By Neil Armstrong
|Photo contributed Camille Orridge receives the Foundation Award from Andrew Campbell, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP)|
The Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP) was established as a response to a need surrounding HIV and AIDS in the Black community in Toronto thirty years ago.
Those who founded the organization and some who have supported it over those many years were celebrated at its thirtieth anniversary ‘Joyful Giving’ fundraising event held at the Royal Ontario Museum on November 21.
Eight of ten honourees gathered inside the Teck Suite of Galleries: Earth’s Treasures where they were lionized for their contribution.
Camille Orridge, Erica Mercer and Douglas Stewart were presented with the foundation award, however Stefan Collins who lives in Amsterdam was not there to collect his alongside them.
In a proclamation, Black CAP’s executive director, Gareth Henry, announced that the board, executive management and staff, guided by the African principle of “Umoja,” the Swahili word for “unity” – “the spirit of togetherness” – would rename Black CAP’s community room the “Founders’ Legacy Community Room.”
The proclamation reads, in part, that:
“Whereas, members of the Black CAP community exceptionally value the dedicated and selfless effort of those who founded our organization, and whereas, this community wishes to highlight the great contributions of said founders and other early supporters of this organization’s mission…Black CAP’s community room shall be called the Founders’ Legacy Community Room, in remembrance of the spirit and intent of our founders and their commitment to the power of togetherness in Toronto’s Black community.”
|Photo contributed Erica Mercer receives a Foundation Award from Gareth Henry, Executive Director of Black CAP|
|Photo contributed Douglas Stewart receives the Foundation Award from Andrew Campbell|
The advocacy award recipients were Junior Harrison, Courtnay McFarlane, Brian Parris, Philip Pike, Winston Husbands, and Dionne Falconer, who was unable to attend.
The theme of World AIDS Day 2019 (December 1) is “Communities Make the Difference” which is “an important opportunity to recognize the essential role that communities have played and continue to play in the AIDS response at the international, national and local levels.”
UNAIDS notes that, “Communities contribute to the AIDS response in many different ways. Their leadership and advocacy ensure that the response remains relevant and grounded, keeping people at the centre and leaving no one behind.”
In many ways that is the story of Black CAP’s beginnings and its journey over the past 30 years. Community members made the organization a reality and have dedicated much of their time to its growth and development.
She recalls what led to those calls: “I was vice president of patient services at the Homecare Program for Metropolitan Toronto when I received a call from the Hospital for Sick Children looking for assistance. There was a child there whose parents had died of AIDS and they were looking for family and/or community support for this child. There were other children as well. I did not know of any community program serving the Black community and could not find any.”
At Homecare, they were admitting and treating patients with AIDS in the community. Orridge started calling around to find individuals who had knowledge of AIDS and the Black community.
It was from doing this that she contacted Douglas Stewart who was at the AIDS Committee of Toronto (ACT), Erica Mercer and Brian Parris at Toronto Public Health, and Tony Caines. They met and developed the first board of directors of Black CAP.
In his recollection, Stewart notes that, “Black CAP was started to create a space to value the lives of many Black people at the margins of not only the wider society but also the Black community. In my early related volunteer work and specifically as an AIDS support worker, I came across repeated stories of community alienation and rejection experienced by both people with HIV or AIDS and those close to them (friends or families).”
“I remember office or hospital visits with the newly diagnosed, hospice visits with those in later stages, custody hearings for children left behind, funerals, community meetings to appease angst about the presence of affected individuals and families where the letters HIV/AIDS were barely whispered or threateningly shouted, feeding even more isolation.”
Stewart notes that at Black CAP, they were “shaping and working with the principle of intersectionality in our community building and space making efforts even before we had a word for it.”
Collins was diagnosed with HIV in 1983 and when he moved to Toronto in 1986 became involved in HIV activism.
In 1989, while participating in a workshop at ACT, he met Stewart who was working there as a counselor.
Reminiscing on that moment, Collins says, “He approached me and told me about a group of people who were organizing to create a Black community response to HIV/AIDS. He invited me to join the group. I got involved because I felt that HIV/AIDS needed to be addressed within our diverse communities, especially providing support to those living with HIV/AIDS. My involvement started as an openly gay Black HIV-positive board member.”
Apart from working at Toronto Public Health, Mercer was very active in the community.
“Our Lives,” Canada’s first Black women’s newspaper, in a March-April 1987 issue describes her as “a veteran of the sixties and the Black Education Project” and “a guiding light of the Immigrant Women's Centre (a health centre in Toronto)” who “helped to organise other agencies and initiatives on behalf of Black women and immigrant women.”
“What I want people to know is how hard my mother worked to get sexual health information out to the community and how much she was interested in this work, even before coming to Canada. She worked with the Black Education Project in the 70s because she wanted the community to be informed and to take care of themselves. She also wanted youth to develop as healthy as possible. All this was despite her Catholic upbringing in the Caribbean,” says Eshe, Erica’s daughter, who attended the event with her mother.
|Photo contributed Junior Harrison, recipient of an Advocacy Award, with Gareth Henry|
On February 2, 1990, Harrison received a diagnosis that he was HIV-positive. After spending the first year looking for the right doctor -- which he found -- he connected with ACT and Toronto People With AIDS Foundation (PWA) for support. His search for a cultural lens related to people of Black, Caribbean or African descent coping with this disease led him to Black CAP.
A receptionist at ACT, a young Black woman, told him about Black CAP. He called the number immediately, went to the office, felt at home, and since then has been a part of what he calls “the Black CAP Family.”
Pike was a board member of Black CAP from 1993 to 1997, serving as co-chair and chair in the last two years. He was the interim executive director for six months from August 1999 to February 2000 during the executive director’s sabbatical.
“Alongside its primary mandate of prevention and support, Black CAP has, over the years, also served as an incubator for Black queer leadership in Toronto. So many who hold leadership positions in various fields in the city have passed through Black CAP as a volunteer, staff member or service user,” says Pike.
Pike, a community activist and human rights lawyer-turned independent documentary filmmaker, believes in creating change through storytelling. His latest documentary, “Our Dance of Revolution: The History of Toronto’s Black Queer Community,” premiered at the Hot Docs Film Festival in April.
|Photo contributed Philip Pike receives an Advocacy Award from Andrew Campbell|
McFarlane is a visual artist and poet whose work has been published in several African-Canadian and Queer anthologies including “Fiery Spirits and Voices: Writers of African-Canadian Descent,” “Word-up,” and “Plush.”
He is a long-time activist with organizations such as Zami, Black CAP, AYA Men, and Blackness Yes, the organizing committee for Blockorama at Pride.
McFarlane recently curated Legacies in Motion: Black Queer Toronto Archival Project that unearthed and celebrated the political and cultural activism of Black LGBTQ communities in Toronto in the 1980s and 1990s.
Legacies In Motion was exhibited at BAND Gallery as part of the 2019 Myseum Intersections Festival. In his other life, Courtnay works in the community health sector and is currently interim director, health promotion and community engagement at Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre.
|Photo contributed Courtnay McFarlane receives an Advocacy Award from Gareth Henry|
Husbands had been living in southern Africa in the mid to late 1980s when HIV was on the verge of becoming an issue of concern there.
“By the early 1990s I was living in Toronto and I heard about Black CAP from a friend who had recently started working there. At that time, I was teaching at Ryerson University, and I began spending time in the office, which was then a short distance away at University and Dundas,” he says.
Husbands met various people and did small tasks like photocopying documents and stuffing envelopes at the office. He was subsequently approached about joining the board of directors and took up the challenge.
“This was the beginning of my involvement in HIV research, advocacy and community engagement with Black communities in Toronto and throughout Ontario, which has continued until the present. I’ve been connected to Black CAP since the early 1990s. I was motivated to show solidarity with Black people who were living with HIV or affected by it.
“But Black CAP’s work is also about understanding and responding to the systemic conditions that undermine our wellbeing and make us vulnerable to HIV. This is what motivates me to remain connected to Black CAP after so many years. Black CAP introduced me to a vibrant, supportive and motivated network. Black CAP is the institution we need,” he said.
|Photo contributed Winston Husbands, recipient of an Advocacy Award, with Andrew Campbell|
Falconer first connected with Black CAP as a volunteer on its steering committee as a representative of the Black Women’s Collective. She served on the board of directors in 1990 and joined the staff in 1991 as the support and outreach coordinator.
Falconer was the executive director from 1994 to 1998 and over the past 20 years has maintained a connection with Black CAP – an organization that is dear to her.
It was love that brought Falconer to Black CAP; love for her communities. She wanted to contribute to making life for Black people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS better -- better personally, politically and economically.
“This meant working for a more just society and nurturing an environment at Black CAP that was inclusive and welcoming -- an environment to call home. As a Black, bisexual feminist, Dionne found and cultivated a home at Black CAP because all Black people’s lives are important,” notes a profile of her in the printed program.
|Photo contributed Gareth Henry presents an Advocacy Award to Brian Parris|
He had just started at Toronto Public Health and remembered meeting Douglas Stewart, Camille Orridge, Erica Mercer, Stefan Collins and Tony Caines who started talking about the need to galvanize and do something about AIDS when people were taking about it coming from a monkey in Africa.
“ I remember attending a community consultation and a retreat (my wife and kids who were 2 and 3 years old also came) where we were to strategize about how we could have an agency that could meet the emerging needs of our community.
“I remember Rhonda Hackett was there too. The ‘Coalition’ in the organization’s name came from the fact that it was a group of community folks, including community activists and other stakeholders who were passionate and wanted to make a difference and who stepped up and did great pioneering work when other folks wouldn’t because of stigma back then,” says Parris.
Andrew Campbell, chair of Black CAP’s board of directors, described them as visionary founders and early trailblazers.
He said the occasion was “a celebration of resistance, resilience, revitalization, remedy and rejoicing – 30 years of community. Thirty years of creating a space of belonging and acceptance. Thirty years of activism and advocacy. Thirty years of doing it for us, by us and with us.”
In the book, “African Canadian Leadership: Continuity, Transition, and Transformation,” edited by Tamari Kitossa, Erica S. Lawson and Philip S.S. Howard, and published by the University of Toronto Press in August this year, the chapter entitled: “Building Capacity and Making History: African Canadian Leadership in Ontario’s HIV/AIDS Sector,” written by Shamara Baidoobonso, highlights the leadership of Black CAP and three other organizations focused on addressing HIV/AIDS in Ontario’s African, Caribbean, and Black communities.
The others are Women’s Health in Women’s Hands (WHIWH), Africans in Partnership Against AIDS (APAA), and the African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario (ACCHO).
“The founders, leaders, and staff of APAA, Black CAP, WHIWH, and ACCHO stood up and led when no one else was leading and when HIV was still highly stigmatized. Rather than avoid the problem and view it as insurmountable, they formed organizations. Through these organizations they mounted a collective response, and their effors changed Ontario’s response to HIV in ACB communities,” writes Baidoobonso.
|Photo contributed Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, Gareth Henry, Andrew Campbell and Mayor John Tory|
Mayor John Tory, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam and Jill Andrew, MPP for Toronto-St. Paul’s congratulated Black CAP on its thirtieth anniversary. The mayor and councillor presented the organization with a certificate of commendation.
It was a night in which Trevor Gray shared anecdotes of the awardees and Stewart and Orridge expressed their feelings about being honoured.
The award recipients were feted by cabaret singer Veronica Tynes, saxophonist Maurice John, aka Mo Saxx, Manny Manolo and DJ Fresh Kidd.
The silent auction included the works of local artists, Sandra Brewster, Gloria Swain, Rose-Ann M. Bailey, Andil Gosine and Frantz Brent-Harris.
Guided by the motto “Because All Black Lives Are Important,” since 1989 Black CAP has worked to reduce HIV/AIDS in Toronto’s Black, African and Caribbean communities and to enhance the quality of life of Black people living with or affected by HIV/AIDS.
|Photo contributed An applause for the 30th anniversary of Black CAP|
My Reflection: The Symbolism of the Moment
Thirty years ago – November 1989 -- Black Torontonians were outside the ROM protesting against its exhibition “Into the Heart of Africa” which was considered racist in its depiction of Africans vis-à-vis white missionaries and the military in the colonial era.
Academic and community activist, Wesley Crichlow, in “African Canadian Leadership: Continuity, Transition, and Transformation,” notes that the exhibition consisted of about 375 artefacts from Central and West Africa that had been stored by the ROM for over one hundred years. It opened in November 1989 and closed in August 1990.
Crichlow references authors Frances Henry’s and Carol Tator’s publication in 2000, “Racist discourse in Canada’s English print media,” noting that, “Ostensibly, the theme of the exhibit was the impact of colonialism on Africa, particularly at the height of the colonial period.”
Some members of the Coalition for the Truth About Africa (CAFTA) who were protesting were arrested and jailed.
In 2014, working with two Black independent curators Julie Crooks and Dominique Fontaine and its own Silvia Forni, curator of African Arts and Cultures, the ROM opened “Of Africa,” a multiplatform and multiyear project aimed at rethinking historical and contemporary representations of Africa.
In 2016 – 27 years after the “Into the Heart of Africa” – the ROM officially apologized to members of CAFTA and its apology was accepted.
“The exhibition displayed images and words that showed the fundamentally racist ideas and attitudes of early collectors and, in doing so, unintentionally reproduced the colonial, racist and Eurocentric premises through which these collections had been acquired. Thus, Into the Heart of Africa perpetuated an atmosphere of racism and the effect of the exhibition itself was racist. The ROM expresses its deep regret for having contributed to anti-African racism. The ROM also officially apologizes for the suffering endured by members of the African-Canadian community as a result of Into the Heart of Africa," said Dr. Mark Engstrom, the museum's deputy director, collections and research, who read the statement and was the person guiding the reconciliation process for the ROM from 2014 to 2016.
The CFTA came into being in the fall of 1989 after a number of individuals had seen the exhibition and concluded that it was racist, deciding to do something about it.
Initially an ad hoc group, it later consolidated as a broad-based coalition consisting of nearly one hundred groups from across Canada.
Many CFTA members had been vilified and some are still hurt by this experience.
Rostant Ras Rico John, who accepted the apology on behalf of the CFTA and the African community in Canada, expressed pride in having reached this point of reconciliation after twenty-seven years.
“It took a long time to get to that point but the ROM understood its responsibility and moved forward and invited us in 2014 to get together with them to work out some form of getting together to bring respect and dignity back to the African community in Canada here,” he said.
He said the ROM’s team worked diligently and honestly with CAFTA and though there were “little problems, little bumps’ to overcome, they did so.
“We worked out many very good plans and those plans will benefit the African community here in Canada. When a wrong has been done it has to be righted and the efforts that were put down have made it right,” he said, acknowledging the collective work of his CAFTA colleagues: Yaw Akyeaw, Ajamu Nangwaya, Afua Cooper and Geraldine Moriba.
Fast forward to November 2019 -- 30 years after protests by the Black community outside the ROM -- and members of Toronto’s diverse Black communities filled a gallery inside the museum celebrating our Africanness and our resilience.
Also of significance that night was the fact that the awards presented to the recipients were created by Adisa Oji’s company, Mother Africa’s Children’s Photographic Reproductions International (MACPRI).
He was among those protesting outside the ROM and as Dr. Afua Cooper, who was also there marching puts it at the official apology ceremony, many suffered.
“Many of us suffered as a result of our taking the ROM to task during those years. People lost their jobs, people had to flee the city of Toronto, people were harassed by the police, people had difficulty crossing the borders, people were jailed, and even one person, Adisa Oji, was incarcerated in a prison in Windsor, Ontario and was not able to practice his craft as a teacher. And so we remember Oji tonight as we stand here.”
Cooper said through art, through culture “we can claim ourselves, we can claim our spirit, we can envision a life of beauty, a life of passion, a life of compassion” and the museum is a crucial place in society.
She said the museum has a significant role to play in society because the museum can do all these things.
“So the museum, art and culture, can create all of those things for us so why should we not as an African community participate in these events, in these exhibits. Why should we not bring our children, bring our grandparents, bring our parents, bring ourselves, bring our families, bring our friends to these spaces and engage the art, engage the back and forthing, engage the dialogue that happens when you honour, when you – the body – reflect on a piece of art. That’s what we want for our community in a big way,” she said.
Black CAP brought itself to the ROM and celebrated in a fabulous way its existence.