Recognizing all people who work with Black communities around the world and those who inspire us all through their astonishing accomplishments
In Fall 2009, a young woman named Aminka Belvitt proposed a motion to the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa (SFUO) to recognize Black History Month on campus. The motion was challenged by a small group of students who did not see the purpose of recognizing and celebrating Black History Month on our campus. Although there was some resistance, a lot of us fought next to her to ensure that her motion was successful. That fall, the motion passed with an astonishing majority votes.
We sat and brainstorm with the former SFUO Executives on activities that could help us celebrate this victory and Black History Month every February at the University of Ottawa. Many ideas were given such as documentary, film screenings, dialogues, conferences a festival and more.
At that time, I was going back and forth to Rideau Hall to cover Youth Dialogues that were launched by the Right Honorable Michaelle Jean and Mr. Jean Daniel Lafond. I had this big idea of a Gala that went beyond the University and that could bring our society together as one.
I realized while speaking to people that were not black, that there was a discomfort when we spoke about Black History Month. Ultimately, I felt that they were sometimes afraid to even say any thing about it. I took the decision to break that barrier and thought of an event that will not only bring all people together, but also celebrate every single person regardless of their race, who has dedicated their lives, efforts and resources to empowering, giving back and working with (not for, not on behalf of but WITH), black communities here in Canada but also around the world.
This came from the idea that, on their journey towards justice and freedom, our ancestors had allies that were not black, who stood with them to demand and obtain justice and freedom!
I spoke to the Right Honorable Michaelle Jean (then Governor General of Canada) and her husband, Mr. Jean-Daniel Lafond. They were in favor of the idea. Mr. Lafond told me "Gwen, to have an idea is one thing, but to bring this idea to life is a total different ball game. If you say that you will do it, you must commit regardless of the difficulties that you might encounter".
I can tell you that we did encounter many difficulties that I had not seen coming. From financial hurdles, to debate with other students who refused to include people who were not black in the Gala, I can attest that I saw it and heard it all. But I refused to transform my original idea into something that would be divisive.
I proposed the idea to the Executive body of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa and met with Former University President, Mr. Allan Rock who also offered his support. And so with a small but mighty committee of about 6 people and a budget of only $3000, we launched the first Black History Month Gala in Ottawa, Canada at the University of Ottawa.
The event attended by Her Excellency the Right Honorable Michaelle Jean, Mr. Jean Daniel Lafond, President Allan Rock, Members of various Diplomatic Corps, Student Associations, the student Community, the Executives of the Student Federation of the University of Ottawa and local Community Leaders was a success! The Sold out event brought together over 300 people (beyond the maximum amount of guests allowed inside Tabaret Hall, room Hugette Labelle). The speeches were inspiring and for the first time in history, when you looked around, you could see people of all races, all nations, all backgrounds celebrating a history that touches all of humanity but also the accomplishments of black people and allies who inspire us all.
The Black History Month Gala was such a success that we did it for a second year, and then a third year and then a fourth year.....and we just could not stop. I am proud that today the event is still occurring at the University of Ottawa. We dreamed of making it a National event and we did in 2016 with as special guest, the incredible Reverend Al Sharpton and Trailblazer Naomi Campbell and what a success it was!
From young inspiring folks such as Mitch Kurylowicz, to community leader Al Sharpton, members of the public were not only able to be inspired but also to share their own stories during the discussion/dialogue period of the gala.
The idea of the Gala was to bring together in one room not only all people but also have every-day heroes/sheroes and celebrities receive the same award for the same incredible work that they do so that others could understand that it does not matter wither the spotlight is on you or not. What matter is what's in your heart and what drives you. What matters are your actions and what you choose to do with your blessings.
The award ceremony is always followed by a Dialogue in which members of the public have the opportunity to share their thoughts on a subject that the committee chooses prior to the Gala. In 2016 the title of the Gala was: Will you accept the torch? (With the loss of leaders such as the Honorable Nelson Mandela), what does it mean to accept the torch?
The subject was welcomed by the award recipients and the public who gave us great points on advancing together as a united society which recognizes (as Prime Minister Trudeau stated) that, "we are strong not in spite of our differences, but because of them".