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Canada’s fastest family tells all in a new book

By Jim Gordon and Leeta Liepins

Published 12:16 PDT, Fri June 7, 2024

Her book is called RACES, the Trials and Triumphs of Canada‘s Fastest Family. She is an activist, a speaker, a teacher, a politician, and athlete hailing from Vancouver. She is also the granddaughter of Canada‘s first Black Olympian, John Army Howard and she is a champion in her own right. She became the Canadian senior women’s champion in sprints and in long jump at the age of fifteen.

In 1959, she went on to represent Canada at the 1960 Rome Olympics, the Commonwealth Games, and the Pan-American Games where she won a bronze medal in the 4 x 100 relay competing alongside her brother. You might recognize this name. Her brother is Harry Jerome. Our City Tonight (OCT) sat down with Valerie Jerome (VJ) to talk about her new book and her life.

OCT: Valerie, I could not put your book down and it is fascinating that I was reading this book when I was visiting my mother who actually competed at the same time. You and your brother are both famous in your own right, both of you being Olympians. I have heard and read the reviews on your book. It is so compelling in fact, David Suzuki says every single Canadian needs to read this book and I must agree. Tell us all about what it took to write such a personal and compelling book.

VJ: Well, I wrote it some years ago when I actually started interviewing Harry’s friends and I went to Ottawa where he had worked at one time, and I interviewed the people there. I did those interviews back in 1983 and 1984 but I wrote this manuscript in 1991. It has been a struggle, not so much to write it because it just poured out of me. Once I started writing what I wanted to do was expunge myself, not from all of them, but certainly many of the unhappy memories. The struggle really has been to get a publisher and I spoke with many publishers. It was not until George Floyd was murdered and was shown on television that Canadian publishing noticed my book. Canadian publishing has published books by Black authors before, but the books were mainly written about Haiti, Jamaica, West Africa, or the American Civil War and the slave trade. They did not really pay attention to writing that was about Black Canadians who were here for generations.

OCT: It is fascinating reading your book and that most Canadians think we were not part of the racism that was happening in the 1950s and the 1960s and even into the 1970s and continuing but you definitely dispel that myth in a very heart wrenching way. It is a very honest accounting about what your family went through when they lived in Canada, and in particular, North Vancouver.

I brought along an assortment of my mom’s old track and field books for this interview and your name is found throughout them. You are an incredible athlete, and in your book, you describe many of your trials of being a Black woman in athletics. Even as a champion, as well as your famous brother, Harry Jerome, you both still endured so many challenges within that arena.

VJ: Yes, it is ironic that even though I was actually the only Black women running in Canada, Harry and I at our first national championships in 1959 and 1960 we were basically the only Black people there. It is vastly different from what the start lines look like these days at national championships. Track and field competition did provide us with a fabulous home. Not just a physical home of the place at Brockton Oval in beautiful Stanley Park, but also a community, a family of like-minded friends.

We all trained together in that glorious setting at Brockton Oval. And the running allowed us to be free and to be able to shed all the concerns of the day and just find that space that existed nowhere else. It didn’t exist at our home, it didn’t exist at school, and it certainly didn’t exist in the larger community. So, the sport of track and field truly was a gift.

OCT:  We found it interesting as you mentioned in your book that perhaps a lot of Black families at least found solace within their own family during these challenging times. Unfortunately, you and Harry did not even have that. You, in fact, had to go to foster homes and had to endure that as well. This book is incredibly honest, it is searing as reviewers have said, and of course, highly recommended reading. 

VJ: The trouble is, when making changes in society, if people are not aware of what is going on, how are they going to change it—how are they going to address it? I think the number one goal of my writing this book is that I would like to shine a light on something that is not discussed at all in Canada. We think we are saints; we were the northern terminus of the underground railway and welcomed the slaves. 

I would like to mention there is a fabulous program available on television now called Black Life, and it is incredible. It’s broken down into many segments, including settlements, sports, and it is fabulous. I do believe the more we know, and as hard as it is to process, the more likely we are going to change.

OCT: Valerie, as an activist you’re out there speaking to help facilitate this positive change. I have to say you are an amazing woman, and we are incredibly grateful as I’m sure the rest of Canada will be as well that you have written this book for everyone. And that Vancouver has a beautiful reminder of your champion late brother, Harry Jerome with the beautiful statue that was erected in Stanley Park in his honour.

RACES, The Trials & Triumphs of Canada’s Fastest Family author Valerie Jerome, published by Goose Lane Editions, 2023.

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