The vibrant cultures and traditions of Africans will be the focus of this year’s African Day on the Hill gala on Feb. 10 at the Collège La Cité in east-end Ottawa.
While the event is not literally celebrated on Parliament Hill, the use of the word highlights the focus on the Black community in the national capital.
This year’s keynote speaker is Sen. Bernadette Clement, who was Canada’s first Black female mayor in Cornwall, Ont. She was appointed to the Senate in 2021.
The ticket sales will be put into a fund to help marginalized Africans in Ottawa — especially newcomers — find affordable and adequate housing.
The colourful evening will be rich in performances, authentic African cuisine, powerful speeches and a fashion show.
When Catherine Kizito first discovered the Ugandan Association of Ottawa, she says she was overcome with feelings of comfort and familiarity. Having found a home away from home, the government employee got involved as a volunteer. By 2015, the UAO would become affiliated with the ACAO, an umbrella organization for 53 African ethnocultural associations in the capital.
Kizito has been giving her time to both organizations for a decade. Now retired, she continues to uphold her commitment to unite the community. This dedication has earned her a spot as the head of volunteering on the ACAO’s board of directors.
“For me, it has always been about the capacity to bring everybody together – to be noticed and have a voice as well,” she said. “So, that’s why I spend most of my time, you know, donating my time to ACAO.”
In anticipation of the estimated 500 attendees to this year’s gala, Kizito said she and a team of volunteers have been working their fingers to the bone. From locating vendors and forming committees to acquiring enough sponsors and funding, organizing an event like African Day on the Hill takes a village.
For Hector Addison, an ACAO co-founder and the organization’s executive director, “it’s a whole lot of teamwork” that makes the event possible.
“It is a day to put Africa on the map and showcase the culture, the talent, the people and also the contribution of people of African descent to the Canadian fabric,” he said. “This year promises to be the biggest. We have added a charity component to it, to raise funds and also make people aware of what is going on in terms of housing.”
In 2022, when the ACAO became aware of the housing gap in their community, representatives of the association started visiting government-subsidized transitional homes and motels. Immediately, they noted that these supposedly temporary accommodations for newcomers to Canada were overwhelmingly populated by Africans — in the range of 90 per cent of all individuals.
Kizito recalls that the living conditions she witnessed could only be described as a “very sad environment.”
This was an eyeopener on what goes on and “how the racialized community is really treated” when they’re sent to these accommodations while trying to settle into life in Canada.
“We wanted to remove a lot of people from motels where they don’t even have access to a kitchen and move them into a place they can call home,” Addison stated. “Some of them have been living in motels for six, seven years. We think it’s simply unacceptable.”
This consciousness led to the early stages of an ACAO housing project, which came to fruition when the association purchased its first home. The ACAO adopted their own version of the transitional home model for newcomers in Canada, offering subsidized, three-bedroom plus basement townhouse units for $1,500 a month, including utilities.
The initiative has already placed several families and aims to continue doing so with additional funding.
The ACAO has been “aggressive” in its search for funding to hire more staff, purchase more homes and support ACAO Radio, a new community-building media project.
“There are so many things we wanted to do in 2023 but couldn’t accomplish, and that’s because we couldn’t raise enough money,” said Addison.
The organization has turned to what he calls “creative” ways to generate funds through offering advertising slots to local businesses. Volunteers also play a big part in ACAO initiatives, with students making up a large percentage of those giving their time to good causes.
“With the youth, we really want to show them that community engagement is really important as you go along,” Kizito explained. “School (may) not give you a ticket to where you want to go, but volunteering and community engagement gives you the capacity to network, to interact and to integrate.”
Despite limited backing, Addison says the ACAO is “not putting our heads in the sand; we are still moving forward with speed.”
African Day on the Hill is the association’s first event of the year and Addison encourages the community to attend the gala to experience the cultures of all 53 local African associations.
“Africa has a lot of culture and a lot of beauty,” he said. “That’s why we put it in the public domain and invite all the general public to come and see.”