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Celebrating stories of Ontarians: Rosemary Sadlier, Member of the Order of Ontario

The Honourable Elizabeth Dowdeswell, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario

For more than 30 years, Rosemary Sadlier has advocated for the recognition of Canada’s Black history, and she remains as tenacious as ever. Having led successful national campaigns for commemorations, published seven books about the subject, and received the Order of Ontario for her contributions, the Toronto-born historian is keen to make clear how much work there is still to be done.

When she joined the board of the Ontario Black History Society in 1989, an organization she would lead, as president, from 1993 to 2015, she found that across the province and beyond, there was “a lack of appreciation for the value of affirming a significant proportion of the population that had been in this country for over 400 years.” She was concerned that her children were facing the same issues she had when she was young. Today, she notes, Black children “are still experiencing books that depict them in a negative way, and teachers who have issues with their names, their hair, or their skin tone. There are still gaps in the education system that reinforce outmoded ways of thinking.

While some of the examples may not be as egregious as what I’d been getting, or my mother and father, they’re still there.”

Sadlier has given thousands of talks in schools and community settings on the contributions of Black Canadians, and her books, such as Leading the Way: Black Women in Canada 1994) and The Kids’ Book of Black Canadian History (2003), shines a light on underrecognized historical figures. Among them are the veterans who made up the No. 2 Construction Battalion, a military expedition force from World War I banned from fighting. Overseas, they dug trenches and built huts to accommodate soldiers, and when they returned home, they continued to face racism. In part, thanks to Sadlier’s persistent efforts, the Government of Canada has pledged to offer an official apology for the way these soldiers were treated.

Among the battalion’s members were her grandfather and many of his cousins; her ancestors on her father’s side came to what is now New Brunswick as Black Loyalists in 1783. Her mother’s side arrived in Upper Canada (now Ontario) from the United States via the Underground Railroad around 1830.

It was only in 1834 that slavery was abolished in British colonies, including Upper Canada. In 1995, having successfully campaigned for national recognition of February as Black History Month, Sadlier began building support for a federal declaration that each August 1 would be Emancipation Day. Working with the Royal Commonwealth Society, the Black Canadian Network, and eventually, members of parliament, she finally achieved this milestone some 26 years later, in 2021.

For Sadlier, this national recognition means that in Canada, “We can have more authentic discussions about, ‘What is freedom?’”

There is no better time than Black History Month to have such discussions. One hundred and eighty-eight years since the first Emancipation Day, structural barriers and discrimination continue to affect Black Canadians. Only by learning about the past and its impact on the present will we build a better future.

One of a Lieutenant Governor’s great privileges is to celebrate Ontarians from all backgrounds and corners of the province. Ontario’s honours and awards formally and publicly acknowledge the excellence, achievements, and contributions of role models from all walks of life. In doing so, they strengthen the fabric of communities and shape the aspirations of Ontarians. Learn more:

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