Every year we celebrate International Women’s Day in Toronto-St. Paul’s by hosting a summit of our young women leaders. Once again, our amazing public school trustee, Shelley Laskin, co-hosted us at North Toronto Collegiate Institute. Even though it was the Friday before school break began, we were thrilled to have a full house of students and staff from North Toronto Collegiate Institute, Bishop Strachan School, Forest Hill Collegiate Institute, Greenwood College School, Havergal College, The Linden School, Loretto College School, Northern Secondary School, Oakwood Collegiate Institute, St. Joseph’s College School, and The York School.
This year the theme in Canada for IWD was #MyFeminism, so it was truly wonderful to have such amazing role models accept our invitation to meet with the students.
Professor Sylvia Bashevkin started us off with remarks on the origin of IWD and the horrific deaths of the women working in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York, where her great-grandmother had worked. She shared with us all the full story of the courageous Viola Desmond (sometimes called “Canada’s Rosa Parks”), whose picture is now on our $10 banknote. She told us that Viola had been a very successful business woman, that her husband had divorced her after her notoriety, and that she had died alone in New York at the age of fifty. We were all reminded of the price that trailblazers often pay, and that young women today can still pay a price for calling themselves feminists.
Deborah Richardson, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation, then explained her role as the highest ranking Indigenous person in the Ontario public service. We were also honoured that her husband, Bob Goulais, opened our meeting with the land recognition and a beautiful song in Ojibway.
Const. Monica Rutledge described her role as liaison for the Toronto Police Service Aboriginal Peacekeeping Unit, and she also shared her poignant story of being a survivor of the Sixties Scoop.
After we introduced Tabatha Southey, she then corrected us that she is a writer, not a journalist. With her inimitable candour and humour, Tabatha delivered a call to action, and then generously donated her recent book Collected Tarts and Other Indelicacies to the school library.
Next came the part that the panelists love the best: “speed-dating” with the students. They stayed at their tables, while the panelists and I moved from table from table every 10 minutes. We all were truly inspired by the great questions and the important commentary on their lives as young leaders at their schools. As each table reported back, it was clear that there is still stigma associated with the label of “feminist” — although the group did believe that having the Prime Minister self-declare as a feminist has helped. They recognized that young men are struggling; even lovely gentle men as individuals can behave badly in the pack mentality. They have hope that #MeToo will have the desired consequences of actually changing behaviour and de-normalizing sexist acts and remarks.
For the last number of years, the students have enjoyed hearing from Inspector Sonia Thomas of the Toronto Police Service’s 53 Division. She was unable to be with us this year, but we congratulate her on her recent Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Women Achievers’ Awards!
When asked about the best part of my job, I had to admit that this annual celebration of IWD is right up there. As I explained, I have never felt comfortable with the term “mentor” — it seems so one-way. We learn so much from these brilliant, insightful young women. It’s a two-way street. Every year we are inspired by the young people who, as the Prime Minister says “are not just our future, they are our present.”
Indeed, young people are our conscience; they call things as they see them, and they need to be listened to. They know the status quo is not OK. They know that we have not yet achieved equality. They are prepared to join us in this ongoing fight, and they know that women can’t do it alone. They recognize that violence against women is a men’s problem. They recognize that women’s rights are human rights and that we need great men to speak out and be part of this truly important journey.
We are already looking forward to IWD 2019.