Sunday, August 16, 2015

A00515 - Zanana Akande. African Canadian Politician

Zanana L. Akande (b. 1937) is a former politician in Ontario, Canada. She was a New Democratic member of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario from 1990 to 1994 who represented the downtown Toronto riding (electoral district) of St. Andrew - St. Patrick. She served as a cabinet minister in the government of Bob Rae. She was the first woman of African descent elected to the Legislative Assembly of Ontario, and the first woman of African descent to serve as a cabinet minister in Canada.
A daughter of immigrants from the Caribbean, she became a teacher and school principal in the Toronto public school system. After her election in 1990, she was appointed to cabinet as Minister of Community and Social Services but resigned because her private financial arrangements appeared to violate cabinet guidelines. A subsequent review cleared her of any wrongdoing. In 1992, she was named parliamentary assistant to Premier Bob Rae. In 1994 she quit politics after a dispute over the handling of an investigation and firing of Ontario civil servant Carlton Masters.
After retirement, Akande continued to be involved in the community, serving as a volunteer on boards and committees of local organizations including the YWCA and Centennial College. 
Akande was born in downtown Toronto in the Kensington Market district. Her parents came from St. Lucia and Barbados, where they had worked as teachers. They were prevented from continuing their careers in Canada because, at the time, people of African descent were not allowed to hold teaching positions. She attended Harbord Collegiate before studying at the University of Toronto.  There she received Bachelor of Arts and Master of Education degrees. She also attended the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. She was a longtime member of the Federation of Women Teachers' Associations of Ontario. Following in her parents footsteps, she worked as a teacher and a school principal for the Toronto District School Board. During her educational career she designed programs for students with special needs.
Akande was a co-founder of Tiger Lily, a newspaper for visible minority women, and once co-hosted a Toronto Arts Against Apartheid Festival. She was a member of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation in her youth and was friends with future New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Stephen Lewis and his siblings, and was a longtime member of its successor, the New Democratic Party. 
Akande was married to Isaac who died of cancer in 1991. She has a daughter, Aderonke.

Akande was elected for the NDP in the Toronto riding of St. Andrew—St. Patrick in the 1990 election. Akande won the riding in a tight three-way race between incumbent Liberal Ron Kanter and Conservative candidate Nancy Jackman. The NDP won a majority government and Akande was named Minister of Community and Social Services in Bob Rae's first cabinet on October 1, 1990.  As minister, Akande presided over an increase in welfare benefits to Ontarians at the lowest income level. She raised the social assistance rate from 5% to 7% and increased the shelter allowance from 5% to 10%. She also announced $1 million in funding for food banks in an apparent contradiction to NDP policy against supporting such agencies. She recognized that the realities of the time meant the food banks were a necessity.

In 1991, Akande was caught in an apparent conflict of interest situation. In December 1990, Rae announced strict guidelines which prohibited cabinet ministers from owning rental properties which included Akande. However, in February 1991, Rae wrote a private memo which softened the guidelines because he felt that a sell-off of these properties during tough economic times may cause undue hardship to ministers.
On October 10, 1991, Akande resigned as minister due to an accusation of rent-gouging in properties she owned in Toronto. The charges were eventually dismissed in 1993.
On May 4, 1992, the so-called "Yonge Street Riot" occurred in Toronto due to media reports surrounding a celebrated court case in the United States about the beating of Rodney King by police and the ensuing riots in Los Angeles. While the damage along Yonge Street was relatively minor, it was a major event for Toronto. In order to manage the fallout from this episode, Rae appointed Akande as his parliamentary assistant. One of her accomplishments was the creation of the Jobs Ontario Youth Program which created summer employment for youth from 1991 to 1994.
Akande continued as a parliamentary assistant until August 31, 1994, when she resigned from the Legislature in protest against Rae's handling of the Carlton Masters controversy. After resigning from the government she returned to her former job as school principal. 

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