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A nurse stands in front of McMaster Children's Hospital wearing a black jacket and a lanyard filled with pins. She has long dark hair.
Emily White, pediatric oncology nurse, is a descendant of the Shadd family, which includes the abolitionist Mary Ann Shadd.
February 16, 2021

Acknowledging both suffering and joy during Black History Month

Emily White, a registered nurse at Hamilton Health Sciences’ McMaster Children’s Hospital (MCH), is celebrating Black History Month by taking a “both-and” approach to looking at her personal family history and public remembrance.

“’Both-and’ is a space where you can acknowledge that things are hard and also hold space for celebration and joy,” she says.

Honouring family history

A black and white photo of a serious woman with her dress tied high at her neck.

Mary Ann Shadd, Cary circa 1845-55, Library and Archives Canada

White is a descendant of the Shadd family, whose prominent members include Underground Railway conductor and one of the first Black elected officials in Canada Abraham Doras Shadd and his daughter Mary Ann Shadd, a trailblazer for women, newspaper publisher, lawyer and educator.

While White grew up in Oakville, her parents emphasized the importance of their ancestors through trips to the Amherstburg Freedom Museum in Amherstburg, Ontario, the Buxton National Historic Site and Museum in the Chatham, Ontario area, and through family reunions.

“My dad was born and raised in Windsor. His mom is from the Shadd family line and her family’s history is well-documented in North Buxton. We come from a long line of Black individuals involved in the Underground Railroad and abolition.”

Creating inclusive spaces at HHS

White says her family history sparked her interest in civil rights and has led to her involvement in creating inclusive spaces at work.

“Having knowledge of that history and the accomplishments of my ancestors has inspired me,” she says. “I’m not going to be a publisher, teacher, attorney, or the first Black woman to do many things. But it inspires me to know Mary Ann Shadd was part of my history. We can look to those who inspire us and try to evoke that inspiration in our own spheres of influence.”

White’s influence extends to the people she works with at MCH. The Pediatric Hematology & Oncology team has created a quality improvement project to work on staff education about cultural humility. A shift from the idea of “cultural competency,” cultural humility asks people to examine their own biases and be open-minded and others-centered in the approach to understanding someone else’s culture. The project is ongoing and White is part of the team moving it forward.

She says the time invested learning at work and learning about herself is paying off. “I think this is a special year for me – based on my own work concerning my own identity as a biracial individual. This year I feel more confident and more excited to dive into the celebration of Black History Month.”

Holding space to recognize suffering and celebrate joy

White acknowledges the tension during a year filled with public acts of extreme racism and the desire to celebrate during Black History Month.

“The Black community this year is exhausted, hit in the face with images of suffering that they’ve known all too well their whole lives,” she says. But as a proponent of living in the “both-and” space, White says she’s comfortable sitting in that grey space. “We need intentional space for celebration. We should take advantage of that and highlight the good,” she says.

They helped to build the Canada that we know today

“To be a Black person is not just suffering. There is so much joy and beauty and good but we often focus on suffering. It’s important to acknowledge that and yet it’s so much more than that too. I am incredibly proud to be celebrating my family’s history and their contributions to society. Though many of my ancestors began their lives in North America as enslaved and oppressed people, through resiliency and strength, many of their descendants became successful entrepreneurs, inventors, farmers, healthcare workers, soldiers, teachers, athletes, and politicians. They helped to build the Canada that we know today.”