Encouraged by community-oriented parents who engaged in myriad volunteer activities in Trinidad & Tobago, Ceta Ramkhalawansingh was prepared to make her mark as an advocate and activist when her family of five migrated to Canada in the summer of 1967.
She spent a year in high school before entering the University of Toronto (U of T) where she became involved in various activities, including student government and course union programs at a time when there was a movement to change the university’s curriculum to an integrated inter-departmental approach.
“My parents’ track record of doing work in churches, schools and our community in Trinidad & Tobago was incredible,” said Ramkhalawansingh, who is this year’s recipient of the Constance Hamilton Award. “That’s part of the family DNA.”
The award recognizes individuals who have made a significant contribution to improving the social, economic, cultural and political status of women in the city and have encouraged others in their efforts to achieve equality.
As an undergraduate student, the then 19-year-old was at the forefront of a movement that successfully lobbied for the establishment of the U of T’s women’s studies program, where she taught for seven years.
“There was not much attention been paid at the time to women’s issues in terms of the university curriculum,” said Ramkhalawansingh, who is a member of the program’s advisory board. “An opportunity arose through the disciplinary studies program to begin something. We worked with graduate students and eventually found a faculty member who was willing to act as a faculty sponsor. Today, it’s a thriving program with over 1,200 students and next year it will be offering a PhD. I am proud to be associated with it.”
A decade ago, she was made an honorary member of the U of T Institute of Women’s & Gender Studies.
In her third year in university, Ramkhalawansingh’s leadership was evident again when bulldozers threatened to raze the Grange, where she has resided for the past 41 years. She successfully negotiated with the developers to protect residential housing in the downtown community. She has fiercely fought over the years to safeguard the community’s residential quality from the Art Gallery of Ontario’s continuing expansion.
Impressed by the leadership she exhibited, local residents appointed her the Grange Community Association’s honorary president four years ago.
While in university, Ramkhalawansingh was also a writer/researcher for the Women’s Press and she worked for nearly 18 months with city school board trustees who were engaged in rewriting school board curriculum and programs to address issues and the barriers immigrant families faced.
“That program really had the effect of going a long way towards involving parents from various ethnic backgrounds in the school system through the establishment of the School Community Relations Department,” she said.
After graduating with a Master’s in 1981, Ramkhalawansingh joined the City of Toronto diversity management office. She rose to the rank of diversity management and community engagement manager before retiring two years ago.
“The word ‘retire’ doesn’t quite apply to me,” she said. “A friend told me I am now unleashed. I now have the time to devote to some of the issues that affect communities…It’s easier to be politically involved and be in the public arena in Toronto than in T & T which is so clan-oriented in terms of politics. Here, you can be actively engaged in community issues and politics without being concerned about repercussions.”
Ramkhalawansingh is the national chair of the Word on the Street Canada, president of the LEARNXS Foundation and board member of the Toronto Community Foundation and the Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care. In addition, she’s a U of T Principal’s Appointee and a member of George Brown College’s community worker program advisory committee, Scadding Court’s Investing in Diversity Scholarship program advisory panel and the Heritage Toronto Community Heritage Award jury.
Over the years, the child studies diploma graduate has been recognized with several honours, including the New Pioneer, Arbor and the City of Toronto Book Awards.
She dedicated the Constance Hamilton Award to her 89-year-old mother, Mamin, who attended the event and the activists she has worked with on many projects over the years. Her father passed away in 1971.
The award was established in 1979 to honour the legacy of Hamilton, who died in 1945 and was the city’s first female councillor and the first woman in the province to hold elected office.
Previous winners include Ryerson University social work professor, Dr. Akua Benjamin; former National Action Committee on the Status of Women president Joan Grant-Cummings, who now lives in Jamaica; youth activist, Tonika Morgan and trailblazer Zanana Akande, the first Black woman elected to Ontario’s legislative assembly and Canada’s first Black female cabinet minister.
BY RON FANFAIR