Author and historian Rosemary Sadlier, who led the adoption of Black History Month across Canada, receives U of T honorary degree 

(photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

Rosemary Sadlier has recalled, as a child, being asked where her father had come from – a question that arose because of the colour of his skin and suggested, “You don’t belong here.”

The query also suggested an ignorance of Black Canadian history, which stuck with Sadlier and played a role in shaping her career as an acclaimed author, historian, educator and social justice advocate who led a campaign to declare February Black History Month in Canada.

Today, for her advocacy and leadership in advancing Black history and heritage, and in promoting anti-racism, Sadlier will receive a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from the University of Toronto.

Growing up in Toronto, Sadlier earned a bachelor of arts degree in sociology from Glendon College at York University. She worked for a few years before enrolling at the University of Toronto, earning a master’s degree in social work in 1982. She returned to U of T several years later for a Bachelor of Education, then went on to complete her coursework for a doctorate.

Although she recalls being one of only a handful of Black students in U of T’s Faculty of Social Work (now the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work), which sometimes presented challenges, she also remembered some “incredible profs.”

Finding a job in the field wasn’t easy. Sadlier told Speak Truth to Power Canada, a human rights resource for teachers, that one potential employer told her they had thought she was white. “There was a sense that the people who are supposed to be doing the helping are supposed to be white, and the people who are supposed to be helped are supposed to be everybody else,” she said. “There I was showing up to be this person to help, and it was just jarring for them.”

Rosemary Sadlier signs the book of honorary degree recipients while Dean Erica Walker looks on
(Photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

Having no luck finding paid work, Sadlier sought volunteer experience in an area that was meaningful to her: she took a role with the Ontario Black History Society, and after a few years became its president. She soon launched a bid to bring Black History Month to a wider audience.

A week-long observance of Black history and culture had originated in the United States in the 1920s. Three decades later, the event came to Canada, where it was celebrated primarily in the Black community and later expanded to the entire month of February. Sadlier pushed for the event to be honoured more widely – seeking permanent recognition first from the City of Toronto, then from the province and finally from the federal government.

Her effort culminated in 1995, when Jean Augustine, a fellow U of T grad and the first Black woman ever elected to Parliament in Canada, agreed to put Sadlier’s idea before the House of Commons. It passed unanimously, and the inaugural, nationwide Black History Month took place in February 1996.

Reflecting on her effort, Sadlier told Glendon College that her initial motivation had been personal: she didn’t want her children to face the same challenges she had. But she also knew that highlighting the contributions of Black Canadians was important in bigger ways. “It created a touchstone to focus on the presence, contribution, and experience of Canadians of African descent – lives that had been overlooked or not included in the national script.”

With the 30th anniversary of national Black History Month approaching, Sadlier says she’d like the subject to gain a higher profile during the rest of the year, too. To that end, she has written seven books about Black history. A new title – The Kids Book of Black History in Canada – is to be published in June. 

Similar to her campaign for Black History Month, Sadlier also championed the formal recognition of August 1 as Emancipation Day at the local, provincial and national levels. Her goal: to mark the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 1834 and generate “more discussion about slavery and the legacy of slavery.”

Ultimately, Sadlier aims to raise awareness about the Black experience in Canada, and the importance of contributions from the Black community, in the hope of achieving a more inclusive future. “I think with knowledge comes the opportunity for a real expression and a real appreciation of what inclusion means,” she said in the interview with Speak Truth to Power Canada.

In her message today to graduates of the Ontario Insitute for Studies in Education and the School of Graduate Studies, Sadlier encouraged them to consider how to turn their hopes into reality. “This chapter of your life is about marrying your bold and beautiful ideas with practical action,” she said. “It’s about anchoring your dreams in the physical and transforming sparks of inspiration into tangible success. It’s about planting the seeds of change in the collective consciousness and leaving behind a legacy that will inspire your descendants and your community.”

For her advocacy, Sadlier has received numerous honours, including the Order of Ontario, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Award, the William Peyton Hubbard Race Relations Awards, the Harry Jerome Award, and the Lifetime Achiever Award from the International Women’s Achievers’ Awards. She also holds an honorary doctorate from OCAD University.