6 Black Prairie trailblazers who broke barriers
These Black Prairie 'firsts' sit among the leaders that have shattered glass ceilings
This story is part of the Black on the Prairies project, a collection of articles, personal essays, images and more, exploring the past, present and future of Black life in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Enter the Black On The Prairies project here.
They're Black. They're trailblazers. They're Prairie firsts.
These Black Prairie "firsts" sit among the leaders that have shattered glass ceilings in their respective professions. These stellar Canadians — and one long-standing church — have not only put down roots across the Prairie landscape, they have made deep imprints in Prairie history.
Though they are representative of — and recognized by — their individual provinces, some also had national impact.
Meet Carol LaFayette-Boyd, Devon Clunis, Christine Lwanga, Pamela Parker, Rosalind Smith and Pilgrim Baptist Church.
Alberta - Rosalind Smith - Edmonton's first Black female principal
Rosalind Smith blazed the trail for generations of education professionals when she became the first Black female principal in Edmonton public schools in 1996.
Smith says her sisters could see her headed toward education since she was five years old, playing school all the time and loving to read and write.
"My own school experience as a young person was not always positive. I had teachers who were blatantly racist. And [it] was very evident to my peers and my friends," she said. "I thought that maybe if I became a teacher I could do some things differently."
Trained as an elementary school teacher, Smith joined Edmonton Public Schools and taught for about 18 years in junior high schools and adult education.
I had teachers who were blatantly racist... And I thought that maybe if I became a teacher I could do some things differently.- Rosalind Smith
Smith became a principal in 1996 and worked at many schools until 2007. She then transitioned to doing supervisory consulting work with district principals and training staff to incorporate equity and diversity in education. She retired in 2015 after a career that lasted almost 40 years.
Smith said that her vision and leadership helped her to see that the existing school cultures needed to change to prepare for the burgeoning and diverse community on the horizon. Smith is proud to have left behind other excellent leaders with the same values of education, support and respect for all students.
Her influence didn't end there. She was also a trusted advisor and sage voice for the community. She said they endearingly referred to her as the "headmistress."
"It is our moral responsibility to try to meet the needs of students no matter where they come from," Smith said.
Alberta - Pamela Parker - One of Canada's first Black international models
The infamous 1976 GWG Jeans ad. That's what solidified Pamela Parker's place in modelling.
Parker has been gracing cameras since she started with CoverGirl Modelling Agency in 1973. Very few models can say that their legacy in the fickle, fast-paced world of high-fashion has spanned 48 years.
Maybe it was destiny.
Her most memorable gig was that one in 1976, when she was 16 years old. She modelled jeans for Edmonton-based company GWG [Great Western Garments] Jeans. The ad, which featured Parker topless in the jeans, was censored in Canada for nudity. Canadian officials made GWG paint a shirt onto Parker's upper body with paint. This infamous image appeared on the back of every pair of GWG Jeans across the country.
When your dream is to do something — anything — then it will make you a happier person for your life.- Pamela Parker
Parker took a break from modelling in 1987. She moved back to Edmonton, which she calls her "favourite place to live," and became a professional make-up artist. She started Pamela Parker Cosmetics, but also continued her lifelong career acting in movies and television.
In October 2018, the Royal Alberta Museum in Edmonton created an exhibit about GWG. The museum blew up the iconic photo of Parker to 20 feet tall and suspended it from the ceiling.
At 50 years old, Parker stepped back into modelling and is still with Mode Models at 60. Her advice for Black people with aspirations to enter the modelling or entertainment worlds is to follow their hearts.
"When your dream is to do something — anything — then it will make you a happier person for your life. And you will age well," Parker said. "You'll be healthier, you'll be happier, you'll enjoy your life better. So do what your heart desires, as long as it helps people."
Saskatchewan - Carol LaFayette-Boyd - Canada's first champion Masters athlete of African descent
At 75 years old, when many seniors focus on winding down in the autumn of life, Saskatchewan's Carol LaFayette-Boyd was the first Canadian of African descent to win "Best Female Overall Athlete" in World Masters Athletics, which hosts competitions for people 35 and older.
LaFayette-Boyd played basketball and did track and field in high school. She remained active as an adult by running and going to the gym.
She didn't start competing in the Canadian Masters Games until 1992, when she was 50 years old, after she found out the competition would be held in Regina. She immediately joined a track club to train. Her goal was to stay in shape and have fun. She ended up winning the Canadian 100- and 200-metre sprints.
I would want people to know that you can do anything at any age and you don't have to stop.- Carol LaFayette-Boyd
LaFayette-Boyd's proudest moment came in Italy in 2007. At 65 years old, she broke the world record in the 100-and 200-metre sprints for her age group and beat the then-world champion.
She said she hopes her legacy will inspire people to believe in themselves.
"I would want people to know that you can do anything at any age and you don't have to stop."
LaFayette-Boyd is a retired psychiatric nurse and social worker that grew up on a farm in the Prairies and loves living in Regina. She is the executive director at the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum (SACHM).
LaFayette-Boyd's athletic prowess got her inducted into both the Canadian Masters Athletics Hall of Fame (2012) and the Regina Sports Hall of Fame (2014).
"I will be competing until I'm at least 104. I'm going to keep it up," she said.
Saskatchewan - Christine Lwanga - Province's first human rights commissioner of African descent
In 1994, Christine Lwanga became the first person of African descent to be appointed as a Saskatchewan Human Rights Commissioner. Lwanga served two terms and oversaw the implementation of Canadian Human Rights legislation over 10 years.
Lwanga knew from a very young age that she had a natural inclination toward the human rights field. She earned a PhD in social work from the University of Manitoba and went on to a career rooted in advocacy work. The community recognized her work as an advocate when she was anonymously recommended for the Human Rights Commissioner role that shaped her legacy.
Though the job was challenging, she said she found it very rewarding.
My hope is that the future generations can take those concepts and can continue to fight the battle.- Christine Lwanga
Lwanga's crucial work in Saskatchewan as a researcher helped advance contemporary perspectives on race by reinforcing scientific research that proves there is only one human race. Her work helped lead to the idea of 'perceived race' being listed as a prohibited ground for discrimination.
"My hope is that the future generation can take those concepts and can continue to fight the battle until we reach a stage where people understand that we're as human as humanity can be," she said.
Today Lwanga co-ordinates various conferences focused on human rights. She has had notable involvement in several organizations devoted to helping people of African descent. As a registered social worker and community organization development consultant, she has co-founded Daughters of Africa International (DOA), the Saskatchewan African Canadian Heritage Museum (SACHM) and the African Canadian Resource Network (ACRN).
"Our differences are — it's not even [a] difference — it's diversity in skin tone ... and that diversity is actually a resource," Lwanga said. "It's a beauty. It's not something that's bad or evil."
Manitoba - Devon Clunis - First Black chief of police
Devon Clunis crystallized his place in history in 2012 when he became the first Black chief of police in Canada.
Clunis immigrated from Jamaica with his family in 1975. His career in law enforcement began with the Winnipeg Police Service in 1987. Clunis occupied several roles including patrol, community relations, chaplain and superintendent.
"It's never about the promotions or the rank. It's about the difference that we've made in people's lives," said Clunis.
He served as chief from 2012 to 2016 with what he calls a "compassionate and community building" leadership style. After his retirement, he transitioned to a consulting role with the Winnipeg police.
It's never about the promotions or the rank. It's about the difference that we've made in people's lives.- Devon Clunis
Clunis continued to make waves by packing Winnipeg's McNally Robinson Bookseller with more than 300 people in January 2017 for the launch of his first children's book, The Little Boy From Jamaica. Co-authored by his wife Pearlene, the book sold out before the launch.
Clunis achieved another first in 2020 when he was appointed as Ontario's first inspector general of policing in Canada. The province implemented the new role to oversee policing services and improve issues around transparency, accountability and public trust. Solicitor General Sylvia Jones heaped accolades onto Clunis during the Oct. 2 release about the appointment, describing his reputation as, "an exceptional and transformational police leader."
When reflecting on his proudest achievements, Clunis said that it wasn't about specific accomplishments.
"Individuals who people would consider to be 'the least' were feeling the impact by setting a vision of who we could be as a police service and how we can interact with people', said Clunis. "So those are some of the proudest moments."
Manitoba - Pilgrim Baptist Church - One of the first Black Churches
Pilgrim Baptist Church, one of the first Black churches established in Winnipeg, will celebrate its 97th anniversary in October 2021. Erected on Maple Street in 1924, Pilgrim has been a pillar in the community ever since.
The church's solid brick structure has stood the test of time. Its doors were open and welcoming to Black people as a place where they could find spiritual refreshment, social connection and community.
I feel the church has the responsibility to reach out and service all people regardless of race or colour.- Anna Tynes
Anna Tynes immigrated to Winnipeg at seven years old and has been a member of the church for more than 50 years. Tynes was married in Pilgrim Baptist Church. She and her family have been active and faithful members ever since.
"I was married in the church in 1953 and all of our children — we have five children, three boys and two girls — they were all baptized and raised in Pilgrim Baptist Church," said Tynes. "Today, two of my sons are deacons of the church and a son's a choir director of the church."
Pilgrim is a staple in the community. The fully-robed choir often makes joyful noise at various church concerts and conventions.
Congregation members are also encouraged to be involved in special events like the annual Black History Month Celebrations and the recent historical Black Lives Matter Movement rally at the Manitoba Legislature in June 2020.
"I feel the church has the responsibility to reach out and service all people regardless of race or colour," said Tynes. "I believe that our success has been from the continued support that we provided over the years in helping other churches establish their churches and their programs."
The Black on the Prairies project is supported by Being Black in Canada. For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians, check out Being Black in Canada here.