Immigrant women changed the face of Toronto

Posted on December 17, 2012 in Inclusion History – opinion/editorialopinion
December 16, 2012.   By Carol Goar, Editorial Board

One of Toronto’s great untold stories is the role immigrant women played in knitting the social fabric of the city.

They developed a network of support services for themselves and future generations of newcomers. They created training and employment programs for women with no Canadian experience, no connections and no way of getting a foothold in the workforce. They set up female-run businesses that employed newcomers. They lifted immigrant women from the lowest socio-economic status in Canadian society to a level where they could earn a living wage, become citizens and break down the barriers that had confronted them. They made multiculturalism work.

Along the way, they changed their communities and changed the face of the city.

Finally, after 35 years of activism, the missing chapter of Toronto’s history has been written. It is called Making the City: Women Who Made a Difference.

It tells the stories of 40 trailblazers who came from diverse homelands, found they were living in a host country that automatically assigned immigrant women the lowest status in society, and organized a grassroots self-help program. Their accounts were pulled together by the staff of the Working Women Community Centre (WWCC), which has always been the heart of the movement.

Working Women is one of the city’s social mainstays that seldom makes news. It doesn’t trumpet its achievements, receive multi-million-dollar gifts from prominent philanthropists or hold splashy fundraising galas. But it is loyally supported by thousands of newly arrived women who found respect and equality when they walked through its doors. Over the years, it has evolved from a tiny office above a store on Bloor Street into a busy hub in Toronto’s west end with satellite offices downtown, at Jane and Finch and at Don Mills and Sheppard.

For its 35th anniversary, executive director Marcie Ponte wanted to do something special. She brainstormed with the centre’s staff and volunteers and they decided the best way to celebrate the milestone was to document the impact of immigrant women on attitudes, institutions and access to jobs and services in Toronto.

“The official history books will never have this type of history,” says Tania Das Gupta, a professor of equity studies at York University. She was one of the pioneers, an Indian immigrant working again racism and violence against women in the South Asian community. “The small victories accumulate. Little by little, things change.”

Most of the women featured in the book have gone on to teach at universities, work at banks and other businesses, become union organizers, community leaders and managers of charitable foundations. But they started as isolated newcomers, reaching out to one another and inventing answers when none existed.

Marcie Ponte, who has headed Working Women for more than 30 years, is an example. She came to Canada at the age of 7 from the Azores. What she found in Toronto’s Portuguese community — capable women working in precarious jobs as office cleaners, domestics and chambermaids — convinced her to help immigrant women stand up for their rights. She worked with Cleaners Action, a project run by St. Christopher House, then the YMCA before getting involved in Working Women.

“We partnered with Humber College to create the Women in Electronics program. We started Modistas Unidas (Seamstresses United), one of the first immigrant social enterprises in the city. Within a year, the women in the sewing circle were generating enough income to rent their own factory. They hired a designer and developed three new lines of clothing.”

Ratna Omidvar came to Canada as a refugee after the overthrow of the Shah of Iran, began as a volunteer and became a settlement worker at St. Stephen’s Community House and led a movement to create an employment centre for newcomers, which she headed for many years. She is now president of the Maytree Foundation.

Debbie Douglas came from Grenada, became politically active in high school and used her skills to organize black women in Toronto in the late ’70s and early ’80s. She worked part-time in battered women’s shelters and spent several years as a youth worker at the YWCA. She is now executive director of the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants (OCASI).

The other 37 women in the book contributed in their own ways, beginning with their own communities. None of them thought they were making history. Looking back, they’re proud — and a bit astonished — that they did.

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