RIP “Sylbert”

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Saturday, January 14th was such an edifying and melancholy yet hopeful day. The Black and Caribbean community of Peel lost one of its greatest champions in Sylbert Montague. Both Sylbert’s life and his death taught me so many lessons about education and the importance of a good education. To begin with, Sylbert was a true Jamaican through and through. His name is not Sylbert in fact, it is Sylberth. I had known this fine gentleman for more than half my life not realizing that Sylberth was his name. I was reminded of an experience my eldest son had when he went to train in Jamaica at Racer’s track camp, “Mom now I know why you never call any of us by our right names.” So, central to Jamaica and Caribbean culture is the nickname. And so, it was with Sylberth. You would know Tommy his whole life only to find out that his real name was Winfred Augustus Johnson after he received a great honour or at his funeral.

Just about everyone that paid tribute to Sylberth, mentioned how important education was to this kind and selfless man. Sylberth did everything he financially could to facilitate members of the Black and Caribbean students to learn. His impact was felt in Brampton, Peel, Canada and Jamaica. Sylberth worked tirelessly to promote Caribbean culture as he felt this was the foundation necessary to facilitate confident students. Throughout Sylberth’ s life he would always show up for his children and his grandson, reinforcing the importance of being there to support children in their educational journey. I remember a colleague commenting how upset her son was at how poorly a young black girl was being treated by referees during a match. This young man was of Sikh heritage and right away he could identify to his mother that the unfair calls were being given against this talented volleyball player because no parent was there supporting or cheering her on and being the only Black player on the field did not help her cause. I thought of that little girl during Sylberth’ s eulogy because had she been Sylberth’ s daughter or granddaughter he would have been there on the sidelines cheering her on. Just this simple act would have made all the difference to the refereeing of her game. Sylberth’ s entire life was about showing up and being there for his family and his community. And boy did he make a difference. “Silent riva run deep.” This often quiet and reserved man was a force to be reckoned with as he steadfastly and stubbornly worked towards eliminating racism and ignorance while trying to educate anyone that would listen about Black and Caribbean culture. Especially the children. He was an active member of the First Baptist Church located on Wellington street and had all members of that congregation being honourary Jamaican citizens.

Sylbert would have been proud with the number of parents that came out to attend the Peel District School Board’s (PDSB) ‘We Rise Together’ consultation that occurred on Saturday. “`im hart woulda well up.” I often thought of Sylberth as I sat in various workshops and got input from various members of the community. At the PDSB I was filled with pride at the Board’s commitment to equity and inclusion for all. I have great confidence that the staff present sincerely and attentively listened and will diligently work to present an action plan that is relevant, impactful and a game changer for marginalized Black students. At the Ontario Public School Board Association (OPSBA) conference I attended last week, during the Truth and Reconciliation workshop that I attended, I was reminded by adjunct professor of Queens University, Bob Watts, of Michaelle Jean’s poignant quote, “when the present does not recognize the hurts of the past, the future takes revenge.”

When I look around at the increase in violence in the community, I can’t help but wonder what is happening to our Black boys full of such potential. As each life is lost, the community is losing a life unfulfilled. I often think of the possibilities if we were able to harness the genius of that student. I truly believe that the entire society will benefit when we reach out to these young Black boys. It is imperative that all stakeholders come together and work with the PDSB as we revolutionize our education system and transform it into one of the world’s best models of equity and inclusion in education. So, journey with me. Show up for your children, make education a priority and access all available resources to engage your children so that they can fulfill their potential. Walk Good, Belle Marché.


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