Building a Legacy

by Nichole Jankowski

photography by Mike Ford

Order of Canada recipient Robert Small (B.Ed ’14) staged his first political protest nearly 40 years ago, after encountering another student’s assignment on South Africa hanging in a hallway of his North York secondary school. Small was in Grade 12 at the time, but he remembers the moment that galvanized him into action.

“Their project was what are the top 5 good things about Black people and what are the top 5 bad things,” recalls Small. “This is something that a student not only made, but that a teacher allowed to be put up on the wall.”

After Small’s complaint, the project was taken down.

It wasn’t until nearly seven years later – when he was 25 – that Small first considered making his own poster and righting that wrong.

A self-taught illustrator who once dreamed of working in comic books, Small set his mind to creating a poster that would celebrate Black history and the contributions and accomplishments of Black Canadians.

That initial poster marked the beginning of a national educational initiative that, in 2007, Small developed into Legacy Enterprises, a Toronto-based business that uses posters to educate the public about the contributions of Black people worldwide.

“When I was thinking about creating the poster,” Small says, “I was actually thinking about that [high school incident], and thinking about how just passing by, I read something that disempowered me.” His aim was to create a poster that would empower people every time they looked at it, and stay up on the walls a long time.

It is now three decades later, and Small has since sold more than 400,000 of his Legacy posters to schools, businesses, public institutions and individuals across Canada. The Bank of Montreal distributes Small’s posters through its many branches. 

Robert Small’s Black Canadian Legacy posters

Priced at $15 each, the posters feature Small’s hand-drawn portraits of Black Canadians, along with short bios highlighting their contributions to society. He estimates that he’s profiled more than 100 different Africans and people of African descent in his work. 

Today, they form an essential component of Black History Month celebrations across the country.

Toronto-area school boards became early clients, such as the East York Board of Education and the Scarborough Board of Education (before the amalgamation of the City of Toronto).

“They probably looked at what I provided them as a godsend, because it made it seem like they were doing a lot, when actually they were just buying a poster off one guy and sending it to every school,” Small surmises.

“There’s still so much more work to do.”

That work involves realizing how important it is “to educate Black youth about the contributions of what Black people have done, so that they can be inspired and know they’re capable of doing so much more, given that there’s a precedent for accomplishing great things.” 

He cites Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech by way of illustration. Often recited and studied in schools today, its venerated status implies it inspired progress, Small says. 

Yet, days before his assassination in 1968, King himself voiced doubts about his society’s willingness to change. It compelled Small to reflect on the importance of having a community write and record its own history. Otherwise, “you’re leaving it up to others to say what they want about that history.”

Determined to contribute, while a student at York, Small – a Canadian of Bajan descent – volunteered with the Caribbean Students Association and put on plays. “There was a lot of political activity with regards to the Black community, and memories I have with people that I attended with that were essential to me becoming the person that I am today,” Small shared in an alumni profile in 2022.

For his long-standing commitment to highlighting the accomplishments and contributions of Black people in all sectors of Canadian society, in 2022 Small was inducted into the Order of Canada, one of the nation’s highest civilian honours.

“I feel like I’m still celebrating it every time that someone brings it up,” Small says.

“I’m starting to realize that what I do is impacting society on a greater level.” ■

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