Manitoba·Opinion

Uncensored with Alexa Joy celebrates legacy of Inez Stevenson

Inez Stevenson was Manitoba's first Black school board trustee, from 1974 to 1981, but the mother of four, advocate, educator and all-around trailblazer came from humble beginnings. 

Opinion: How a Winnipeg trailblazer inspired a generation and reshaped Manitoba's education system

Uncensored host Alexa Joy, right, stands with Darryl and Bruce Stevenson, who hold a poster celebrating their mother, Inez Stevenson. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

This column is an opinion by Alexa Joy, a researcher, journalist and graduate student at the New School for Social Research. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

"Growing up, I don't think I realized the magnitude of where my mother was going with her career," Bruce Stevenson says, sharing early memories of his mother, Inez Stevenson, the first Black school trustee in Manitoba. 

"She got involved in a lot of things in the community, but I think the most important decision she made was to run for trustee."

Stevenson was a Winnipeg School Board trustee from 1974 to 1981. But the mother of four, advocate, educator and all-around trailblazer came from humble beginnings. 

Inez Stevenson was 'one of the most incredible, hard-working people in the world, who cared genuinely for kids,' her son Darryl Stevenson says. (Submitted by Darryl Stevenson)

Born in 1929 in Montreal, with roots from Barbados and St. Vincent, Stevenson left school at Grade 8, making the sacrifice to help support her family. 

Stevenson's dedication to her community went unmatched by her peers and was noticed by those closest to her, family said.

"My mom was one of the most incredible, hard-working people in the world, who cared genuinely for kids. She was instrumental in the Winnipeg School Division in developing breakfast programs because she knew there were a number of kids that came to school hungry," son Darryl Stevenson said. 

She was determined to make sure that the interests of kids were the best at heart- Darryl Stevenson

At the time, resources were scarce for the advancement and support of Black students and educators.  Depending on which community you called home, I'm certain that most Black people who grew up in Manitoba were one of few Black students in the classroom, and if you had a Black teacher growing up, it was just as rare. 

In my opinion and personal experience, this type of cultural isolation, met with ongoing tensions of navigating the school system while Black, was challenging.

Stevenson believed that Black (and all) students should feel welcome and safe while learning, free of prejudice and bullying, and able to achieve their full potential in their academic careers. 

And though some Manitobans would like to believe that the province didn't have a 'race problem' during Stevenson's time in public office, they can rest assured knowing that being a Black student, educator or administrator was no walk in the park. 

"My mother was a very confident, persistent person, and I don't think that, even though she was a woman of colour, that it impacted on the decisions that she was making. She was determined to make sure that the interests of kids were the best at heart," Darryl Stevenson said.

Stevenson also served as an inspiration to her family. Darryl Stevenson recently retired as the principal at École Stanley Knowles (Winnipeg School Division), after 10 years. 

"Seeing my mother working with kids inspired me.… When I graduated, the most logical thing was to go to university, because we were given the opportunity," he said. "Then I took advantage of that opportunity."

Multicultural contributions

Darryl and his brother Bruce shared with me beautiful memories of their mother. Photographs, provincial awards and books conveyed the depths of her efforts, pushing her agenda of multiculturalism and education for all.

In The Black Experience in Manitoba: A Collection of Memories, a 1993 book that Darryl Stevenson co-authored, he quotes former school trustee John A. Jack:

"Inez was committed to multiculturalism. She fought for equal opportunity and justice for all races, colour, or creed, and especially for Black people. She was one of the major contributors to the NDP's [provincial] multiculturalism policy." 

Though Stevenson's time as a trustee preceded the implementation of the Manitoba Multiculturalism Act, the essence of her work and advocacy resonated throughout the legislation's articles.

Brought into effect in 1992, the Manitoba Multiculturalism Act held key legislative objectives to: (a) recognize and promote understanding that the cultural diversity of Manitoba is a strength of and a source of pride to Manitobans; and (b) recognize and promote the rights of all Manitobans, regardless of culture, religion or racial background. 

Symbolic tone

Stevenson also instilled a foundational, symbolic tone for future Black education leaders. As was her own son's long career as École Stanley Knowles principal, in recent years, more Black leaders are at the forefront of change. 

For example, Greg McFarlane is chairperson of Seven Oaks School Division school board, and Michelle Jean-Paul is the first principal of École Templeton. Recent advocacy efforts have been made by groups like Black Educators of Winnipeg.

All have worked toward anti-racism education and challenged much of what Inez Stevenson worked tirelessly to overcome. 

In 1981, community members and loved ones mourned the death of Stevenson, remembering her as a fearless leader and loving mother. 

Stevenson's legacy as the first Black school trustee in Manitoba (and one of the first Black women to hold office in the entire country) should encourage dialogue on Black history in Manitoba, and maintain ways to further implement anti-racism policies.

But two questions remain: Why don't we know about her story? And how can we make sure pioneers like Inez Stevenson are forever known and celebrated in our education systems? 

Whether or not this is your first time hearing about the life and work of Inez Stevenson, be sure to share her story.

Uncensored with Alexa Joy

9 months ago
Duration 4:42
Alexa Joy celebrates the legacy of Inez Stevenson, the first Black school trustee in Manitoba.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

(CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexa Joy is a researcher, journalist and graduate student at The New School for Social Research.

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