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Op-ed: Dr. Richard Elcock

Black excellence: celebration of our trailblazers must include opportunities to cultivate future ones

By Dr. Richard Elcock

Examples of Black excellence, within our Canadian borders are abundant, illustrious and longstanding.

However, they also remain largely unknown.

The significant contributions of Black Canadians to all facets of Canadian life are numerous, yet are far too often overlooked in the public sphere and our history books.

Earlier this month, it was announced that starting in September 2025, Grade 7, 8, and 10 history students in Ontario will have mandatory instruction in Black history as part of their history curriculum.

Admittedly, I was surprised to learn that such curriculum changes had not been implemented years ago for all Canadian students.

Indeed, this history highlighting examples of Black excellence is not just Black history, but an essential thread in the tapestry of our collective Canadian story.

Such history serves to accurately depict Canada’s history in its totality and the realities of those who have called this land home.

The term “Black excellence” has become increasingly prevalent for the better part of a decade, if not longer.

Build upon our forebearers

More recently, ongoing discussion of Black excellence has been paired with an emphasis on Black mental health and wellness as well as Black joy; these elements serve as the fertile ground for such excellence to sprout and flourish.

“I vividly recall hearing the names of accomplished Black persons in numerous conversations with my parents and other elders.”

Its definition tends to encompass Black persons who excel in any number of fields, including academia, STEM, the arts and athletics, just to name a few.

I vividly recall hearing the names of accomplished Black persons in numerous conversations with my parents and other elders in the Black community over the years; they would beam with pride while recounting the notable accomplishments of those from Afro-Caribbean origins, such as Marcus Mosiah Garvey, Shirley Chisholm and Malcolm X.

In my pursuit of noting this excellence by our forebearers and contemplating ways to build upon the same moving forward, my most challenging task was indeed where to start.

Attempting to capture a history rife with brilliant academics, revolutionary creatives and visionaries in a few short paragraphs is somewhat of a behemoth of a task, but certainly one worth the undertaking.

Historical and contemporary figures

Reflecting on February’s African History and Liberation Month theme of Black Excellence: A Heritage to Celebrate, A Future to Build, some may immediately call to mind the life and legacy of activist and lawyer, Lincoln Alexander.

He was the first Black Canadian member of Parliament in the House of Commons and, among many other roles, Ontario’s first Black lieutenant-governor.

For others, her commemoration on our $10 bill may find them thinking about Viola Davis, the beauty entrepreneur and activist who took a firm stand against racial segregation in a movie theatre in 1946.

More likely, many more Canadians will readily sing the praises of internationally renowned hip-hop recording artist Aubrey Drake Graham.

They may be far less likely to highlight the exceptionally talented jazz pianist and composer, Oscar Peterson.

Other contemporary luminaries include business mogul Wesley Hall, award-winning stage and film director Weyni Mengesha and the Canadian Queen of R&B herself, Jully Black.

“As we celebrate the accomplishments of these incredible Canadians, I find myself wondering, what comes next?”

Lest we forget our black STEM heroes, we salute the outstanding contributions of our very own Dr. Bolu Ogunyemi.

As the first Black medical student from Newfoundland and Labrador to attend Memorial’s Faculty of Medicine, he has been recognized nationally and beyond as a physician leader, accomplished writer and speaker, and is Memorial’s first dean of social accountability in the Faculty of Medicine.

Also worthy of note are the accomplishments of Dr. Onye Nnorom, who has served as the Black health theme lead for the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Medicine, in addition to her service as the associated program director of the Public Health and Preventative Medicine Residency Program.

She played a pivotal role in the formation of the Black health vaccine initiative, which served to bolster COVID-19 vaccination rates in Black communities.

Where from here?

This list is hardly exhaustive and rightfully exemplifies Canadian Black excellence at its finest.

As we celebrate the accomplishments of these incredible Canadians, I find myself wondering, what comes next?

The future we strive to build around said excellence must be rooted in both education and mentorship.

A keen awareness of the contributions of those who have gone before us and set the bar high encourages future generations to go that much further.

The preservation and further development of equity, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism initiatives within our academic institutions is also essential; education around such issues does not happen passively and equipping future leaders, across sectors, is imperative to effect lasting change and foster opportunities for growth.

The same must be concurrent with our collective call to both identify and dismantle existing systemic inequities.

Highlighting the experiences and accomplishments of all Black persons, namely those of Black women, Afro-Indigenous persons, and Black 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals, is also pivotal in the pursuit of building future excellence.

As we conclude yet another African History and Liberation Month, may our pride and celebration of the excellence of those who have blazed trails — and those who continue to do so — be accompanied by bolstered intentionality around how each of us seek out opportunities to cultivate future examples of the same.

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