October is Women’s History Month in Canada. Proclaimed in 1992 by the Government of Canada, Women’s History Month provides an opportunity for Canadians to learn about the important contributions of women and girls to our society – and to the quality of our lives today.
From Status of Women Canada.
According to information from the Canadian government, Status of Women Canada (SWC) is a federal government organization that promotes the full participation of women in the economic, social and democratic life of Canada. SWC works to advance equality for women and to remove the barriers to women’s participation in society, putting particular emphasis on increasing women’s economic security and eliminating violence against women.
The establishment of the SWC came out of the activism of Canadian feminists in the 1960s. In 1966, the Committee for the Equality of Women in Canada was founded and successfully lobbied for the creation of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. When the Royal Commission on the Status of Women published its report in 1970, it led to the formation of the National Ad Hoc Action Committee on the Status of Women in 1971, which eventually became the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC).
The organization’s primary mandate was to ensure the implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations which included birth control, day care, education, family law, maternity leave and pensions. NAC eventually grew into the largest national feminist organization with a total of 700 affiliated groups and its mandate grew beyond the implementation of the Royal Commission’s recommendations to include issues such as poverty, racism, same-sex rights and violence against women.
Although the membership of the organization was diverse its leadership of White, middle-class women was not diverse until Sunera Thobani was elected to head the organization in 1993. The election of a racialized woman as the leader of the most important and influential woman’s organization in the country made some people very uncomfortable.
Things became ugly when Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament, John MacDougall, rose in the House of Commons on April 23, 1993 to accuse Thobani of being an illegal immigrant. MacDougall is quoted as saying: “Earlier today I learned that (Thobani) first is not a Canadian, and second does not have a work permit for this country. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that the taxpayers of Canada should be funding such an organization with an illegal immigrant as its head?”
There was an outcry from members of the public since Thobani was a landed immigrant.
MacDougall did not seek re-election in the federal election held on October 25, 1993.
MacDougall was not the lone voice against Thobani’s election to lead NAC. In July 2007 when Sharmeen Khan interviewed Thobani for Upping the Anti she addressed this issue when she asked: “There was a backlash against your leadership of NAC framed in terms of how well you could represent Canadian women. How did you respond to this?”
Thobani replied: “Who was this ‘Canadian woman’ that I couldn’t represent? That was my question at the time. It was of course my “immigrant” status that people found so objectionable. If women activists like myself who come from immigrant communities and anti-racist movements can’t represent Canadian women, then who can? Is it just elite or privileged White women who can speak for Canadian women? One of my responses was to challenge this construct of the ‘Canadian woman’ who was the subject of the women’s movement.
Thobani’s experience was not unique and even today, in the 21st Century, we grapple with the same question. Who is a Canadian woman and has the “right” to represent the views of Canadian women? Unfortunately, it is not only immigrant women who are not considered Canadian, it is any racialized person even if they were born in Canada.
African Canadians are routinely challenged on their Canadian citizenship even if they can trace their lineage in Canada to the 1600s. In spite of the continued attacks, Thobani and the other racialized leaders at NAC did not shy away from addressing the “isms”.
Joan Grant-Cummings, who followed Thobani as the leader of NAC, wrote in her farewell message: “Sistahs, Sistrens, Sisters, Soeurs…My message over the past four years has not changed and it will not change now – feminism is an equality-seeking revolution – non-violent, persistent, tenacious, consistent, inevitable in its success. For feminism to be successful and meaningful to women it must put women who are pushed to the margins, in the centre, it must bring women who are being trampled upon and suffocated at the bottom of the heap up for air – these women must be the priority now. If patriarchy, racism, ablism, ageism, classism, heterosexism seek to marginalize, disempower, ravage and violate women, then feminism must turn these ‘systems’ on their heads.”
NAC was one of the few national organizations where racialized women achieved leadership positions. Racialized women are almost non-existent as representatives in the three levels of government. It will be interesting to see how many racialized women will be elected in the municipal election on October 25.
During the Toronto municipal election of 1980, Fran Reid-Endicott, an African Canadian woman, made history when she was elected as trustee to represent Ward 7 (now part of Ward 14 where I am a candidate for trustee with the TDSB). Reid-Endicott, the daughter of esteemed Jamaican writer Victor Stafford Reid, became the first African Canadian woman elected trustee at the Toronto Board of Education.
She was not the first African Canadian elected to the position of trustee at the Board, that distinction belongs to Pat Case, who was elected in 1978. While serving as trustee she chaired several committees, including the Affirmative Action Committee and the Race Relations Committee. She was also a member of the Ontario Ministry of Education Advisory Committee on the Development of a Race Relations Policy.
The Toronto District School Board (TDSB) has honoured Reid-Endicott’s memory by establishing the Equitable Schools Fran Endicott Equity Centre which, according to the TDSB, houses “a diverse collection of equity-focused resources and houses equity-based student artwork which provides a warm welcoming space for meetings and events. The collection includes print and non-print resources on equity and human rights education, including curricular materials that challenge discrimination based on race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, ability and age. The collection is available for loan to TDSB parents, students and staff.”
Endicott-Reid was an advocate for equity even before she became a trustee. In his book Race to Equity: Disrupting Educational Inequality, Tim McCaskell writes of Reid-Endicott: Her work at OISE’s Third World Project led to her engagement with issues facing inner-city Caribbean youth, such as the teaching of Black and West Indian history in Ontario schools. She immersed herself in community work with the Immigrant Women’s Centre and Black Education Project.
Endicott-Reid certainly qualifies as a woman who has made important contributions to our society and to the quality of our lives today. Her activism, dedication to equity in education and passion are some of the qualities we need to look for in the trustee candidates when we go to the polls on October 25 to elect the people who will be responsible for steering the course of the public education system in Toronto for the next four years.