June 19, 2024 | Alumni

‘A more fulsome sense of Canadian history’: OISE alumna Rosemary Sadlier receives U of T honorary degree

Portrait or Rosemary Sadlier in a red jacket

U of T alumna, author, historian, educator, social justice advocate, Rosemary Sadlier receives honorary degree.

Rosemary Sadlier (MSW 1982, BEd 1992 OISE) became president of the Ontario Black History Society, a role that changed how we think about history here, because she showed up on time.

“I didn't come in with an agenda. I didn't come in because I had been knowing and calling for and doing things to make sure that the previous president was out,” said Sadlier in March, days after being named one of 11 people who will receive honorary degrees from the University of Toronto this spring.

“I came on time because I had to make sure I left early because I had to get home to feed my baby.”

The dedicated mother kept showing up for the OBHS, as she led the volunteer-led organization from 1993 to 2015. Building on her success advocating for Black history with Toronto, then the province and in creating interest nationwide – after providing over 2,000 presentations and interviews, in 1994 she initiated the process to have a national declaration for recognizing Black History Month – which was passed in Dec. 1995.

In 1994, she successfully lobbied government to fully recognize Black History Month. That same year, Sadlier also initiated the formal celebration of August 1 as Emancipation Day in Toronto, Ottawa and nationally.

Sadlier, a U of T alumna, author, historian, educator, social justice advocate, addressed graduating students at the OISE convocation ceremony this spring. According to her U of T citation, “Sadlier has also contributed significantly to African Canadian curriculum development and education, empowering generations of students and teachers.”

“On behalf of the OISE community, we thank Rosemary Sadlier, and offer our heartfelt congratulations on this prestigious honour,” said Professor Erica N. Walker, Dean of OISE. “Ms. Sadlier has had a decorated life as an educator, advocate and historian. Without her motivation and determination, the fight to recognize Black history in this country would have a different path.

“To her, we owe a debt of gratitude, of which this honorary degree is a small token of our appreciation.”

Systemic racism made her available

Working to have Ottawa formally recognize Black History Month was a prolonged and exhausting one for Sadlier – who herself endured long hours, sacrificing her own time as a mother and educator to do so. It was not an easy time. She was not being hired full-time as a schoolteacher and her own children were still school-aged.

But, she had plenty of motivation. “Systemic racism helped to make me available to serve in an unpaid capacity,” she said of her volunteer role as president. “The reality was that I could continue doing something that I thought would make a difference.”

As president, she contributed to the recognition of Black History through education, research and outreach programs. To this day, Sadlier continues to consult with organizations and communities on matters of Black History education.

Taking measure of the OBHS's impact on this generation, Sadlier says that she always wanted Canadians to have a “fulsome sense of Canadian history.” She hoped that these commemorative months would force difficult histories into the public consciousness, and perhaps inspire others to take the work even further.

She has seen tremendous change over time — which she describes as taking a long time to take effect — but feels there’s more work to do. “It's very frustrating when people only want to look at one segment of the Black population – but there are many segments, the Black population is very diverse,” she says.

At the same time, establishing Black History Month did not lead to immediate change. For example, the Ontario did not implement mandatory Black history education from kindergarten to Grade 12. This fall, the Ontario government will introduce mandatory Black History elements and only for Grades 7, 8 and 10 history courses.

“Because I'm a person who has lived this, because my parents were people who had lived this, because my children have lived this, what I know to be true is that [learning Black history] has to happen earlier rather than later,” says Sadlier, whose roots in Canada reach back to pre-Confederation.

Sadlier said that from the start, she has wanted to offset the grand narrative about our collective Canadian history and the idea that Black immigrants and newcomers haven't contributed as much to Canada, or that they are criminals or something worse. “I think that the messaging has to go out sooner and education is the way to get that messaging out there,” she says.

Her own personal history

Sadlier has lived a lifetime in Black spaces.

Toronto-born and raised, her mother’s family can be traced back to 1830, while her father’s ancestors arrived in New Brunswick in 1793.

She worshipped and learned a lot from her time in Black churches. “I was really lucky because I went to a Black church and saw Black people every Sunday,” she remembers. “Some of the questions and lessons of Black history could be answered just by seeing these people.

“I would go to church conferences around the province, and I would see Black people not just in Toronto, but in smaller communities throughout the province – from Windsor all the way to Owen Sound and Collingwood. I would see them and know that we were there and had been there.”

She earned her Bachelor of Education from OISE in 1992, learning from the likes of the late Professor David Booth. Her academic life prepared her for the work at hand, strengthening her writing skills and keeping her close to community and the issues they endure.

She has received several honours and awards over her career, including the Order of Ontario, the William Peyton Hubbard Race Relations Award, and the Harry Jerome Award.

Receiving this honorary degree from U of T marks a significant full circle moment, filling her with immense joy. “I really didn't believe it in the moment,” says Sadlier, recalling the moment when U of T President Meric Gertler informed her of the honour. “It was just like so many things hitting you all at once, because you're in disbelief.

“It's like your ears trying to process that this has really happened – what it means and what U of T and OISE signifies. It was just a lot of feelings all at the same time.”

Despite all the accolades and emotions, Sadlier’s pace has not slowed. “I never stopped,” she said.

The work continues, and her mind turns to how others can carry forward the work. “Someone else might be able to do something in terms of looking at the determinants of Black health, or the beauty industry or the fashion industry,” she said. “It's all about those places where [Black people] are not adequately represented or adequately supported, or where we are over-represented, like in the prison system relative to our population.

“If you are in those fields or thinking about being in those fields, there's room to bring in a Black voice and perspective to challenge the status quo.”

Originally published by Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE)

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