Woodsworth alum honours mom with Swan Francis Award

May 9, 2024 by Michael McKinnon - A&S News

Many people would be inspired by A&S alum Celeste Francis Esteves.

Francis Esteves rose above the challenges of being a first generation, mature student to earn her honours bachelor of arts as a member of Woodsworth College in 2006, but she didn’t stop there. She also earned her master of education from U of T’s OISE in 2012 and is now in the midst of earning her PhD, also from U of T.

Her involvement with the Woodsworth College Alumni Association — as president, secretary and vice-president, and chair of the committee that organized the 35th Anniversary Spring Reunion in 2009 — earned her an Arbor Award in 2011.

But while she is indeed an inspiration, her focus right now is on honouring the person who inspires her — her mom. Ahead of Mother’s Day, Francis Esteves explains why she created the Swan Francis Award in support of Woodsworth College students studying Canadian, Black or Indigenous history, culture or arts:

Swan Francis: a beacon of inspiration

The Swan Francis Award for Woodsworth students studying Canadian, Black or Indigenous history, culture or arts is inspired by my mother, a beacon of inspiration for me through her passion for education and teaching.

Celeste Francis Esteves and Claudette Francis.
Celeste Francis Esteves and Claudette Francis celebrate Celeste’s convocation in 2006.

My mother, Claudette Francis (née Swan), is a teacher who immigrated to Quebec in 1969 as a Black single woman from Guyana. Shortly after her arrival, she received a federal placement on Rapid Lake “Indian Reserve” to teach English to the Indigenous community. At the beginning of each school year, she grieved with the community as school-age children were bused away to residential schools.

My mom eventually received a permanent placement at Kateri Tekakwitha school on a Mohawk “reserve” where she worked for over a decade. During that time, she married my dad, George Francis, a Guyanese man of African, Portuguese and Dutch descent and settled in Ville LaSalle, Montreal. Every working day and special occasion she drove over the Mercier Bridge to the “reserve" and remained embedded in the community, taking part in all aspects of the Mohawk culture.

Claudette Francis and Celeste Francis Esteves outside convocation hall touching their paver stone.
Claudette Francis and Celeste Francis Esteves visit their paver stone at U of T’s St. George campus.

I was born on April 17, on the anniversary of the death of Kateri Tekakwitha. Kateri Tekakwitha was a young Mohawk woman, also known as the Lily of the Mohawks. She was canonized by the Catholic church in 2012. I was baptized in 1975 at the St. Francis Xavier Mission in Kahnawake, Quebec. I spent many summers, PA days and even a birthday or two singing, dancing, beading and hanging out with my friends and the elders of the Mohawk community.

It was only after moving to Toronto in my mid-teens that I realized how little everyday Canadians knew about Indigenous culture and history.

I am a Black Canadian of Quebecois, Guyanese, Portuguese and Indigenous cultures. I now live, work and raise my family in Toronto, on the traditional lands of the Huron-Wendat, the Seneca, and the Mississaugas of the Credit.

These are the influences that have shaped who I am today.

It is my hope this award encourages a new generation of scholars to pursue the truth of our history and create a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive Canada. I am also grateful to Funké Aladejebi, an associate professor in the Department of History, whose book “Schooling the System: A History of Black Women Teachers” reaffirmed my commitment to establishing this award as a legacy to my mom.”

Support or learn more about the Swan Francis Award.