Workplace discrimination resulted in Northwestern General Hospital compensating seven Black nurses with $320,000 two decades ago.
As part of the historical landmark decision, the hospital also promised to change its human resources management practices to ensure that racial minorities are equitably treated, create a position for a vice-president of ethno-racial equality and establish a 15-member human rights committee comprising community members and representatives from various sectors of the hospital.
Academic and activist Dr. Akua Benjamin, who was one of the nurses’ advocates, is being rewarded for her social justice activism with a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award.
“Social workers have a huge contribution to make related to larger structural issues,” Dr. Benjamin once said. “We need to look at how we can address these issues at their root systemically. Social workers will always have to attend to human needs one-on-one, but it is vital that we also look at the systemic issues in a profound way if they are to be prevented and eradicated.”
Coalition of Black Trade Unionists Ontario chapter’s founding president June Veecock said Benjamin deserves the accolade.
“Akua is someone I have always admired,” said Veecock who was honoured with a YWCA award in 2003 for labour advocacy. “We were joint negotiators in the nurse’s case and when I went to South Africa to observe their 1994 elections, she held the fort admirably until I returned.”
The first Black director of Ryerson University’s School of Social Work where she was instrumental in creating a justice-oriented framework for social work education, Benjamin has transformed the way frontline services are delivered to women and other marginalized groups by positioning feminism and anti-racism as a priority.
Over the years, the social work professor has provided myriad organizations with anti-oppression training and her advocacy has drawn attention to the systemic racism in local and national organizations that serve marginalized women. A champion of immigrant women’s success, she was also a key voice in the fight for legislation to allow domestic workers, the majority of them women of colour, the right to bring family members to Canada.
Benjamin, a founding member of the Coalition of Visible Minority Women and the Black Action Defence Committee, migrated from Trinidad & Tobago in 1969 and pursued sociology studies at York University. She received her Master’s and Ph.D. degrees in social work from the University of Toronto.
Following employment in the fields of psychiatric social work and addictions, Benjamin joined the Ryerson staff in 1988.
Nine years ago, she was a Distinguished Visitor in Women’s Studies at the University of Windsor and a nominee to share the Nobel Peace Prize.
Established in 1981, the YWCA awards honour women who are working assiduously to improve the lives of women and girls in Toronto.
This year’s awards ceremony takes place on May 22 at The Carlu, 444 Yonge St., starting at 5.30 p.m.
Funds accrued from the event go to employment, housing and counselling programs.
Previous YWCA Women of Distinction Award winners include former provincial cabinet minister Mary Anne Chambers, Canada’s first female hockey superstar Angela James, educator Dr. Avis Glaze, Ontario’s Fairness Commissioner Jean Augustine, filmmaker Claire Prieto, poet/playwright M. Nourbese Philip, community workers and women advocates Debbie Douglas, Rev. Paulette Brown, Kay Blair, Tonika Morgan, Angela Robertson, Kamala-Jean Gopie, Ebonnie Rowe and Beth Jordan and the late Dr. Joan Lesmond, entrepreneur Bev Mascoll and City of Toronto employee and union activist Muriel Collins who died last November at age 81.