THE University of the West Indies (UWI) Toronto Benefit Gala has been an amazing journey that began two years ago when Elizabeth Buchanan Hind, executive director of International Advancement for the UWI, asked Ray Chang to be the patron.
The Hon G Raymond Chang, OJ, director of CI Financial and chancellor of Ryerson University (Toronto), is an honorary graduate of UWI — an alumni status he shares with an estimated 1,000 leaders in business, judiciary, medicine, law, engineering, nursing, religion, communications, culture, media and philanthropic sectors throughout Canada, and so he is particularly sensitive to how the University of the West Indies and the wider Caribbean community contribute in Canada and worldwide.
As he says: "In every sector there is most often a UWI graduate or someone of Caribbean descent playing a leadership role."
Honorees in the past have included Harry Belafonte, former Canadian governor general Michaëlle Jean, Former deputy chief of Toronto police Mr Keith L Forde, the Honourable Jean Augustine, The Honourable Justice Dr Irving André, Dr Karl Massiah, Jamaican/Canadian sprinter Donovan Bailey, and Michael Lee-Chin, OJ.
In fact, the Portland Holdings billionaire founder and philanthropist Lee-Chin was so tickled by his award at the 2011 UWI Toronto Benefit Gala that he called the organisers the next day and left a long message on their answering machine: "What a wonderful evening it was... you guys have done your part admirably in lifting the perception that the wider Canadian society will have of Caribbean people, and at the same time helping the needy students in this case in the Caribbean. ...I felt particularly proud because all I could do was superimpose what I saw last night to what Canada was like when I first came to Canada and certainly we would never have envisioned that this was possible..."
And that's the point really, that this event "is lifting the perception that the wider Canadian society will have of Caribbean people", and of course, making the impossible possible.
And so the thrust of the annual UWI gala is to celebrate UWI, the Caribbean community in Canada, and the outstanding students who themselves will one day lead the way in their own communities in the Caribbean, in Canada and around the world.
With the help of a committed group of people the gala has become a much-anticipated event on the Toronto social calendar and has raised funds for university scholarships and awards to rising star Caribbean students as well as, this year, to the Haitian Initiative.
The 2012 benefit next month will honour particularly Malcolm Gladwell, journalist and best-selling author of The Tipping Point, Blink and The Outliers, and Zanana Akande, the first black woman elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario and the first black woman to serve as a Cabinet minister in Canada, as well as other outstanding Canadians.
I'd like to mention two of these other outstanding Canadians because they go about quietly, diligently doing their thing and are unheralded and unknown outside of certain circles: they are Artis Lane and Howard Shearer.
Canadian sculptor and painter Artis Lane was born and raised in a community created by the descendants of slaves who came to Canada on the Underground Railroad (and wouldn't you know she has a Jamaican niece). Lane's work has found itself in the private collections of the verrrry, verrry rich and famous.
I won't name drop, but I will mention that her sculpture Truth, a bronze bust of slave abolitionist Sojourner Truth, was unveiled by Michelle Obama in the US Capitol building. It doesn't get much bigger than that, but it is not celebrity that makes Lane's work significant, it is the significance of Lane's work that acquires celebrity.
Lane is concerned about the dignity of persons of African descent and her work depicts African men and women as finely balanced and stately, unlike the stereotypically downtrodden images so many artists still promote.
Howard Shearer, not just because he is Hugh Shearer's son, but because as the president and CEO of Hitachi Canada Ltd, he has risen through the ranks (since 1984) to become the first non-Japanese to be president of the company. A near impossible feat, in its own right, made all the more marvellous because he is Jamaican.
I read a business interview he did which gave some insight into the secret of his success. It's a simple one, really, he says: "I don't screen my calls. If it's good news I want to hear it. If it's bad news, I want to hear it first."
An almost unheard of business practice in Jamaica: let that be a guide to many Jamaican businesspeople and politicians who have armies of assistants to insulate them from their customers and constituents.
We have much to learn from the outstanding work of people like Lane and Shearer, for they remind us that envisioning the seemingly impossible is the first step in making it attainable. We thank the organisers of the UWI gala for bringing them to our attention.