Black History Month Spotlight: Maryann Elizabeth Francis


As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, this week, we focus the spotlight on another strong Black Canadian female figure. Mayann Elizabeth Francis was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia and came from parents who hailed from Cuba (her father) and Antigua (her mother). She had strong roots in the church, being brought up and raised surrounded by strong religious influences, especially due to the fact that her father was the archpriest of the African Orthodox Church.

Mayann Elizabeth grew up in a diverse neighbourhood of Nova Scotia, yet, despite the apparent diversity of her community, there were still quite prominent issues of racial discrimination and inequality occurring in various communities surrounding her. Mayann was made aware at quite a young age of the segregation and racial disparities that were occurring in her community, and in communities across the country. She knew that she wanted to be a part of the social justice movements that would work to abolish racial segregation and discrimination on Canada, and was compelled to do her part to affect change in some way. So Maryann pursued higher education at St. Mary’s University, graduating in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Following her undergraduate education, she took a job for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

Shortly after her experience with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, she moved to the United States, where she lived for 16 years. In those 16 years, Maryann was able to earn her Master of Arts degree, in 1984, with a specialization in Public Administration from New York University. She used her Masters degree to build a career with a focus on personnel and labour relations issues, issues that influence the quality of people’s lives, and issues that seek to be rectified through public bodies. This was in strong part due to her upbringing in an unstable racial climate in Nova Scotia, where racial segregation and discrimination were very real realities with which she experienced.

After 16 years in the United States, returned back to Canada and settled in the province of Ontario. There, she worked as an assistant deputy minister with the Ontario Women’s Directorate. Shortly after, she became the Director of the same organization. After her experience with the Ontario Women’s Directorate, she decided to return to her roots and pursue her career with the Nova Scotia human Right Commission. There, she became to Chief Executive Officer.

Mayann’s work to bring about social justice and equality within society was widely recognized both nationally and internationally. She received the Harry Jerome Award from the Black Business and Professional Association, the Multicultural Education Council of Nova Scotia Award, and the Golden Jubilee Medla. Furthermore, she is the first woman ombudsman, black or white, of Nova Scotia. She moved on to become the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia in 2006. She is also the first Black Nova Scotian, man or woman, and the second Black Canadian to hold this position.

Her extensive experience in various senior public service positions is in large part due to her experience with racism and segregation. As a Black woman during a time where segregation was the everyday reality for all people in the United States and in Canada, Mayann Elizabeth knew first-hand what it was like to be discriminated and judged for reasons beyond control. She understood what social injustice and inequality felt like from a victim’s point of view. These horrible experiences inspired Maryann to live a life of public advocacy; live a life and build a career built on the principles of social justice and equality. To this day, she remains a largely influential and historical figure of Canadian history through her work in affecting change with regards to racial discrimination, segregation, and racial inequality.


Rights over Charity

a Crippen Comic wich shows a women using a wheelchair being patted on the head by two non disabled people underneath a sign which reads "Handicapped Charities Inc. Doing it to the disabled." Another wheelchair user off to the side is holding a sign which reads "Rights not Charity" and the nondisabled person patting the wheelchair user on the head has a speech bubble which states "The public don't want anything to do with you ungrateful disabled!"

Charity is not the answer to issues of inequality. Raising awareness usually does nothing more than gloss over issues. It makes us feel good to discuss the issues, like we are involved in the solution, but it does nothing to bring about change. It is a bandaid at best and at worst it perpetuates systemic inequalities.

Someone was recently telling me about a new campaign to ‘raise awareness’ for an Ontario disability charity. When I raised the question, what is the ultimate goal of raising awareness, I got the typical response. The ‘they are a vulnerable population and we must help them with our donations’ type of response. I am sick of those responses. We do not live in a world where people are ‘unaware’ that disabled people exist. How is reaffirming disabled people’s positions as objects of pity and charity helping? Wouldn’t the time put into raising awareness campaigns about specific disabilities and diagnosis be better spent lobbying for a disability rights model approach or campaigning for access to direct funding?

When we position disabled people as objects of charity we are the ones to decide if they are deserving of our support. The charity model supports the dominate narrative in our society: that non disabled people should have the right to choose for disabled people. I would suggest that a more appropriate model would be one of rights over charity. Shouldn’t a person receive personal accommodation supports because it is their right as a human being rather than a perception of being worthy?

The charity model then begs the question: how do we choose who is worthy of support? Those who look cute or pitiable on posters, those who gratefully subsist on handouts? How condescending of us. I used to volunteer on a fundraising committee at a women’s shelter. At one meeting we had an intense discussion about what we could do to raise awareness of the issues facing homeless and marginalized women. A long time volunteer then stated the obvious… homeless women are not an attractive cause. People want to donate to causes that make them feel good. It’s this reason that made the Jerry’s Kids campaign so successful. It was driving force behind years of telethons in which cute poster children starred as the pitiable objects of charity, ones which were worthy of our donations.

Over the years, there has been a lot of work done around the harm that these campaigns cause. I would recommend watching the documentary, The Kids Are Alright and reading Accidents of Nature by Harriet Mcbryde Johnson. So next time you are asked to join a campaign to raise awareness about a disability, think about how much damage the charity model can do.