A personal essay by Michael Williams, Chief Risk & Compliance Officer, General Counsel
Honouring the rich heritage of African-Canadian families and civic leaders
The pursuit of education and opportunity in equal measure led one young man living in a fishing village on the Atlantic coast of a small Caribbean island to embark on the journey of a lifetime. In 1951, leaving the “continent of Tobago”, as he liked to say, to the bustling metropolis of Montreal, an exceptionally bright Eldon Williams would attend undergraduate and medical school at McGill University.
He arrived with a bold sense of optimism while recognizing, but not being tempered by, the reality of racial prejudice. Eldon commonly faced the challenges of being a “visible minority” particularly as a medical student where black people were not commonly seen as a legitimate part of the so-called “professions”. Indeed, until 1947, hospitals in Montreal did not accept black medical students for residency, and even in the late 50s and well beyond, there was still an elitism to these programs which made access restricted.
In 1958, post-graduation, Eldon was able to find residency positions at Queen Mary Veteran’s Hospital, the Reddy Memorial Hospital, and the Montreal Jewish Hospital and was affiliated with these institutions after he entered practice in 1962.
In 1968, the now Dr. Williams moved to Toronto with hiswife Rosalind and their five children where he built two successful medical and surgical practices: one in the heart of Little Italy in the downtown area and the other in the east suburbs of Scarborough. His legacy after 92 years, up and until his passing in January 2021, was a lifetime of service and devotion to his multi-generational family, his patients, and the local and global community.
My father, Dr. Williams, has a story not unlike that of many new immigrants to Canada, including those of Caribbean or African origin, who brought with them their aspirations, talents and enthusiasm combined with a strong work ethic and resilience. Many became highly successful, overcoming the true hardships of discrimination, growing their families, and instilling in their children the same reverence for education, work ethic, and community. However, although the path has been well laid by both black immigrants and the multi-generations of Canadian black communities (even before Confederation), the ability to succeed as a community and be included in the economic, health and education mainstream is still impeded by the continued challenges of systemic racism. Black History Month is an opportunity to honour, remember, acknowledge and celebrate the contributions of Black Canadians (both natural-born citizens and immigrants), and this rich and critical history. As Canadian novelist Lawrence Hill writes, the story of Canadians with African heritage spans four hundred years, including the original sin of “slavery as well as abolition, pioneering, urban growth, segregation, the civil rights movement and a long engagement in civic life”. While this dense and complicated history is not to be reduced to just a single month, we want to celebrate these achievements with a reverence to the great opportunities and challenges that are still in hand, all of which are highlighted during “Black History Month”.
Origins of Black History Month
The commemoration of Black History Month dates back to 1926, when Harvard-educated African American historian Carter G. Woodson proposed setting aside a time devoted to honour the accomplishments of African Americans and to heighten awareness of Black history in the United States. This led to the establishment of Negro History Week in 1926. Meanwhile, in Canada, celebrations of Black history began shortly thereafter. During the early 1970s, the week became known as Black History Week and was expanded into Black History Month in 1976. Which brings us to February 2021. As wealth management professionals who focus on client families and their unique goals, Black History Month underscores the importance of understanding our clients’ genealogical heritage – and this includes their distinct ethnic and cultural background. Richardson Wealth is predicated on the notion of supporting client families holistically, beyond just dollars and cents. Our Dedicated Advisor Partners, supported by the whole firm, regard client families, like all families, as “links between the ages, containing past and present expectations, sacred memories and future promise”. Black History Month reminds us of the need to learn more about the distinct stories and important contributions of Black Canadians to the development of Canada, the continued challenges of equality, diversity and inclusion, and the importance of Black communities to the history and future of this country.
… and the potential to build economic opportunity for Black communities
Which brings me to my other role as a founder of the Black Opportunity Fund (BOF), a partnership between businesses, philanthropists, foundations, and the Black community to combat the impact of anti-Black racism in Canada. Richardson Wealth is proudly supporting these efforts to develop a sustainable national, long-term economic growth strategy for the Black community. The fund will broadly prioritize initiatives around education, healthcare, youth, women, social justice, immigration, technology, entrepreneurship, and politics that impact the quality of life in the Black community.
As a firm exclusively dedicated to helping our advisors, their clients, their families and communities, we believe that it is critical for us to embrace organizations and initiatives like the BOF that are aimed at building sustained prosperity which elevates all our communities to play a more powerful role in the economic mainstream of Canada. And that’s why Black History (Month) matters not just in February but every day.
Thank you for your support!
If you are interested in donating to the BOF directly, please do so here.
For more information on the BOF or to offer any other support, please contact [email protected].