Toronto Star

May. 27, 01:00 EDT

Women's rift repaired

Augustine goes to re-established portfolio

Katherine Harding
Toronto Star

Jean Augustine, who traces her ancestry back to African slaves brought to the Caribbean, has become Canada's first African Canadian female cabinet minister.

"I'm just so pleased that this has happened today, that I haven't even reflected on the past," Augustine said yesterday after she was sworn in as the junior minister responsible for the status of women and multiculturalism.

The Toronto MP (Etobicoke-Lakeshore), who was born in Grenada, was first elected to Parliament in 1993. She had been serving as the chair of the Commons foreign affairs committee and was once parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

Augustine's appointment immediately helped to repair a rift Chrétien had with members of his party's women's caucus who were upset that he gave the women's portfolio last January to Claudette Bradshaw, who already had other cabinet portfolios as labour minister in charge of the problem of homelessness.

Hedy Fry had been the minister in charge of women's issues, but she was dumped from cabinet during the January shuffle. Fry, who was born in Trinidad, is of Spanish, East Indian, Chinese and Scottish heritage.

The dissatisfaction became public after Chrétien harshly criticized Dr. Carolyn Bennett (St. Paul's) at a Liberal caucus meeting when she pointed out that women lost ground in his latest Cabinet shuffle. Since then, she has given several public speeches and written newspaper articles about the barriers facing women in politics.

Bennett praised Augustine's appointment as a "fantastic choice."

She said that as late as last Wednesday, the party's women caucus pressed Chrétien to re-establish a separate women's and multiculturalism portfolio.

"They were very eloquent and really clear that there was so much work to do. We feel that it's a portfolio that crosses all ministries," she said about the meeting. "He obviously listened hard."

Chrétien told reporters yesterday that he never makes cabinet decisions based on gender, but that his record on appointing women is strong.

Women's groups were also heartened with the re-establishment of the separate portfolio.

"The Prime Minister had responded to the concerns that were expressed," said Rosemary Speirs, a former Toronto Star columnist and member of Equal Voice, which is a high-profile lobby group dedicated to increasing the role of women in politics.

She said that Augustine is well-suited for the job.

"She's has a good record in these questions. She's been a strong supporter of women's groups and an even stronger supporter of multicultural groups. She's known to both communities as someone who stands up for them."

For Augustine, now 64, the rise to a cabinet post marks the pinnacle of a career that started in Canada in 1960 when at the age of 22 she arrived in Toronto from Grenada as a nanny.

She attended night school and eventually become a school principal and served a term as chair of the Metropolitan Toronto Housing Authority. A long-time Liberal, she worked on Ontario Premier David Peterson's transition team when the party came to power in 1985.

Also, she is a past president of the Congress of Black Women of Canada and as served on the Canadian Advisory Council of the Status of Women, the Urban Alliance on Race Relations, the Harbourfront board of directors and was president of the Grenada Association.

Augustine has resisted the notion she ran for Parliament as a "black woman."

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