Ward and its high immigrant population was primarily transformed by the introduction of the subway system in 1954. This rich history was physically erased through the process of gentrification and ideologies of renovating and improving ‘run-down’ or ‘ghetto’ neighbourhoods inhabited by low-income earners in order to attract an influx of wealthy earners into the area.

As the urbanization of the downtown core began, working-class immigrants were pushed out of the Ward. Originally a neighbourhood for racialized people and low-income earners, Toronto developed the area into some of the most expensive real estate in Canada.

Now, the Ward houses Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto City Hall, and countless condominiums. Nevertheless, you can find little remnants sprinkled about of what it once was. There are several plaques in and around the area of the Ward which were installed by Heritage Toronto to acknowledge the influence of the Black community. These plaques commemorate the African Methodist Church, Albert Jackson, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and St. Lawrence Hall.

Furthermore, as part of their Myseum on the Move program, the Myseum of Toronto strives to keep the history of the Ward alive through their Women of the Ward Tour, which was created in 2019. Through theatrical presentations and animated speech, the walking tour is meant to explore Toronto’s first immigrant neighbourhood and unveil a part of Toronto’s history that often goes unnoticed.


During the tour through what used to consist of the Ward, participants encounter the experience of four resilient women from the Chinese, Jewish, Irish, and Black communities whose stories contribute to the history of the former neighbourhood. The dramatization of Cecelia Jane Reynolds’ life tells her story of joining the Black community in Toronto after escaping slavery in the United States. Written by Audrey Dwyer and performed by Meghan Swaby, the monologue describes her ongoing correspondence with her former owner as she attempts to obtain freedom for her mother and brother.

“I am not the worst child on God’s green Earth,” the monologue says from Reynolds’ perspective. “I came up here with barely the moon to light my way.”

Little Jamaica and me

In recent years, the iconic neighbourhood of Toronto’s Eglinton West, also known as Little Jamaica, has been run over with the construction of the Eglinton Light Rail Line (LRT). As real estate prices have skyrocketed, the displacement of businesses and residents can visually be observed within the area.

The history of Little Jamaica is rich. During the ’70s and ’80s, close to 100,000 Jamaican immigrants came to Canada, and many of them settled in Toronto, specifically the area around Eglinton Avenue West and Oakwood Avenue.

My dad is one of those immigrants, having chosen to settle down in Cambridge, Ontario, about an hour and a half outside of Toronto. I remember him telling me about the first time he went to Little Jamaica, and how it felt just like home. Since there were no West Indian barbers in Cambridge, he would head down to Eglinton on the weekends for a haircut, get the oxtail with rice and pea lunch special at Spence’s Bakery, and stop by the King Culture record store before heading home.

“If you wanted to find someone you haven’t seen in a while, go there on a Saturday, and you’d find them,” he once said.

On weekends, Eglinton was the place to be. The streets were always busy and filled with people from the Caribbean diaspora walking to the various Black immigrant-owned shops and restaurants. The community was filled with not only those from Toronto but with people like my dad, who lived outside of the GTA and yearned for a sense of belonging.

Growing up, my dad would take me to Little Jamaica alongside him as he continued his Saturday tradition. I recall the sights, sounds, and smells of our adventures: the charcoal smoking from drums cooking jerk chicken, friendly exchanges of Patwah — also known as Jamaican Patois — between folks on the street, and the vibrant yellow, green, and black flags proudly representing our nation.

No trip was complete without stopping at Randy’s Patties, which is now called Randy’s Take-Out. The ladies behind the counter who watched me grow up had felt like my aunties. After grabbing our usual, which was a piece of freshly baked coco bread, a chicken patty, and an ice-cold D&G Kola Champagne soda, we would head to the nearby beauty supply store, Monica’s Beauty Salon & Cosmetic. I would pick up hair products for my mom, the ones that you could only get in Toronto, while my dad chatted with the man selling Jamaican DVDs and CDs at the corner.


Today, only a small fraction of this neighbourhood remains. The city has made some attempts to preserve the historically Black space with the creation of Reggae Lane and a commissioned mural which runs east of Oakwood Avenue, behind a strip of buildings on the south side of Eglinton Avenue.

The construction of the Eglinton Crosstown LRT will run along Eglinton Avenue between Mount Dennis and Kennedy station. The line is slated to have up to 25 stations and stops. In response, Black-owned businesses have become empty storefronts looking for new renters who can afford their high prices.

I can see the past being repeated in the present.

To understand how Canada became one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, we need to look to the histories of the Ward and Little Jamaica to gain a clearer understanding of how the contributions of Black Canadians in the past have shaped the present.

After all, when I reflect on the pioneers of Black Toronto in St. John’s Ward and the gentrification that soon followed, it saddens me to think that future generations may never know Little Jamaica. Just as the Ward was home to more than only Black people, Eglinton is more than just an area for the Jamaican and West Indian community. It’s a space where we can gather as a collective; it’s a place where we can feel celebrated.

Complexities of Blackness: panelists reflect on being Black on campus and in Toronto

Keynote speaker on combatting anti-Black racism

<i>Complexities of Blackness</i>: panelists reflect on being Black  on campus and in Toronto

The Black History 365 Committee and the Anti-Racism & Cultural Diversity Office at U of T held a Black History symposium on February 6 titled Complexities of Blackness: Stories Told, Strategies Shared.

Keynote speaker

The keynote speaker was Aina-Nia Ayo’dele Grant, Director of Community Resources Section of the City of Toronto, who reflected on the progress of Toronto’s Confronting Anti-Black Racism Unit (CABR), of which Ayo’dele Grant was the manager. The unit is part of the five-year Toronto Action Plan to Confront Anti-Black Racism, which was implemented in 2018 and whose work primarily involves consultations with Toronto residents.

“I know for sure that the [Confronting] Anti-Black racism unit is making a difference,” said Ayo’dele Grant. She expressed that the unit is “contributing to culture change at the City of Toronto,” due to its involvement with many departments in the city’s government. Its May 2019 report showed that 28 per cent of the unit’s action plans had been underway or completed.

Some initiatives undertaken by the CABR include having over 9,000 people participate in learning sessions on anti-Black racism, and collaborating with the mayor to declare a Toronto Black Mental Health Day on March 2. Giving an overview of Black activism in Toronto, Ayo’dele Grant noted that Toronto has also recognized the United Nations’ International Decade for People of African Descent, a resolution passed in 2013 which seeks to promote respect for the human rights and diverse cultures of people of African descent. These recognition efforts in Toronto were led by Black activists.

Panel discussion

The event also included a discussion with three panelists moderated by Maydianne Andrade, a professor and the vice-dean faculty affairs and equity at UTSC.

Panelist Andrew Campbell, Adjunct Lecturer at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education who completed his PhD at U of T, spoke about being a Black professor on campus.

“I [still feel] like an endangered species!” he joked, and mentioned that he is the first Black professor for too many of his students. During Campbell’s five years as a PhD student at U of T, he said that he only had one Black professor.

He also spoke about self-expression, saying that it is important to him to dress however he feels most comfortable: “I bring my whole self to school.” He added that he has learned to fight the urge to defend his qualifications and “keep unpacking and introducing yourself to be legitimate,” and instead be confident in himself.

Answering a question on navigating academic spaces while Black, Campbell answered, “Being on a campus like University of Toronto, you are constantly being measured. And I think what, for me, that navigation is, [is] to unpack that measuring and step away from that ruler.” Campbell also spoke about possible criticisms that events like the one he was participating in were only happening due to Black History Month.

He clarified that, regardless, “We have to do the Black History Month thing. It’s important.”

Campell highlighted one assignment he gives to students, where they must analyze equity statements of companies and universities. He said that these statements mean nothing while “we’re in the concept of checking the boxes,” meaning that diversity efforts in these institutions often mean having people employed from specific marginalized identities and then deciding that “we have done the work.”

Michael Junior Samakayi, University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) Vice-President Equity and a fourth-year student, commented on intersectionality and being the first deaf person to be on the UTSU’s Executive Committee.

He agreed with Campbell that representation at the university was lacking: “The university is a big place. And there are very few students that look like me, very few students that identify as deaf and Black.”

Mairi McKenna Edwards, Coordinator of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Training for Student Life, was also on the panel, and spoke about her experiences being biracial. In her role at Student Life, Edwards said that “the most subversive thing [I do] here on campus… is I bring people together to have really tricky, honest conversations.”

Speaking about the drive for diversity in spaces like the university, Edwards commented, “What I’m mindful of is what the university is and is not doing to be worthy of our brilliance, possibility, and wonderfulness.”

“The power to change the world”: Raptors President Masai Ujiri speaks at U of T

Ujiri speaks on the power of sports in honour of Black History Month

“The power to change the world”: Raptors President Masai Ujiri speaks at U of T

U of T’s 17th annual Black History Luncheon on February 28 rounded out four weeks of Black History Month celebrations. The event commemorated Afro-Canadian culture through food and live music, culminating in the recognition of the philanthropic efforts of Masai Ujiri, President of the Toronto Raptors.

Ujiri is the first African-born General Manager in the NBA. In addition to his work with the Raptors, he is the co-founder of Giants of Africa, a non-profit organization that uses basketball as a means to improve the lives of African youth. 

In an email to The Varsity, Ujiri wrote, “Every year I am amazed by the youth of Africa. They are truly the future.”

Ujiri founded Giants of Africa soon after becoming director of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders, when he was inspired to create a basketball camp for the children of his home country, Nigeria.

As an NBA scout at the time, he was concerned with finding the next African NBA star. However, over the years, Ujiri came to the realization that few people have the skills it takes to make it to the NBA.

He said at the event, “That began to eat me inside because not everybody is going to be a talented basketball player that’s going to play in the NBA.”

Ujiri said that he may not have been the greatest basketball player, nor did he make it to the NBA, but he “used basketball as a tool” to get himself an education and to meet new people. Basketball helped him to understand the importance of traits such as teamwork and leadership and this is what he hopes to teach the children who attend his camps. 

It is also important to him that they understand that there is more to sports than being a professional basketball player. He listed sports management, psychology, law, and journalism as a few of the areas available. Ujiri discovered that this was not a common perception in Africa, and so he sought to educate children about alternative careers in sports.

The sold-out luncheon took place in Hart House’s Great Hall at UTSG on Thursday. It was also live-streamed at UTM, UTSC, and the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport. The event included guests such as Nigerian High Commissioner to Canada Adeyinka Olatokunbo Asekun, U of T President Meric Gertler, New Democratic Party MPP Jessica Bell from University—Rosedale, and students from the York Region District School Board.

In his email to The Varsity, Ujiri wrote that Africa will always be his homeland.

“I will always be proudly African. Every country in Africa has its own unique charm and beauty, but universally Africans are hardworking, good people dedicated to [bettering] themselves and those around them. Giants of Africa and basketball have shown me sides of the continent I didn’t even know. The resilience, strength of the youth, women and Africans in general is unparalleled.”

However, he added that “Toronto is an incredible, world class city that I consider to be home,” and that Toronto has “come into its own” as a “tier one sports city.”

For Ujiri, sports can teach a person valuable life lessons of “hard work, dedication, teamwork and commitment,” and because of that, sports have “the power to change the world.”