On Dec. 5, 1995, Rosemary Sadlier received a phone call telling her to turn on the Cable Public Affairs Channel (CPAC). That day she watched the federal government, prompted by her efforts, declare February national Black History Month.
For the president of the Ontario Black History Society (OBHS), the moment was a far cry from Sadlier’s earlier years at Vaughn Road Collegiate where, as an African-Canadian, she says she felt alone. “We were the only family of African origin in the area,” she recalls.
So she found her sense of belonging in other ways. It was in her own family’s history: her ancestors had come to Canada via the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes that helped American slaves reach freedom. She also found belonging at the black community church she attended on Sundays and the after- school programs she involved herself in.
However, it wasn’t until Sadlier had children of her own that she felt compelled to become active in the struggle to further equality.
“When your child comes home and shares with you — whatever the incident, be it from interactions with other students, comments from teachers, the nature of the curriculum — then you know things aren’t changed. They’re changed a bit but they haven’t changed.”
So she joined the OBHS. Three years later, she became president. It was a tough time, as the province had just cut funds to cultural organizations. But there was work to be done. During her almost 20 years as president, in addition to being the impetus for national Black History Month, Sadlier succeeded in having Aug. 1 declared provincially as Emancipation Day. The day marks the abolition of slavery under the British Empire. She’s also working on having the day declared nationally.
Sadlier has also published a number of books, including biographies on journalist Mary Ann Shadd, Underground Railroad hero Harriet Tubman and a book called Leading the Way: Black Women in Canada.
“When the light is pretty much always on white men, it just helps to give a little bit more balance,” she says. Her storytelling doesn’t stop with books. Currently the OBHS is working to establish a cultural centre and museum in Toronto. And in honour of this year’s Black History Month, the group is working with the federal government to launch a virtual museum, giving the stories behind the people and the buildings that have enriched and helped define the African-Canadian experience.
Sadlier says keeping these stories alive helps build a sense of identity and promotes understanding across the board. However, she says there are strides to be made, for the sake of equality and the benefit of all society. And she won’t be giving up any time soon. “You try to do something meaningful,” she says. “Black history is for everybody’s benefit. It’s a way to try and bring balance, to try and extend people’s ability to accept.”