The first female leader in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf has been hailed by many as an inspiration to women and youth everywhere. Her speech in Hart House’s Great Hall last Thursday drew a crowd of over 200, including a number of other political celebrities. Stephen Lewis, the former U.N. special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, was in the audience, alongside Liberal MP Belinda Stronach and U of T chancellor and former Ontario Premier David Peterson.

U of T president David Naylor and Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty both gave introductory remarks, McGuinty taking a moment to quote a BBC news statement praising Johnson-Sirleaf for the progress she has brought to Liberia in recent years.

Flanked by U of T, Canadian, British and Liberian flags, Sirleaf commanded the podium throughout her address. She pledged that Liberia’s government would follow an “interim poverty reduction measure” that seeks reform through four major pathways: national security, economic revitalization, education, and strengthened government and law.

Liberia, Africa’s oldest republic, finally saw the end of a 14-year long civil war in 2003. Since then, it has slowly been trying to rebuild its shattered economy. Sirleaf spoke of optimism returning to people when traffic lights and street lamps, which have been off for 15 years, were switched on again. Many Liberians, she remarked, are too young to ever remember them ever working before.

Sirleaf was in Canada to seek the same debt relief that is extended to many other African nations. She hopes that, with the end of her country’s civil war, Canada will now consider Liberia an eligible candidate for “priority” bilateral assistance once more. She stressed that, without assistance, Liberia could lapse back into strife.

“We know that post-war countries are very likely to fall back into war. We are determined to fight against the cancer of corruption,” she stated. “[My party] won [the national election] because the Liberian people truly believe we can make a difference and we will not let them down.”

Sirleaf has been involved for almost four decades in almost every aspect of local and international public service. She was educated at the College of West Africa in Monrovia and several U.S. colleges, earning a Master’s degree in public administration from Harvard in 1971. She has twice gone into exile to escape Liberian governments seeking to silence her dissent.

Sirleaf served as assistant administrator and director of the Regional Bureau of Africa for the United Nations Development Program until 1997, when she resigned to run as a presidential candidate for Liberia’s Unity Party.

The “Iron Lady,” as many have nicknamed her, is determined to “transform adversity into opportunity” by improving the quality of governance in Liberia. In her address, she explained that she has done this by appointing ministers who have no record of corruption or human rights abuse and by placing as many women as possible in all ministries.

Sirleaf concluded by urging Canadians, particularly young Canadians, to get involved in developing and strengthening Canadian-Liberian relations.

“Get on this moving train, Canada-it’s on the way to success,” she said, smiling.

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