For all of us at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), this is also a time to remind ourselves of the challenges that members of the Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) community faces in the province, across the country, and around the world. For our university, it is also a time to re-commit to the principles of our Mission, Vision and Values statement, to promote diversity and meaningful change to be the best place we can be for all USask students, faculty and staff.
These commitments are embedded in our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Policy, which states, “All members of the university community share the responsibility for creating a supportive and inclusive environment.”
Our campus communities feature students, staff and faculty from more than 100 countries, including Black students from Nigeria who account for the third-largest contingent of international students at USask, providing diverse backgrounds and perspectives that make our university a truly global community. Black Canadians form the third-largest minority group in the country, comprising 3.5 per cent of Canada’s population, according to the 2016 Census.
While our country still has much work to do to better support the BIPOC community, let us take the time to also acknowledge our advancements, and most importantly take a moment to highlight the historical stories of remarkable Black individuals like Harriet Tubman. We encourage you to learn about her amazing story of helping people escape slavery in the southern United States and bring them to freedom in Canada, via the Underground Railroad.
Saskatchewan’s Black history includes the remarkable Dr. Alfred Shadd (MD), who became one of the province’s first Black residents in 1896 when he served as a teacher to help pay for medical school, and later became the first Black doctor to practice in the province. He went on to open a pharmacy and become one of the province’s first coroners, served as a newspaper editor, assisted in getting a small hospital built in Melfort in 1904, and helped establish a grain elevator company for local farmers in the community.
In that same decade, Joseph Mayes and his wife Mattie Mayes—who was born into slavery on a Georgia plantation—led a dozen African-American families on the long trek north to Saskatchewan all the way from Oklahoma, in order to escape segregation and discrimination. While they also faced challenges in Saskatchewan, they persevered to establish the province’s first Black pioneer settlement and a church in 1910 near Eldon, 200 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
The Mayes’ great-grandchildren were raised in North Battleford and include former National Football League star Rueben Mayes, record-setting international bobsledder Lesa Mayes-Stringer, and USask alumna Dr. Charlotte Williams (DVM), who became the first female Black veterinarian in Saskatchewan and the first Black president of the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association in 2016.
That history and legacy of firsts continues at USask, where Dr. Adeola Olubamiji (PhD)completed her doctorate in biomedical engineering in 2017, becoming the first Black person to do so at the university, while College of Medicine students created USask’s first Black Medical Student Association in 2020.
You can learn about Black History Month at USask, as well as read stories throughout the month at news.usask.ca.
While the pandemic keeps us from gathering together safely in person to celebrate Black History Month, we encourage you to take the time to explore and honour the achievements and legacies of members of the BIPOC community, on and off campus. The more we learn about the past contributions and experiences of Black Canadians, the better we can appreciate what we need to do to move forward together in the future.
As a university community, we have the opportunity and the responsibility to build and shape a more just, inclusive and diverse society. During this Black History Month, let us all commit to taking the necessary next steps together.
President and Vice-chancellor
University of Saskatchewan