Kay Livingstone, first president of the Canadian Negro Women Association (CANEWA), was instrumental in organizing the first National Congress of Black Women meeting held on April 6-8, 1973 in Toronto. This was the first time in history that black women (African, West Indian, African-Americans) from across Canada met to discuss issues of relevance to Canadian black women. Delegates were CANEWA (formerly known as the Canadian Negro Women’s Club), was founded in 1951, by a group of black women in Toronto.
At the conclusion of the fifth National Congress of Black Women in Winnipeg (1980), delegates launched the Congress of Black Women of Canada (CBWC). There were 23 chapters of CBWC, including Ontario. The Honourable Jean Augustine founded the Toronto Chapter of the Congress of Black Women in 1973 shortly after the first National Congress meeting. She was later awarded the first Kay Livingstone Award in 1987. CBWC’s mandate was:
- “To provide a network of solidarity for Black Women in Canada, and to be a united voice in the defence and extension of human rights and liberties for Black Women in Canada.
- To foster a climate in which it is acceptable for Black Women to openly examine the issues which affect us and our families.
- To plan and implement a program of education for Black Women.
- To develop relations with other local, national and international organizations whose aims and objectives and purposes are in keeping in those of the Congress.
- To constantly re-examine our objectives and purposes and adjust our efforts accordingly”
( Congress of Black Women of Canada. “Congress of Black Women of Canada” [pamphlet] (n.l.: n.d., p. 2), York University Libraries, Clara Thomas Archives and Special Collections, Jean Augustine fonds (F0515) Accession 2007-022/003 (02) )
The CBWC chose the cactus as a symbol for the organization:
“to show the strengths and resiliency of Black women. It is of a family of plants that thrives under adverse conditions. No matter how arid the soil, no matter that no care or attention is given, the cactus survives, multiplies, flowers and bears fruit. A fitting symbol. With or without assistance, the Black woman manages to educate herself; rears and educates her children; tends to her sick and aged; labours both inside and outside her home. She survives and the race survives.” (as cited in Small and Thornhill, 2008, p. 433-434).
“Let Black Children Talk” and that was the “Congress of Black Women of Canada”. Well, maybe I should do this one first because the Congress of Black Women of Canada was the national organization. And so we had chapters all across the country and we had regional meetings, of course with our vision statement and our mandate and we knew exactly as women where we wanted to go with the organization. And it’s still alive, there is the foundation that raises funds for scholarships and other things and one of the interesting things is that we had a theme or a motto or whatever it’s called and it was we, the vision of black women [is] almost like the cactus; that the cactus is a very hearty plant and the cactus will grow even if nobody is planting or nurturing the soil and that the cactus despite whatever hardships at the end springs this beautiful flower and we considered ourselves almost like the cactus. And this was basically a little bit of a fundraiser we had when we sold this button.
Congress of Black women conference button
This button is from the 1974 Congress of Black Women of Canada conference held in Montreal. The theme was around black youth.
This is from the Montreal chapter. And the Montreal chapter of the Congress of Black Women, so it would be the Toronto chapter of the Congress of Black Women, I think right now the Mississauga chapter is still alive, so there were several chapters across the country. And the was a conference that was held in Montreal focusing on the issue of what today we would call black youth, those days we talk about black children. And I remember Rosemary Brown was a speaker at that conference, so was I a presenter at that conference, and it was “Let Black Children Talk”, and there were several in the series that they held where they would work with the schools, bring young people in, the young people will discuss their situation and then of course as the adult that would be part of the advocacy, we would move on behalf of our children.
So this was a conference in Vancouver in 1987, the CBWC on the move forward together. And again, if you notice these themes for black folks we’re always talking about how we can work together, because there’s quite diversity as you know in the black community. We are from island, we are from different continents. So you have the Africans, the Americans, you know, and for us the challenge was always how do we come together? So you’d see everywhere the issue of unity, the issue of on the move forward together, and that was in Vancouver in 1987 and that was the election at this conference I became the national president of the CBWC, May the 16th and the 17th, 1987.
Cherry, Z. (1973, April 06). After a fashion. The Globe and Mail (1936-Current).
Hill, L. (1996). Women of vision: The story of the Canadian Negro Women's Association, 1951-1976. Toronto, ON: Umbrella Press.
Small, S., & Thornhill, E. M. A. (2008). HARAMBEC! Quebec black women pulling together. Journal of Black Studies, 38(3), 427-442. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0021934707306584