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Denise Francis named one of Canada's top Black women to watch

Canada International Black Women Excellence named the president of the Guelph Black Heritage Society as one of Canada's Top 100 Black women to watch this year
20180730 Denise Francis Guelph Black Heritage Society
File photo. Denise Francis, president of the Guelph Black Heritage Society, stands outside Heritage Hall on Essex Street. Kenneth Armstrong/GuelphToday file photo

The president of the Guelph Black Heritage Society is one of Canada's "Black pearls."

Denise Francis has been named one of Canada's Top 100 Black women to watch this year by Canada International Black Women Excellence, a not-for-profit organization that celebrates the advancements Black women have made in Canada and beyond.

"I was very excited because you have to be nominated for this award," Francis told GuelphToday. "I called people in my circle, and nobody said that they nominated me, so it's a bit of a mystery how I even got on the radar to be on the list."

Nonetheless, it was quite the honour to be listed among the top 100 people."

The organization reached out to the public for nominations, asking for any Black women in the country who have made an impact on the community.

Francis wasn't about to take all the credit for herself, acknowledging the GBHS team for the work done in the last couple years, especially after the reemergence of the social justice movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

She cited several programs created by the organization, from the "transformative" Change Starts Now education initiative, to a historical video series and the renovations and tours of the Heritage Hall and their first in-person summer camp.

"The big thing for me is that we don't work alone in our community," Francis said. "I always like to make sure that I acknowledge (GBHS executive director) Kween and our dedicated board and volunteers at the GBHS because we're all working together to make these things happen."

For Francis, things have come a long way, but there's still more work to do.

"I grew up in Guelph. Kween, our executive director, grew up in Guelph. And even though the Black community has been here since the 1880s, nobody really knew that," she said.

"I didn't even know that myself until I was a student at the University of Guelph, on campus and I met the former pastor of the former BME church which is now our Heritage Hall.

"Often too when you grow up in Guelph during the times that we did, you felt alone, you felt there was nobody else there."

With that, she said one of the things important to the GBHS is to create a sense of community.

And she has many heroes past and present that inspire her to keep going.

"Locally, there are so many people, but first, I would have to start with my family," Francis said. "I think of my mom and my grandma. I think of people like Kween, a young person and all the work that she's doing."

Others that come to mind include Jean Augustine, the first Black Canadian woman elected as a Member of Parliament, civil rights activist Viola Desmond and Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey.

She, and the other 99 women named will be celebrated at the Black Pearls gala in Mississauga next month.

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Mark Pare

About the Author: Mark Pare

Mark is a graduate of Canadore College in North Bay in 2011, and his decade-long career has taken him to a number of spots across Ontario in radio, digital and television broadcasting.
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