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Friday, March 5, 2010

by Henry F. Heald

When the ICF held its international forum in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1999 Ewart Walters joined the event from Ottawa. Walters had been a journalist in his native Jamaica, and served in the Jamaican foreign service, before emigrating to Canada.

Ewart Walters Part of Ottawa's multicultural community is an organization called Dream-Keepers which keeps alive the ‘dream' of Revd Martin Luther King Jr. that all races would live together one day in harmony. Every January, on or near the anniversary of King's birthday, Dream-Keepers celebrates with a public meeting in Ottawa City Hall and the presentation of a plaque honoring someone who has done outstanding work in promoting racial harmony.

In January 2010 the award went to Ewart Walters for his role ‘as a community leader and vocal advocate for justice’.

Walters is the publisher of Spectrum, a monthly newspaper serving the diverse community of ‘visible minorities’ that make up an important sector of the population in Ottawa,

Here is Walter's acceptance address:

Still searching for a just society

by Ewart Walters

MLK Community Award Recipient, 18 January 2010

Let me begin by thanking the Dream-Keepers for this recognition, and by thanking this magnificent gathering for your presence here today. I want to say that I am honoured. This is a big deal.

Long before I came to understand the courage of Nelson Mandela, there was the Revd Dr Martin Luther King Jr. It is painful to think that he was not yet 40 when we were robbed of his illustrious life. He was for millions - including me - a guide, a hero, a mentor.

"Lives of great men all remind us - we can make our lives sublime And departing leave behind us footprints on the sands of time. "

Those words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow have new resonance on a day like this. Revd King was a great man. For me, he exemplified many of the precepts I grew up with - thoughts about freedom, about justice; the belief in that section of the American Constitution which says:

"We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Dr King's light still shines. And I am very honoured to be cited with an award bearing his name.

When the Dream Keepers in 2005 revived the annual King memorial that was started many years ago by Sheila Pitt, Mayor Bob Chiarelli agreed to have it staged at City Hall for the first time. It drew some 350 people. But it was the new civic profile of the memorial rather than the numbers which lifted the spirits of many of us who call Ottawa home. We belonged.

In hosting this event, Ottawa took a giant step in recognising the Black community. It also boosted multiculturalism, that other pillar of Canada's social policy. The City was also signalling the impact of Dr King on Canada. Yet entire generations of Canadians have no idea of the racial obstacles Dr King confronted. A man without wealth, without elected office, he managed to change the world through the strength of his moral convictions and his leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. A Baptist minister, he knew the power of words.

We in Canada, who were witness to his life and invigorated by his work, do well to teach others about his costly personal stand for civil rights and justice. Dr King is revered now, but we easily forget he was the object of derision and hatred when he was alive. He was jailed 36 times. The media treated him with hostility. The Washington Post called him irresponsible. The New York Times chastised him for going beyond civil rights, which they felt was the allotted domain of Black leaders. Time magazine called his anti-war stand "demagogic slander". Of course, none of them would say that now.

Today, Dr King is best known for his "I have a dream" speech, but he was not a dreamer. He was a drum major for freedom and justice. He took a stand and spoke out with the full flow and power of his compelling oratorical skills. As I said, Dr King did not hold elected office. But the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 are tangible monuments to his life - a life that had a great impact on us here in Canada.

Over many years I have been closely involved with the work of many organisations here in Ottawa, none more so than the Spectrum newspaper which my wife and I launched nearly 26 years ago. The object has always been to give visibility to sections of the community that were excluded or ignored. Whether it was parents struggling with a school board, unarmed citizens being wounded or killed by police bullets, racial profiling at the airport or on the roads, or people facing job discrimination, they are all issues that are still underreported or ignored by the mainstream media. They were also all testament to the fact that we have still not accomplished the task of building a just society.

Nearly three decades ago, a great Canadian sat at a table not far from here and signed the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. That great Canadian won the leadership of his party on April 6, 1968 - just two days after Dr King was assassinated. It is evident that Dr King's campaign for justice was not lost on him. For like Dr King, Pierre Elliott Trudeau was a drum major for equality and justice. He too had a dream. His vision was of a Canada that would be the Just Society. The Just Society - a land of fairness and equity, a land where its people, all its people, would feel they belonged, a land where they would have equal access to jobs, housing, redress, and power.

The twin pillars of Trudeau's Just Society were: bilingualism which brought equality of access to Francophones; and Multiculturalism which was to bring equality and belonging to all peoples of Canada. Indeed, it was while proposing equity for French and English Canadians that Trudeau was faced with the fact of Black Canadians and other Visible Minorities, and that Canada had become a nation of many cultures - a multicultural nation. And so four decades ago Canada proclaimed two foundational social policies - Bilingualism and Multiculturalism.

But today, Trudeau’s dream lies half-strangled by a string of successors. Blinded by polls and the quest for votes, they have lost his vision. Multiculturalism has been devalued, some progress notwithstanding. Black Canadians are still paralysed by the manacles of discrimination. Bilingualism flourishes. Multiculturalism is strongly resisted, and the goals of the Employment Equity Act continue to be minimised and diluted in the national narrative by something called Diversity.

And so I challenge all within the sound of my voice to support leaders who are re-engendered with the spirit of Dr King and Mr Trudeau. Multiculturalism must be accorded its rightful equal place in the national discourse. Not the song and dance variety, but the authentic social policy which recognises that all of us - Aboriginal, French and English, Arab and Jew, Black and Visible Minority - all are equal and require equal access and equal treatment.

But it will not happen unless all of us unite and lobby hard. The creation of the Martin Luther King Holiday took nearly 18 years. It was strongly resisted by President Reagan. But people kept HOPE alive and finally broke down Reagan's resistance. Dr King refused to accept that the vaults of JUSTICE were empty or that the wellsprings of LIBERTY had run dry. We cannot, we dare not lose HOPE.

So let the word go forth that we are called to take a stand for justice and equality; that we are called to serve the downtrodden, to give voice to the weak and the voiceless. The cause endures. And the dream will never die.