On Thursday night, former NDP MP for Trinity–Spadina, Olivia Chow, led a panel on women empowerment at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education. Chow also ran to be the Mayor of Toronto in 2014.
Amnesty International U of T hosted the event in celebration of International Women’s Day and included speakers such as UTSG Sociology Professor Judith Taylor, Canada’s first Indigenous forensic pathologist Kona Williams, and Samra Zafar, the founder of a non-profit organization that helps survivors of domestic abuse.
Chow, now a distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson University, spoke about her life story and her beginnings in community activism and local politics.
She recalled that she was initially an artist by profession; her degree was in Fine Arts, and she would often skip the news section of the paper in favour of the arts and entertainment.
It was only when she saw photos of Southeast Asian refugees escaping the horrors in their homeland on boats that she felt inspired to take up political pursuits.
Chow went on to say that it was when she went to a rally for the “boat people” that she was moved to act, and she participated in the push for the federal government to accommodate thousands of refugees in 1979.
Inspired by other Canadian refugee programs, especially those concerning people fleeing South American dictatorships, she ran for political office as a trustee on the Toronto Board of Education and won.
Chow spoke of her student days, when she sat in the back in fear of speaking in public, and contrasted them to today, when she has realized that there are more important things.
Chow also spoke of her successes on the board of education. As a school trustee, she successfully led the campaign to translate 911 emergency calls, arguing that if a person were in danger, they would not be able to receive proper help if the operator did not understand them.
Her push initially failed, as the Police Services Board turned down her request due to limited funding. Nevertheless, she persisted. She organized her community and reached out directly to the immigrants, convincing them to call their local councillor and ask for the service. Eventually, her goal materialized.
In order to succeed, she laid out three important actions: find out who has the power, get your issue on the agenda, and find out how to apply pressure.
Chow concluded, “When people come together we have the power to make the change we want.”
Taylor also spoke on women in power, specifically on the feminist movement. She discussed a project in which she interviewed feminists across the country on how feminism should continue and raised the concern that the movement does not have clear leaders and spokespeople.
Nonetheless, Taylor praised the fact that many people are now talking about issues that are not their own.
Williams spoke on the contrast between modern society and Indigenous communities, which are mostly matrilineal, as women hold considerable power.
Zafar, who was brought to Canada as a child bride, spoke on her ordeal and how she survived emotional and physical abuse. Since leaving her husband, she has been featured in multiple media outlets and has recently founded her not-for-profit organization Brave Beginnings.