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Breaking through the mainstream

March, 2010

Her son calls her the Energizer Bunny “because she never stops.”

That’s a perfect description of Gemma Raeburn-Baynes, a community activist and remarkable woman who has worked tirelessly for the wellbeing of young people throughout her professional life.

In the five minutes she waited in a restaurant for this interview, she forged a connection with chef Richard Taitt, who wants to learn more about Raeburn-Baynes’s most recent initiative, the Triumph Through Adversity culinary arts program.

“He’s black, and I’m looking for mentors,” Raeburn-Baynes says of the serendipitous encounter.

Taitt recognized her from a recently aired TV commercial, where she speaks about what local broadcasting means to her.

The Triumph Through Adversity scholarship program provides aspiring chefs age 16 to 24 a chance to attend St. Pius X culinary institute to work alongside professionals. Candidates are recruited from among disenfranchised kids in the black community.

“We give them the tools, they get a little bit of knowledge and then they can go out and get a foothold in the professional world,” Raeburn-Baynes says.

Raeburn-Baynes’s desire to level the playing field has been a guiding force since she began her career at the Bank of Montreal Financial Group in 1973. Throughout the years, she contributed to the bank’s social-inclusion and workplace-equality initiatives.

“I was the research co-ordinator of the task force for the advancement of women, visible minorities, people with disabilities and aboriginal people,” Raeburn-Baynes says.

She implemented the Possibilities internship scholarship program in 1995 and two years later the EXCEL Minority Youth Group, a non-profit organization sponsored by BMO to instill leadership and management skills in young people.

Raeburn-Baynes was active within her community as well. In 1979, she and her sister noticed the dearth of black models in the fashion industry.

“We noticed there were none,” she clarifies, tongue in cheek. Her solution was to found Montreal Ebony Models, an organization that raises money for charities through fashion shows and related events. More than $1 million has been donated to various city-wide organizations, including the Children’s Wish Foundation, the Canadian Cancer Society and the Jewish General Hospital’s Hope and Cope program.

“We’ve broken through to the mainstream,” she says.

Another initiative, A Taste of the Caribbean, is a popular yearly food festival that promotes Caribbean cuisine and culture to mainstream Montreal. It is set to increase this year to three days from one, at the city’s request.

“I was always able to get kids together,” Raeburn-Baynes says, recounting how as a child in her native Grenada, she would recruit kids and organize “summer school” and little performances with them. Though her father held a prominent position, she noticed her friends were not as fortunate as she.

“They didn’t go to school, they were walking barefoot when I had shoes. I saw the difference.”

Raeburn-Baynes has been honoured with several awards, including the YWCA’s Woman of Distinction Award, the Woman of Achievement Award from the Business & Professional Women’s Club of Montreal, and several more.

Some may find it shocking that such a prominent community leader, mother and Montrealer since 1964, found herself staring down the barrel of a policeman’s pistol as she and two friends were cleaning out her garage one November afternoon.

The 2004 incident made headlines at the time. Raeburn-Baynes, mistaken for a burglar, was told by a police officer: “Why don’t you go back to your country?” Raeburn-Baynes calls the officer’s behaviour racist and she has filed complaints with the Human Rights Commission and the Police Ethics Commission. The case is still before the courts, and Raeburn-Baynes, despite serious health setbacks, is determined to see it through.

“I’m not doing this for me. If they do this to me, what do they do to kids in Little Burgundy? Young kids don’t have the resources and knowledge. This racial profiling has got to stop. Somebody has to do it.”

Her dedication to youth is the thread running through all her accomplishments. “It’s the kids. When I look back at my life, I love to see young people do well and succeed. That is what drives me.”

Gemma Raeburn-Baynes is president of A Taste of Caribbean, which will hold A Taste of Tea to celebrate International Women’s Day.

The event honours women who have served as great inspirational role models. It takes place March 14. Tickets $20. Info: 514-620-6612 or 514-342-2247.



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