Marva Wisdom’s Order of Ontario honour well deserved

by Ron Fanfair
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Marva Wisdom

Told by a guidance counsellor she was not good enough to attend university, Marva Wisdom cried bitterly.
Once the crying stopped, she vowed that was the last time anyone would question her self-worth.
A member of the Ontario Advisory Honours Council for several years, Wisdom recognized the number when the phone rang late last September.
Her first thought was they were checking to see if she would return to the Council that considers nominations and recommends candidates who merit volunteer honours.
“Over the years, I have over-extended in my volunteer work and my mentors and others who care about me kept saying, ‘You have to learn to say no’,” she said. “I was ready to say no when I answered that call and explain why I couldn’t come back.”
A few seconds into the conversation, the caller revealed that Wisdom was being invested in the Order of Ontario.
“I could have fallen off my chair,” Wisdom recalled. “I was so deeply overwhelmed.”
Retired Toronto District School Board Superintendent Marguerite Campbell was the lead nominator. She met Wisdom in 2015 at the 12th annual Guelph lecture titled, ‘On Being Canadian’.
“Marva and I were the only two Black women in the room,” recalled Campbell who is a Laurier University and Ontario Institute for Studies in Education instructor and Practicum Co-ordinator.
“When she arrived on stage to do an insightful thank you to the speaker, I decided I should speak to her as I had been considering a move to Guelph. She was welcoming, wonderful and willing to share the complexities of the city, the relationships that she had developed in the city and how her work was making a change and impact.
“I did move to Guelph a few years later and it was then that I began to understand Marva’s impact on not just the City of Guelph, although that was extensive, but also her impact on the province and the country. The connections that she has made and continues to make are causing ripples in our province.”
Established in 1987, the Order of Ontario is the highest provincial honour bestowed on an individual.
“She is an Ontarian who has shown the highest level of excellence and achievement in any field and whose impact has left a lasting legacy in our province, our country and around the world,” added Campbell who is a Canada Black History project and Kensington Market Jazz Festival board member. “It is important for the province to honour a woman who has worked tirelessly for so many causes, peoples and organizations.” 
University of Guelph Chancellor Mary Anne Chambers said Wisdom’s lifetime of contributions to the betterment of others has been deeply rooted in her desire to achieve a more just society for people who identify as Black.
“She has done so in uplifting ways by helping to showcase history through an emphasis on our strengths, shining a light on our many positive achievements while acknowledging our struggles,” said the former Member of Provincial Parliament. “Her generosity of spirit is a model for all who seek a more caring world and one that encourages respect for all.” 
Paul Martin, Canada’s 21st Prime Minister from 2003 to 2006, also supported Wisdom’s nomination. They met after she started volunteering in politics in the 1993 federal election.
After Guelph-Wellington Liberal candidate Brenda Chamberlain’s win in Jean Chretien’s landslide victory, Wisdom and her family showed up early at the volunteer appreciation party.
“As we were setting up the chairs and tables, the riding association president walked in and said, ‘We have to have you on the Board,” the ArtsEverywhere Festival director said. “I joined and took on every role in the party locally. In doing so, I met Members of Parliament and, over the years, was involved at the national level but was unsuccessful in my bid for the party leadership provincially in 2002.”
Encouraged to run for national policy chair, Wisdom did and was successful.
“After that, Paul became the party leader and appointed me to be a platform chair,” she said. “We developed a relationship and had a lot of conversations over the years. When I lost the bid for the federal party’s leadership in Ontario, he called me, asking if I was okay. When I told him I was not because some things were happening in a way that did not connect some of the things he advanced and I let him know some people needed to understand that mission a little better, he said, ‘Let’s talk’.”
A few weeks later while passing through Guelph from Windsor on his way to Toronto to catch a flight to Quebec, Martin spent time over dinner with Wisdom to address her concerns.
“I remember the only place I could find open on a Sunday afternoon was a Chinese restaurant close to Highway 401,” the former Ontario Young Liberals Honorary Senator said. “It was just the two of us along with two Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers and two restaurant staff in the establishment. We talked about issues I was passionate about and that included same-sex marriage, the importance of diversity and inclusion in the party and Indigenous self-governance that he is passionate about. We talked about so many things and have kept in touch.”
Seeking a better life for their children, Eva Bailey came to southwestern Ontario in 1972 as a domestic worker. 
Her husband, Edward Bailey, and their four children at the time, including storyteller Garvia Bailey who co-founded Media Girlfriends and an online jazz streaming service, followed two years later.
The former Co-operators Insurance Company Ltd. and HB Group subsidiary Service supervisor and trainer credits her parents and upbringing in rural Jamaica for much of her success.
“They always punched above their weight,” said Wisdom who spent a year at St. Jago High School on a partial scholarship before arriving in Canada at age 14. “It didn’t matter what they were doing. Though they both quit school early, they found a way to befriend well-educated people. Education means a lot to them. They always sought out people who could help their kids. I also did a lot of church, grew up around many family members and received unconditional love from my grandmothers and aunts. I do not remember a time I did not feel absolute and total love.
“I had a solid base before coming to Canada.”
At first, the transition was not easy. However, classmates gravitated to Wisdom once they figured out she was a bright student and could assist with Algebra. Once she started taking Geometry classes, things took a quick turn.
“I did not do that subject back home, so I did not know what it was,” Wisdom said. “I started getting poor marks and the kids disappeared. That is when you realize you are Black. Some of them even called me names when I thought I was accepted.”
Life became more challenging when her parents moved from Tavistock to Stratford to work and live in affordable housing.
“Nobody knew me at Stratford District,” she said. “One of the other things that made it tolerable for me at the other high school was that I was a member of the Glee Club because I could sing. I had something else to offer besides Algebra lessons. At the new school, there was no Glee Club and I had nothing to offer.”
Because Wisdom struggled with Geometry, the guidance counsellor told her she was not good enough to remain in the academic stream.
“I didn’t understand what that meant and my parents believed at the time that teachers knew best and whatever they said was gospel,” she said. “I agreed to the switch and started getting 90s in all the subjects. I was doing very well. When the time came to select a university to attend, the guidance counsellor said I had to pick a college because my marks were not good enough to get into university. I told her I wanted to go back into the academic stream, but she explained that once I was in the general program, I could not go back. She then proceeded to tell me I was not good to go to university.”
Edward Bailey was livid when he got the news.
“He said no child of mine is going to tell me they are going to sit out and not go to school,” said Wisdom. “He was so mad and angry that I would suggest not going to college or university. Dad did not understand what I was trying to say to him about streaming.”
Reluctantly, she applied to some colleges and selected Centennial because an aunt lived close to Ontario’s oldest publicly funded college.
Though choosing to pursue Childhood Development Studies which was the closest subject area to Psychology that she wanted to do in university, she did not have fun.
“I hated it because I wanted to be in university,” said Wisdom. “After a car accident a year into the program and being wrecked emotionally, I quit.”
She eventually entered university in 2004, completing a Master of Arts in Leadership three years later.
In the nearly two decades before going to university, Wisdom volunteered and was actively involved in politics while working in the private sector. Later on, she engaged in meaningful work to make Canada more open and inclusive.
While Vice-Chair of the Canadian Centre for Diversity, she attended a presentation by Environics Institute President Michael Adams.
“It had to do with immigrants and what they bring to the table and the importance of us understanding their value,” the Rotary Club of Guelph board member said. “He was so respectful in how he conveyed the research information. It was the first time I heard something that was not anecdotal and I was hearing immigrants being perceived through the kinds of lens in how he was sharing it. I gave him my card at the end and thanked him for the presentation.”
A few months later, Adams’ office called Wisdom to say they were working on an urban Aboriginal People study, they had done small Jewish and Muslim studies and they were thinking about doing a project on the Black community.
“I learned they work with communities that are not heard and try to get their perspectives,” said the Macdonald Stewart Art Centre trustee. “They said they would love to chat with me and pick my brain to see if that was something that could be a possibility and, if so, where could they start. They understood I could not speak for my community, but they wanted to know if there would be interest and how that could be found out.”
Launched in 2010, the Black Experience Project (BEP) examined the lived experiences of individuals who self-identify as Black or of African heritage living in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA).
Toronto Metropolitan University and the Atkinson Charitable Foundation collaborated with the Environics Institute on the project.
The research study consisted of in-depth one-on-one confidential interviews with a representative sample of more than 1,500 individuals across the GTA.
In the findings released in 2017, participants believed that many non-Blacks cling to stereotypes, are in denial about anti-Black racism and lack knowledge and awareness of the strengths and contributions of the Black community. 
“When asked what they believe are the most common beliefs that non-Black people hold about Black people, all the examples mentioned are negative ones, such as beliefs relating to criminal behaviour, violence, gangs or drugs, as well as the belief that Blacks are uneducated, lazy and lack ambition,” the report revealed.
Wisdom was part of the BEP initiative from the start, serving as project director for the first phase which was community engagement.
Phase 2 involved the research design and execution to conduct an in-depth survey with a representative sample of individuals within the GTA Black community while the last phase encompassed post-study dissemination and public engagement.
“It is the first study of its kind about our people that … is accessible to any organization that wants the data,” said Wisdom, a former Operation Black Vote Canada advisor. “Also, it was our young people who were an integral part of surveying with people in our community. All of those things make me proud to be part of it.” 
A Guelph resident since 1985, Wisdom has made her mark in the community where former slaves settled. 
She co-chaired a task force looking at policing in schools, worked with school boards to eradicate racism in their systems and sat on the Guelph Police Service Interview Committee for senior officers.
In 2010 and 2011, Wisdom chaired the Guelph-Wellington United Way campaign that raised nearly $5 million for social services in her community.
She was the founding chair of the Guelph chapter of the Institute of Canadian Citizenship (ICC). Co-founded by Canada’s 26th Governor General Adrienne Clarkson and her husband John Ralston Saul, the ICC delivers programs and special projects that inspire inclusion, create opportunities to connect and encourage active citizenship.
Wisdom is also the founding president of the Guelph Black Heritage Society established after the historic British Methodist Episcopal (BME) Church was listed for sale in November 2011. The sale was finalized a year later.
Built in 1880 at 83 Essex St., the limestone church has been a major part of Guelph’s Black community.
“To acquire it meant connecting in an important and lasting way with the BME Church Conference of Canada,” the former Kensington Market Jazz Festival board president said. “They could have gotten more money, but we made a compelling case for why it should go to a Black group that we had to form.”
The building was acquired for $400,000. At the time of purchase, there was a $100,000 lien.
“We didn’t know about that until we made the offer and it was accepted,” said Wisdom who is the founding principal of Wisdom Consulting which helps organizations build and enhance their leadership capacity in diversity, inclusion and belonging and a Senior Fellow at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. “That meant we had to take the lien on as well.”
Renovation of the building was completed last year.
“It has a little library in it and it is just a beautiful space,” the mother of three grown children said. “I was not there for all of this to happen, but I was there to get it started.”
To get money to buy the church and assist with negotiating the mortgage, Wisdom leveraged her relationship with former Royal Bank of Canada Executive Vice-President Charlie Coffey whom she met while she was the Liberal Party of Canada National Policy Chair, and others.
“One of the most important things the Order of Ontario means to me is the people I had the opportunity to meet who have supported my work and I have supported their work because we have so much in common,” she added.

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