Black History Month

Zanana L. Akande was the first black woman elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, and the first black woman to serve as a cabinet minister in Canada.

Zanana L. Akande was born in Toronto in the Kennsington Market district. Her parents came from St. Lucia and Barbados, where they had worked as teachers, but because blacks were not allowed to hold teaching positions in Canada at the time they were unable to continue in their field. Zanana went to Harbord Collegiate, and then she attended the University of Toronto. She received a Bachelor of Arts and a Masters of Education. Zanana also went to the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Zanana Akande was married to Isaac who died in 1991, she has three children.

Following in her parents footsteps, Zanana worked as a school teacher and a principal for the TDSB. In the 1960’s at an early teaching position, Zanana was asked by colleagues to eat her lunch in the basement, away from rest of the staff. Although her complaint to the school board on racism was heard and adjustments made, Zanana never had lunch at the school again, preferring to eat off school grounds. Zanana designed programs for students with special needs and was a long-time member of the Federation of Women Teachers Associations of Ontario.

In her Youth, Zanana was a member of the Co-Operative Commonwealth federation and was friends with future NDP leader Stephen Lewis and his siblings. Zanana was a long-time member of the NDP. She was elected for the NDP in the Torotno riding of St.Andrews -St.Patrick in the 1990 provincial election. She won a tight three way race against incumbent Liberal Ron Kanter and Conservative candidate Nancy Jackman.

In that election the NDP won a majority government and Zanana was named Minister of Community and Social Services in Bob Rae’s first cabinet on Oct. 1. 1991. As minister, Zanana presided over an increase in welfare benefits to Ontarians at the lowest income level. Her Government initially planned to phase out the provinces food banks as part of an anti-poverty strategy, but was forced to accept their continued existence. On May 4.1992, the so-called “Yonge Street Riot” occurred in Toronto due to media reports surrounding the Rodney King case, the acquittal of the LAPD officers charged, and the ensuing LA riots. While the damage along Yonge Street was relatively minor, it as a major event in Toronto, in order to manage the fallout from the incident, Rae appointed Akande as his parliamentary assistant. One of her accomplishments was the creation of the jobsOntario youth program which created summer employment for thousands of youth from 1991-94. Zanana was a parliamentary assistant until Aug. 31 1994, when she resigned from the legislature in protest against Rae’s handling of the Carleton Masters controversy. Zanana returned to her former job as a principal.

In 2004, Zanana was awarded the Constance E Hamilton award for her work addressing equity issues in the community. As of 2006, Zanana was the president of Harbourfront Centre and was on the boards of the YMCA and Centennial College. She is also a member of the Urban Alliance on Race Relations. Zanana is or has been a volunteer with many organizations such as the YWCA of Greater Toronto, United Way of Greater Toronto, the Family Service Association, Elizabeth Fry Society, Canadian Alliance of Black Teachers, Federation of Women Teachers Association of Ontario, Toronto Child Abuse Centre, Toronto Arts Against Apparthied Festival, Community Unity Alliance, the Congress of Black Women and Harbourfront Centre. Zanana has also been the recipient of many awards including the African Canadian Achievement Award for Education, the Onyx Award for Exemplary Service to the Community, Black History Makers Award, the Arbor Award from U of T and awards of distinction from the Congress of Black Women and the YWCA. She is also on the Committee on Youth Employment, Doctors Hospital, Nelson Mandella’s Children’s Fund and a board member of Factory Theatre as well as a lecturer at universities. Additionally she was also the co-founder of Tiger Lily, a newspaper for visible minority women and hosted a Toronto Arts Against Apartheid Festival.

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