Profiles, Standing on the Shoulders of Greatness: Zanana L. Akande

Profiles is a series of feature in collaboration with Lawrence Kerr Photography 
and Originally posted on
Zanana Lorraine Akande is a retired politician, dedicated community servant and loving grandmother.

Akande was born in Toronto in 1937, to parents who were teachers but immigrated to Canada from the Caribbean at a time when blacks weren’t allowed to teach. Zanana followed her parents footsteps and became a teacher –and later a principal– before she got involved in politics. She joined what is now the New Democratic Party and ran to represent the St. Andrew-St. Patrick riding in Toronto during the 1990 provincial election. Akande won the seat and was named the Minister of Community and Social Services by Bob Rae, making her the first black woman to be elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and the first black woman to serve as a cabinet minister in Canada.

Akande has received numerous honours for her community work such as the African Canadian Achievement Award for Education, the Award of Distinction from the Congress of Black Women and the Constance E. Hamilton award in 2004 for her work addressing equity issues.

Your parents were both teachers and came to Canada at a time when black people were not allowed to teach, did that at all inspire you to become a teacher?
Actually I hadn’t intended on becoming a teacher, I always wanted to go to law school but we had no money; there’s no fancy way to put it. I chose teacher’s college thinking teachers get off work at 4:30, I can take evening and summer courses to graduate on time, teach for a few years then go to law school. But I found out during practicum that I quite loved teaching and I was good at it so I succumbed to the seduction of teaching.

And what was the transition like going from a teacher, to a principal to running in the 1990 election?
Well It was a long time, I was asked to run by the NDP before 1990 and I was asked to run by another party as well but I was reluctant. I was reluctant the year I ran too, sometimes I wonder if I would have run at all if the election hadn’t been called in summer because I was a principal. But I decided I’d do it, I’d served on a committee and helped other people in elections. When they showed me the platform I said these are things I can speak to and I think are important and decided I could do it.

Between each of those three roles what are some common values they share?
I think the betterment of people and the improvement of life’s situations. I think all three focus on building citizenship, more people knowing more things and understanding processes, it affects the economy and good decision making; hopefully.
When you were elected you became the first black female to be elected as an MPP in Ontario, did that have any significance to you?
No, if I’m being truthful, well not for me. It was important for many other people and important to have achieved it but for me there were many black women who I knew personally who could’ve done a great job and the fact that we had to wait until 1990, well not waited just not able to be achieved, aggravated me. There had been others in the past who had been elected who, with all due respect, didn’t have the ability to do the job and didn’t have to struggle to get it. And women have our own history with fighting for the right to stand in office and run but once we gained that right many women went home satisfied with the possibility and didn’t run. That aggravated me but I had to accept it because the fact was mentioned a lot. I’m just disappointed it took until 1990.

Speaking of which, one of the big stories in Canadian politics last year was Justin Trudeau naming a neutral-balanced Cabinet, what kind of effect do you think it will have going forward when it comes to perceptions of women in the political sphere?
I hope it’ll change. I think the biggest hurdle has been crossed and not just with Trudeau. The NDP had the largest number of female representatives in it’s Cabinet. I think it’s time, we’ve had several female premiers, governor generals, people are more accustomed to seeing women’s names on the ballot and less hesitant about it.

On another note, there have been criticisms about the lack of black people involved not only in Trudeau’s cabinet but in Canadian politics as a whole. What do you think can be done to encourage more black Canadians to get involved in politics and represent their communities?
I think black people need to be in a position to run. One of the things I emphasize is that the candidate needs to feel financially and economically okay with stepping away from their job temporarily and run for those positions. I think there are more of them now but you also have to be aware and interested. You have to see it as a place of business and a place to make change. You have to want to contribute to that change or else you’ll say “why would I do this?” First of all you have to deal with the attention and criticisms. And there’s a tendency to lose your way and forget some of the ideals you had, to change because it’s comfortable to change. There are some people who have said to me “I would never do what you do” and I understand that but I always say you might see it differently from the inside so you have to be able to do that. But some people can’t so they shy away from it and that’s how they keep you in, you’ll have to forgive the expression, “your place.” I realized this and knew I wouldn’t be there long.

You’ve been involved with several community services including president of the Habourfront Centre, The Canadian Alliance For Black Educators and Toronto Child Abuse Centre, why has serving your community been important to you?
I think that everyone has to give something to the community and you give according to the time and ability you have. I think it’s important to bring communities together. And I also think it’s important to show people we can do these things (laughs) hopefully there’s less people to show than before because there are some people who seem to believe we have difficulty working with communities that are not our own. There are lots of us doing work in other communities, like Harbourfront and you do the work not just to show you can but also because you care about the goals of that community and want to be a part of it. I think it does us no good at all if we only present ourselves as members of the black community and work only in that community. We are also part of a wider community but that is a message that has to be said and also demonstrated. I think we have to get our kids out of their little environments and let them take advantage of all the thing there are to learn and experience different things and feel like they’re a part of them, I think it’s important.

Switching focus a little, Black History Month is coming up, what are some of the best ways to celebrate black history and black culture?
I know there are many events that happen and I think it’s important we transfer aspects of our history into these events. Our history classes aren’t about us. There are things I’m still learning today and I think there needs to be a vehicle like the arts or speeches to teach us and everybody else about our history.

For you personally, what have you taken away from learning about black history?
If I had to sum it up in one word I’d say pride. There’s that saying “and still we rise” and it’s phenomenal to me how a people who have been lied about, downgraded, historically omitted and abused have fought so many disadvantages but have accomplished so much. At every attempt to hold us down we thrive. So what I feel is pride.

Of all your accomplishments and things that you’ve been a part of, what are you most proud of?
In 1992 there was a riot downtown involving a group of black youth protesting inequality and injustice in an orderly fashion. But they were provoked into violence by another group of youth. For some people this showed the way black youth were treated and viewed in the media. It also showed people that they were very angry. Out of this came the jobsOntario Youth program, which I was the head of. The program opened up centres that offered summer employment because that’s one of the things the youth were angry about. And we found that it wasn’t just black youth, it was poor youth that were unable to find summer employment and if it they did it was at an extremely basic level. So the premier’s office talked to all the big businesses they knew and we opened up additional youth employment centres, many of them in poorer communities. Now we had all these youth working in big corporations that they normally wouldn’t get unless they knew someone. And it was so beneficial. I’ve had people stop me and tell me they got their careers started through jobsOntario youth. So if there’s something I’m proud of my involvement in, that is it because it did what it was supposed to do; expose kids of all backgrounds to jobs they otherwise would not have been able to access.

I’m also very pleased about some of the things I’ve done within the schools, which sometimes meant speaking for and to issues that were unpopular. Doing so prevents you from getting as far as you’re qualified to get but it allows you to feel that you’re not selfishly looking at your own progress and career but speaking for those who don’t have a voice.

Zanana is now happily retired, enjoying her free time with her grandchildren.


Ethnic Parents Hold Unique Perspectives on J-School

Originally published on New Canadian Media.


International students and children of immigrants say pursuing post-secondary studies in journalism can motivate both encouragement and opposition from their parents.

Sharif Hasan’s parents didn’t argue with him about his program choice – although they did express concerns. Hasan immigrated to Canada from Bangladesh in 2013 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa.

According to Hasan, the life of a journalist in Bangladesh is “not ideal.”

“Most young journalists struggle for years to get employed at a good media house,” Hasan explains. “Many of them don’t get a permanent job at all.”

Money in journalism has become an issue internationally due to the increased number of freelancers, the shift to digital platforms and the shrinking of newsroom staff in order to save money.

Media outlets across North America have laid-off hundreds of workers in recent years. For example, Bell Media laid off 380 workers and Sports Illustrated magazine cut its entire photojournalism department in 2015.

Parents like programs that offer clear-cut paths to “solid careers”.

Journalism not always a ‘safe’ option

Parents like programs that offer clear-cut paths to “solid careers” says Maryam Shah, a reporter for theToronto Sun, who came to Canada from Pakistan to study journalism at the University of Toronto.

Shah wanted to be a reporter since she was 11 and says she “pushed back” when her parents insisted she study law or medicine.

“In Pakistan, that’s just what you do,” Shah shares. “Anyone who says they want to write or travel the world, they look at you like there’s something wrong with you.”

Shah adds that parents are becoming more understanding when it comes to their children’s career choices, but they still prefer ‘safe’ options like engineering or teaching.

Fewer opportunities for minority journalists

Journalism hasn’t proven to be a stable career for Hasan; he struggled to overcome the language barrier, as well as to find work in journalism, so he dropped out of the program.

Hasan’s situation is not all that unique for visible minority or ethnic journalists.

While there is a growing number of visible minorities graduating from Canadian journalism schools, they are not necessarily the ones getting the jobs.

While there is a growing number of visible minorities enrolling in, and graduating from, Canadian journalism schools, they are not necessarily the ones getting the jobs.

Research has found that some of the perceived reasons for the under representation of visible minorities in journalism include hiring biases, fear of harassment and networking barriers.

While Hasan says he never personally experienced those challenges, he admits they were things both he and his friends were concerned about.

“In fact, they have discouraged me to go for journalism because of these issues,” he remarks.

Ingrid Grange immigrated to Canada from Jamaica and encouraged her daughter, Ashleen, in her interest to become a journalist. Grange says she hopes that the barriers students face as ethnic minorities “will have the opposite effect” on them.

“I would hope that it would make people of different ethnicities want to be in the media more so they can show that we’re out there and we should be taken seriously,” she says.

Some visible minority journalists worry about their ethnicity being a defining factor of who they are and fear being perceived as a ‘diversity hire’ by their peers according to a MediaSmarts study.

“I think you have to turn that tokenism around and use it in your favour.”

According to Grange, Ahsleen, who is now in her fourth year of journalism studies at the University of Toronto, says she sometimes has difficulty being taken seriously as a journalist, both because she is a woman and because she is black.

“I think you have to turn that tokenism around and use it in your favour,” says Grange. “It’s hard to get in the door, so if that’s your way through the door don’t hold back. You can’t change things from the outside,” she adds.

Pursuing journalism despite risks, barriers

While there may be risks and barriers involved that keep first- and second-generation Canadians – often visible minorities – from careers in this field, discouraging them from pursuing journalism only perpetuates the problem.

According to Shah, journalists benefit from sharing a newsroom with people from diverse backgrounds. She says she has been able to explain and give context to certain topics which allowed her to “tone down the ignorance” amongst her peers.

Having different ethnicities and perspectives means that inevitably not everyone will agree all the time. Shah notes that sometimes she and her peers “fight” over story ideas, and that she considers this a positive.

“If we all had the same thought processes or the same experiences we wouldn’t put out a very interesting paper,” she says.


Meet Nikki Clarke: New president of the OBHS

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After 22 years the Ontario Black History Month Society has a new president. Nikki Clarke, former teacher, scholar and host of the Nikki Clarke Show, was elected in November last year replacing long-time president Rosemary Sadlier. Clarke has worn many hats in her lifetime, having worked as a host, publicist, teacher and a designer while also picking up academic honours from McGill University, Sheridan College and John Abbott College. She has also received numerous awards for her work including the BBPA Woman of Honour award and the African Canadian Women’s Achievement Award for her work in the community and excellence in teaching.

ByBlacks caught up with Clarke ahead of the OBHS’s annual kick-off brunch to talk about her as well as her new role.


I was browsing your Twitter page yesterday and came across a “2016 is your year” post, from a health and wellness standpoint what are some tips for making 2016 “your year?”

I think to establish 2016 as a powerful year it’s about stepping into your own and about authentic. It means accepting what you can’t change and making the changes you need to. I just turned 48 in December and I’m looking at the things that I’ve achieved and you start to make evaluations about how things are going, especially in January. In terms of making 2016 your year it helps to have regular check ups whether it’s physical, spiritual or with relationships. Having a proper channel of communication with the people you consider a part of your circle. Go to your doctor not to fix things but to prevent them from happening because that’s what doctors are there for.

It also helps to be grounded in the spirituality. We live in a fast-paced world full of distractions and instant gratification, we have to know when to tune out and listen to your inner voice. That, to me, is how you can make 2016 a good year.

You mentioned being authentic, what does that mean for you, who is the authentic Nikki Clarke?

Being authentic means tapping the true essence of who you are and recognizing your purpose and also to understand there is strength in vulnerability. My past has brought me to this place it’s part of my journey but my past doesn’t define my future. In the vein of authenticity it’s being able to understand the present, past and future and to be in agreeance with all of it. Being able to offer a part of who you are, to be transparent and not ashamed but empowered by your transparency.  That’s what authenticity is for me.

To me that response speaks to the objective and the message of your show.

That is the intention of the show, it started off to showcase local talent and give them a platform but as I grew as a producer, host and internally I think I became more self-aware that the things that I thought were important weren’t really that important and my priorities shifted. I started to invite guests from all walk’s of life to come in and share their “heart” stories, so we talk about their accomplishments but we also talk about some of the challenges and pitfalls they’ve had to overcome. So that’s the premise of the show; if you have a real story and you want a cathartic-release, we have a captive and receptive audience that is waiting to learn from you. Because I want to engage the community I want to have this format where you talk in front of the audience and share.

What are some things that motivate and inspire you?

What motivates me is my family. I have three children, two girls and boy, who are young adults right now and they’ve always motivated me to become a better person and to be an example of how I’d like them to be; productive citizens of the Earth, like how my parents modelled me. I also look to the communities young men and women, particularly in the black community, and I see so many needs–emotional, physical financial–with the opportunities I have it’s very important to give back.  Those are my motivational factors. When it comes to inspiration, I’m just inspired by getting up and being healthy. I pass it to my higher power, God is first in life for me and that is my inspiration.

After you were elected as the new president of the Ontario Black History Society I read that  you wanted develop programs that would be more engaging and empowering for youth, could you give me an example of what you had in mind?

I believe are the future and tomorrow so it’s important we develop and nurture them. And the way to retain the youth and keep their interest is to find out what their interests are, that’s what I mean by engaging; get to them from their perspective in a way that’s educational and inspirational. I’m formally a teacher and I know the best way for teacher’s to keep their students attentions is to find out what their interests are and facilitate that. Social media is a great way to reach people in a non-physical way. We’re thinking of an app that has information on black history and a Q&A, perhaps even games that would be a fun engaging learning experience.

Then there are the youth that want things that are hands on or have artistic abilities and want to do that to express themselves and keep the gaps closed between generations. The best way to do that to find out what these interests are is to talk so what I would to do is have a board member who is a youth, someone who’s in the 17-25 age range, to bring to us fresh ideas and a fresh perspective. I’m hoping we can learn from each other. It’s also important to me that we engage the French-speaking and Spanish black people in the community because I can speak these three languages and I’d like to see cooperation between these communities. I’ve seen it happen other places in Canada and it’s beautiful.

Switching focus a little, Black History Month starts next week, how do you think it should be celebrated?

Well I’m very excited because we’ll be celebrating the 20th BHM in Canada so it’s exciting time, there have been some great strides, though we still have much to do. I don’t think it should be a 28-day experience, at the OBHS we try to get out once a month and do something in the community, there’s a lot to celebrate and many unsung heroes. What we want to do is bring these people to light and to hep them because team work makes the dream work, we can help each other. I’m also very excited because last December I got a call from Mayor John Tory about the possibility of having a Black museum in Toronto. We sat down with community activist Gwyn Chapman and the Honourable Jean Augustine and we just sat and talked about ideas of what a Black museum would look like, who would it service and what would it have in it? And we’re hoping in the next year or two to really make this happen so my children and their children will have a place to go to that chronicles our history.

In addition to an initiative like the museum how else can BHM be made so it’s more engaging and more accessible to the whole community?

Well African-Canadian/American culture is part of International culture because there is not one place you can go and not see African culture touching them; whether it be through music, fashion, art, food and I think if we can continue in the initiative of sharing the pride that will make a difference in terms of people’s perceptions and in terms of our role in society’s culture.

For you personally, what have you learned or taken away from learning about black history and black culture?

Well to give you a little background on me, I’m Jamaican-born, I came to Canada with my family in 1970 and we lived in Montreal, which was the point-of-entry for immigrants from the Caribbean. With that early childhood experience of moving to a new country, with a new culture, new language–I had to learn French, Patios and English all at the same time. I learned how to get along very early. I also learned that yes I was different but I was very open to diversity. As an adult I understand how important it is to embrace who I am, walk in it and own it and also be open to other people’s culture. African culture is full of beauty and talent,  we have to be more proactive and invested in learning about it and sharing that, we have to embrace it, we have to work toward the greater good.

Lastly, what are some of the things you are looking forward to as OBHS president?

My three main points for the OBHS are the more engaging programs for youth, the second is the inclusion of the other languages and the third point would be to create more mentorship programs for young black women. I’m also very interested in continuing the conversation about the Black museum in Toronto. I’m really looking forward to doing more work in the community, doing more outreach not only in the black community but in any community interested in what we can offer.


This year marks the 20th celebration of Black History Month in Canada and the OBHS will be holding their annual kick-off brunch Jan. 31 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre. This year’s brunch will be co-hosted by youth engagement specialist/motivational speaker Mawuli Chai and CityNews’ Tammie Sutherland as well as keynote speaker, the Honourable Jean Augustine. The night will also include appearances by Dr. Akua Benjamin and Kevin Junor.

You can order your tickets online at