Crowds of eager attendees filled the Mattamy Athletic Centre at Ryerson University on November 28 in anticipation of Michelle Obama’s arrival. The former First Lady visited Toronto in her first Canadian appearance since leaving the White House.
The event was organized by Plan International Canada and The Economic Club of Canada, and it highlighted the importance of education for young girls and gender equality rights across the globe.
The talk format was a conversation between Obama and Rhiannon Traill, President and CEO of The Economic Club of Canada and a Ryerson alumna. Among the attendees were newly elected New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh, MPP Michael Coteau, and Sophie Grégoire Trudeau.
Obama spoke about her upbringing as a young Black girl, being raised by two parents working blue collar jobs, and living in Chicago’s South Side. She credits the sacrifices her parents made and the challenges she overcame for her success as a lawyer.
“I tell my story so often because I think our stories are important, really important, but I think in our society, we’ve come to think that there are only a certain set of stories of ascension that are valid,” said Obama. “Success looks like one thing: it has a race, it has a gender, and as a result of our misperception of how different or diverse our stories are, some of us are ashamed of our stories.”
Obama also talked about issues facing young women in education, one being the intimidation of pursuing careers in STEM.
Tickets for the talk were priced from $250 upwards to $1,500. For every ticket sold, a free ticket was given to a youth aged 14–24.
Spoken word artist Nadine Williams and singer-songwriter Milck opened the event, commenting on their past struggles and societal and cultural standards as women. Milck spoke of her battle with anorexia and Asian societal standards.
Milck delivered a performance of her song, “Quiet,” which she wrote based on personal experiences.
Chief R. Stacey Laforme of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations addressed the crowd, delivering a prayer and recalling the role of women in the Anishinabek creation story.
Trudeau paid a surprise visit to the event and addressed the crowd regarding women’s issues in the world, including education for girls, forced marriage, and human trafficking.
“Education is the most important element for this reality to take shape and is a guarantee for the social and spiritual well-being of a nation. Education should be unbiased and based on facts,” she said.
Trudeau noted that, in the duration of the event, 3,000 people were married off to much older men and forced to drop out of school. “This is the fact. Two out of three adults who haven’t had the opportunity to read or write on this planet are women,” she said. “Ninety-eight per cent of all the millions of victims of sexual exploitation are women and girls, and right here in Canada and in the US. Human trafficking is the fastest growing crime against women.”