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Toronto trailblazer Zanana Akande given Key to the City

Growing up in Toronto’s Kensington Market, Zanana Akande, 80, learned the importance of banding together to build community.

Those lessons would ultimately inspire her life’s work in fighting for equality and improving the social, economic, cultural and political status of women, for which she was honoured on Saturday by Mayor John Tory with a ceremonial Key to the City.

In a small ceremony at Harbourfront, Zanana Akande received the Key to the City by Toronto Mayor John Tory for dedicating her life's work to addressing equity issues in the community and improving the social, economic, cultural and political status of women in Toronto.
In a small ceremony at Harbourfront, Zanana Akande received the Key to the City by Toronto Mayor John Tory for dedicating her life’s work to addressing equity issues in the community and improving the social, economic, cultural and political status of women in Toronto.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)
Zanana Akande hangs out with her grandkids after receiving her key. The trailblazer made political history in 1990 by becoming the first Black woman elected to the Ontario legislature and the country’s first Black female cabinet minister.
Zanana Akande hangs out with her grandkids after receiving her key. The trailblazer made political history in 1990 by becoming the first Black woman elected to the Ontario legislature and the country’s first Black female cabinet minister.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)
Zanana Akande sits on a bench dedicated to her with Mayor John Tory, who lauded her “unwavering belief in the human spirit”.
Zanana Akande sits on a bench dedicated to her with Mayor John Tory, who lauded her “unwavering belief in the human spirit”.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)
After leaving politics, Zanana Akande — seen here in 1992 — went on to become the founder of Tiger Lily, the first magazine in the province that gave women of colour a voice.
After leaving politics, Zanana Akande — seen here in 1992 — went on to become the founder of Tiger Lily, the first magazine in the province that gave women of colour a voice.  (Andrew Stawicki / Toronto Star file photo)

“We don’t come alone, we don’t live alone — I think the only thing we do alone is leave,” the former politician and community leader told a gathering of friends and family at the Harbourfront Centre. “We all work together.”

Akande recalled that growing up, she watched women juggle busy work and home lives by helping each other with cooking, laundry, sewing and child care. And, she remembered how her parents — they were teachers in Barbados, but denied teaching jobs after immigrating to Canada because they were Black — volunteered to teach English to the newcomers in the area, most of whom were garment workers. In exchange for lessons, they were given material to make things for the family and community.

“It was this way that they put things together, before they had community organizations,” said Akande. “Everyone does something.”

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In his speech, Tory lauded Akande’s “unwavering belief in the human spirit” and “how deeply she cares about other people.”

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“If you look at her life, whether it’s in politics, as an educator or as a community public servant … She has found ways to improve the lives of other people and to lift them up in many different ways.”

For years, Akande served as a teacher and principal, but in 1990 she ran provincially for the NDP and made political history, becoming the first Black woman elected to the Ontario legislature and the country’s first Black female cabinet minister.

She served in Bob Rae’s government as minister of community and social services and led important social welfare reform, overseeing funding for food banks, increasing the shelter allowance and boosting social assistance rates for those in the lowest income level. She also helped pass Ontario’s first mandatory Employment Equity Legislation, which helped break barriers for working women. And while serving as Rae’s parliamentary assistant, she designed the Jobs Ontario Youth program, which ran from 1991 to 1994 and created 5,000 summer jobs.

After leaving politics she served with many organizations, including the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, Canadian Alliance of Black Educators, the Toronto Child Abuse Centre, the YWCA and Harbourfront Centre. And she co-founded Tiger Lily, the first magazine in the province that gave women of colour a voice.

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Akande told the Star that being honoured with a Key to the City is a recognition of the important work done by Black community organizers, and women organizers.

“That’s encouraging because sometimes I think people have the impression that our community speaks only when it wants something — the Black community or the women’s community. And really, we’re involved with all aspects of the community.”

She said the biggest challenge facing women and people of colour is “to continue to have our voices heard … so if we pause for a rest it doesn’t roll backwards.”

“We have to continue, even when it seems like we have made some progress, and we have to stay the course.”

This year Tory is bestowing the Key to the City to seven individuals who have made significant contributions to Toronto.

In addition to Akande, community activist Susan Gapka, and musician and conductor Peter Oundjian have already been honoured.

There will also be ceremonies for philanthropist Fran Sonshine on Monday, community advocate Pat Moore on Saturday and philanthropists Wilmot and Judy Matthews in late July.