Halifax-area valedictorians use platforms to call out racial injustices

·2 min read
Halifax-area valedictorians use platforms to call out racial injustices
Janelle Oliver Harris (left) and Akwaima Akpan pose in their caps and gowns as they graduate as valedictorians from their schools in Middle and Lower Sackville.  (Janelle Oliver Harris/Akwaima Akpan - image credit)
Janelle Oliver Harris (left) and Akwaima Akpan pose in their caps and gowns as they graduate as valedictorians from their schools in Middle and Lower Sackville. (Janelle Oliver Harris/Akwaima Akpan - image credit)

Janelle Oliver Harris rarely saw herself reflected in the classroom, and she doesn't want the next generation of Black students to have the same experience.

She's this year's valedictorian at Millwood High School in Middle Sackville, N.S., and hopes to become an elementary school teacher.

"Teaching the kids about the different histories ... and not only doing it in like the designated month, like February for Black History Month. I want to be able to incorporate that in my everyday lessons," said Oliver Harris, who is heading to Acadia University in Wolfville, N.S., this fall to earn a bachelor of arts with a major in psychology.

She was part of a special celebration in Lower Sackville on Thursday night with Akwaima Akpan, a friend and fellow valedictorian from a neighbouring school. As far as they know, it's the first time the two Sackville schools have both chosen young Black women as their valedictorians.

"We felt this was something to celebrate," said Akpan, who's on her way to Dalhousie University in Halifax this fall to study kinesiology.

She plays all kinds of sports, including soccer and rugby, and said recovering from her own injuries inspired her to pursue a career in physiotherapy.

In her valedictory address, she spoke about choosing to be kind and to listen to people's experiences of racial inequality and injustice.

"As an African Nova Scotia student, I'm different than most of the students in my school because Sackville High is a predominantly white school," she said.

"Everybody has something that's unique about them and that uniqueness in everybody is beautiful."

Staying positive through the pandemic

While COVID-19 derailed some aspects of her final years in school, Akpan said she didn't want to focus on what was lost.

"I really want to focus on the good things that have happened to us in the past four years ... instead of focusing on the pandemic and what we've missed out because we're all tired of hearing and talking about it," she said.

For Oliver Harris, being chosen by her teachers as valedictorian was a dream come true. She's wanted to stand up in front of her class ever since she was in Grade 9 and attended her older sister's graduation.

She used her platform to call for justice and action for the Black Lives Matter movement and the survivors and families of residential schools.

Oliver Harris has a lot of faith that her generation will be the one to make change where others have failed.

"These are all very important things and I think that they needed to be highlighted and they needed to be spoken about," she said.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

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