History-making politician and educator Zanana Akande receives U of T honorary degree 

(photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

A passionate and determined advocate for social justice, Zanana Akande made history in Canada as the first Black woman to serve as a cabinet minister. As an educator and community-builder in Toronto, she has dedicated her career to the well-being of others, particularly those in marginalized communities.

Today, for her tireless leadership in public service and her fearless advocacy for equity and diversity, Akande will receive a Doctor of Laws, honoris causa, from the University of Toronto.

Born in downtown Toronto in 1937 to parents from St. Lucia and Barbados, Akande attended Harbord Collegiate Institute and then U of T, where she earned bachelor of arts and master of education degrees. In training to be an educator, she was following in the footsteps of her parents, who had worked as teachers in the Caribbean but were denied positions in Canada because of their backgrounds. Akande went on to teach in the Toronto District School Board, where she also served as a vice-principal and principal.

Akande says her parents stressed the importance of education and credits her father, in particular, for cultivating in her a sense of social justice and a desire for change. “Both of my parents were interested in politics,” she told the Financial Post in 2018, “but it was really my father who encouraged us from a very young age to watch the news and consider why certain decisions were being made.”

As a citizen, Akande identified with the platform of the New Democrat Party and helped with canvassing during elections. “I supported their platform because I thought it spoke to the issues that were most unfair and needed to be addressed,” she told The Kit in 2018.

Zanana Akande on stage with Rose Patten and being hooded by Professor Ann Lopez
(photo by Lisa Sakulensky)

In 1990, just two weeks before the Ontario election, the NDP approached Akande about being a candidate. She accepted and ran in the Toronto riding of St. Andrew-St. Patrick – and won, becoming the first Black woman elected to the provincial legislature. When Premier Bob Rae named her Minister of Community and Social Services, she became Canada’s first Black woman ever appointed to a cabinet position. 

Reflecting on her achievement many years later, Akande said being first was important because it opened the door for others. “It becomes more possible to elect another Black person, so that it seems not that exceptional,” she told The Kit.

But being first through the door isn’t easy. Akande made progress on issues such as employment equity and services for youth and the elderly, but later spoke about the challenges she faced as a Black woman in government.

“Change is not always welcomed,” she told The Kit. “The default position for many of the people in government is white male.” 

After leaving politics in 1994, Akande continued to work for change. She told The Kit, “I felt I could do more on the outside, which I continued to do working for long-term care and integrated services for children.”

Akande returned to the school board as a principal. She served on numerous boards, including the YMCA and Centennial College. She was president of Harbourfront Centre, and a founding board member of Milestone Radio, the owner of Canada’s first urban music radio station. She also co-founded Tiger Lily, a magazine for women of colour. Until 2021, she served as the chair of the board of the Black Legal Action Centre. 

In her speech to graduates of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education today, Akande urged them to get involved in their community and to act on behalf of others. “Take a stance about issues – not only those that affect you and yours directly, but also those that affect the learning, the inclusion, the direction and the rights and paths of others.”  

Akande has received many awards recognizing her commitment to education and community-building. In 2018, she was selected one of the women of distinction by the YWCA Toronto, and presented the key to the City of Toronto by Mayor John Tory for her work in equity and social justice. 

At the key-to-the-city ceremony, then-mayor Tory praised Akande’s “unwavering belief in the human spirit” and “how deeply she cares about other people.

“She has found ways to improve the lives of other people and to lift them up in many different ways,” he said.

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