“We are all Superheroes!”
Stories and Reflections from the Roundtable on Activist Aging
The Roundtable on Activist Aging was a highlight of the symposium. This session, which spanned an hour and a half on Saturday morning, provided an opportunity for activists and community leaders to share their stories and experiences with activism through their lives and as they age. In this session, we arranged our chairs into one large circle, allowing us all to face each other. The session opened with Sadeqa Siddiqi and Anne Caines of Respecting Elders Communities Against Abuse leading a dynamic ice-breaker.
Following our ice-breaker, the interactive roundtable was co-facilitated by Liz Stone (from Niijkiwendidaa Anishnaabekwewag Services Circle) and Rosemary Ganley (from Jamaica Self-Help), both long-time activists and valued community leaders in Peterborough. Three other symposium participants, Gillian Sandeman, Jill Jones, Rose Marie Whalley, were asked in advance to prepare five-minute synopses of their activist histories to share in this session. The floor was then opened to all, with an invitation to share in the conversation. The questions guiding this session were as follows:
1. What drew you into activism or social change work?
2. How has your activism changed at different times in your life?
3. What has sustained your work in later-life?
Feedback from this session was overwhelmingly positive. We (the organizers) were repeatedly thanked for creating time and space for such an authentic sharing of stories in the program. Activists, academics, and students alike remarked that this was the most powerful session of the event. Many participants also expressed deep gratitude and respect for Liz Stone, for the leadership and skill she demonstrated as co-facilitator in this session. It was Liz who, at the end of this session, expressed the sentiment that “we are all superheroes” – a sentiment that certainly resonated widely.
Because the stories and experiences shared during this session speak for themselves, we have decided to transcribe the Roundtable and provide excerpts from each speaker. Over the course of this week, we will share these pieces, as we transcribe them and are granted permissions to do so. Thanks again to all who participated!
Boozhoo, thank you for coming. My name is Liz Stone and thank you very much for inviting me and Rosemary to facilitate this Roundtable. I just want to talk very briefly and share a little bit about how I feel: what my vision is, what I thought of when I was invited to share our stories.
I’m a traditional woman (in my understanding of that sense of the word) and I do my best to live a good life, or a Mino Bimadiziwin. I have been privileged to grow up with activism all around me. But we didn’t always identify it as “activism.” One of the things I was taught at an early age was that activism in my family and in my community looks very different at different stages of life; how it plays out, how we act.
Something else that has always been taught to me [about activism] is that we must take care of ourselves – there are always going to be times when we are working with community, using our voice in a strong way, outside of our comfort zone or bubble, outside of our small circle of family, in the greater community… And we must acknowledge that there are those times when we feel like we have been beaten down, we feel like we are using our voice, our actions, we are putting ourselves out there, open. And there are those times when we feel we need a break, we don’t know if we can go on, we don’t know if we can do it anymore… And so we acknowledge those feelings.
Something what gives us strength and gives us love and empowers us to keep going when we feel that way is to share stories. When we share our stories and share our experiences, we always do that with the lens of looking forward at the people who are on this path ahead of us, and looking back at the ones who are coming up and watching us, and that gives us strength to keep going. When I feel like giving up, I think of my son, of my nieces and nephews, and I think of my future grandchildren. When I feel like giving up, I look at different women who have been mentors to me, that are still in my life, and who I meet. Like Shirley Williams and Jean Koning. I look at all of those things. So I am particularly grateful for being here.
Some of the things that, very briefly, I have been involved with from a very early age… I was privileged to be born and raised by a political family, an Anishinaabe political family, as well as a traditional family. I learned to use my voice a long time ago, but I also learned to do it in a kind and loving way, I hope. I was involved with movements in my community from a very early age. When I was in high school I learned that in the city I moved to there was a bylaw where people of colour couldn’t live within the town limits. I was active in changing that. I moved on to other things; I was involved in 1994 when a group of Indigenous people and allies took over Revenue Canada in Toronto. I was also active and a part of the American Indian movement in the United States; I was a Board member of the New York chapter. I had awesome opportunities and privilege to meet and form lasting friendships with the People of Wounded Knee, which is actually where the movement started and should always be remembered. So one of the things is that, we struggle as people, not to brag. This is what I’ve done, but what we have learned, and what we said last night, is that it is about the collective. I forget who said it, but “If you want to move fast move alone, if you want to get things done [and I’m paraphrasing here] you do it in a group.”
It is very important, when we get into those places, that we can say, this is what I’ve done; it’s okay to do that. It’s okay to acknowledge what I’ve done and how I’ve done it. Because that’s what keeps us going… It is healing and acknowledging and an expression of our work when we say “I’ve done this!” And that is what we are making space for today.
I’m going to start with one of my mentors. This is what Gloria Steinem says at 80: “I’m often asked if I’m going to pass the torch. I answer, ‘I am going to keep my own torch thank you very much, but I will be glad to help others light theirs, because the world needs more light.’”
I’ve brought some show and tell items to keep me focused [in talking about my activism]. Well, the formative experiences for me included going to Beijing in 1995 for the United Nations Fourth World Conference. One of the leaders in Peterborough has been Linda Slavin; Linda always had a global vision, and that’s what she developed in me. She said, “there is a United Nations conference on women, Peterborough has to be there.” So we started to fundraise and we sent five Peterborough women: a scholar, a refugee, another activist, myself, and a daughter of an Anglican activist. So we were five in Beijing, there were 35, 000 women in saris, jeans, business suits, kangas. It was enough inspiration for a whole lifetime and the platform for action has not been implemented, and I think it is the best document about women’s status ever developed…
Later, CIDA sent my husband and I and three kids to Jamaica and Tanzania. We spent six years overseas… So we started Jamaica Self-Help at the kitchen table. We have since raised 10 million dollars, that’s not a lot of money in 35 years, but boy, it was formative and formative for this community…
In 2004 there was a huge flood, no deaths, but many poor people in basement apartments were suffering. So the mayor, an older woman, said we have got to raise some funds. We decided to do a calendar. There was a very tasteful photographer, a young man, who would like to take our pictures in honour of his mother. … We raised one hundred thousand dollars and we said to Peterborough. And you know the body things we have been doing here, well we were doing that and it is amazing. Men of all ages came and said I would like to get five of those calendars: for my girlfriend, my mother. And we laughed all the way, and the Ontario government matched what we made, so we had $200,000. And the mayor said, no bureaucracy, this money is going out of here and in 3 months. And people applied, for stoves, dishwashers, we believed them and the money went to them. …
And… Twenty-five years ago, Linda and I started organizing Peterborough’s Person’s Day breakfast. Linda said “this is Person’s Day, 1929, Canadian women were declared to be persons, we’ve got to do something in Peterborough.” I was a bit stunned, but I followed her. So we have a Person’s Day Breakfast, and this year it is on Election Day, in the morning at 7am. It’s pay what you can. The program is going to be under-20 year olds from each of the parties speaking, because we aging feminists think we know what the issues are, but maybe not.
So here is my story: 1973, I’m 19. I rejected going through an academic process, though I won a scholarship and instead I trained as a machinist. In 1973, the government was looking for women who were looking to go back into the non-traditional workforces, where we basically ran the country during the Second World War. I went to Canadian General Electric, and the labour movement was very exciting for women. By the 1980’s women were 42% of the Canadian workers and 35% of the labour unions. Organizing Working Women was formed in 1975-1985 and had a major role in helping women get leadership positions inside the labour movement. For me, the payoff for Organized Working Women was clear in 1990 when the NDP government was elected and a number of the women from labour unions became MPPs. It was wonderful, wonderful to see.
I liked the labour movement, but in the labour movement, I felt that I lost myself and my identity as a woman, let alone being a lesbian. In 1983 I was laid off of Peterborough and I had to go to Toronto. I started working for the Ontario’s Women’s Directorate and this time was a moment of change in our society, when women realized in the 50’s and 60’s how much we were being drugged and how much we weren’t aware. And that was really critical…
I have learned that music is a really good way to share stories about and with women. Dancing is a really good way, as is spirituality. I am very proud to call myself a Wiccan, a witch. I am very proud to talk about power and I believe power with is the most important power…
I also want to tell you that with the Older Women’s Network… it has been really helpful for us in facilitating intergenerational connection. We started out with younger women who stayed home, Trent’s Women’s Committee, women who were here during the summer and who wanted to garden with older women. They missed gardening with mothers, aunts, grandmothers, so we started a joint gardening program, which was wonderful. Then it morphed into a radio show on Trent Radio. We still meet, and we would be happy to have any of you join us…
I have a sense of urgency because I know what it’s like to be trying to work one’s way through a workshop on a time schedule, so I’m conscious of that. I’ll be 93 years old in December, so I have a sense of urgency about that. I really just don’t know how much longer I will be around to speak and I’ve done my fair share of talking over the years.
The other thing is that I have been working with the Kawartha Truth and Reconciliation Support Group here in town and this brings forth for me a real sense of urgency. I’m not academically trained; my knowledge comes from experience, lived experience and so in order to think my way through things, I think of ways to divide and name groups. I know here in what we called Canada, there is a group of people, a very large group of people, who I call First Peoples. And then there is the Rest Of Us. And I’ll put that in capitals too. We all know, to some extent, the vast inequalities in the ways the First Peoples live in this country and the way we live in this country.
So I have a challenge for you. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission finished its work in June this year and Mr. Justice Sinclair Murray said, “We have shown you the mountain, now you have to go and do that work of climbing the mountain.” The work is that you and I need to find a way to sit down with the First Peoples to ask them to show us how to make things better in this country. This is a real challenge. I mean it has taken me about 45 years to figure this out, so lots of luck.
It doesn’t come easily for somebody like me to believe that I don’t know best. I have been richly blessed in my life. The First Peoples have taken me in and have allowed me to sit with them and listen to them. What I have discovered is that what I may have thought of as listening at one point is not listening at all. If you are going to listen to First Peoples, you are going to have to learn how to listen and that’s a big challenge, but you will go home today and I am selfishly going to say that I hope you remember something of what I am saying here. As you go forward, can you find a way to put yourself in the position of sitting with the First Peoples and listening. It is a tremendous challenge, especially for women, women like us, who have spent years telling people where to get off. But the challenge is there and my friends I simply ask you to take something of that home and see if you can make a change in this country that we call Canada but that our First Peoples friends call Turtle Island….
(From the break-out sessions…)
My life has been really changed by my connections with First Peoples. I’m a white woman: mother from England, father from Scotland. I am a first generation born Canadian. I grew up for the first 40 years without knowing anything about “Indians.” Then, my husband became ordained as an Anglican priest, we moved to Manitoulin Island, met Indians. I’ve never looked back. My lens is as a white woman whose life/perspective has been changed by First Peoples (though I’m not one of them, I’m me)….
We’re inclined to think that to be, we have to speak. It is possible to just be present. Possible to sit without speaking and still find a sense of community. This is one of the things I learn from First Peoples. I put myself in their presence, and I had to wait until they were ready to speak. And that means, we have to make space, we have to stop speaking.
I started having husbands and children at a fairly early age. I am a grade eleven drop-out and was a founding member of the Green party in the early 80’s. Then I got really disillusioned in the political process so I got involved in seed saving and learning about urban agriculture, seed sovereignty, pollinator advocacy and beekeeping.
In 2004, my husband, who had been doing all this stuff with me died of a heart attack and his heart attack took place in front of police headquarters in Toronto. There were three police officers when he, in his gardening clothes with his bundle buggy full of stuff, turned blue. … It’s been 11 years and they have never admitted anything and I have never been able to get it into court and I have not been able to get an inquest… What happened to my husband, I know he might have died anyway, but he was pronounced dead 19 minutes after I saw him, several blocks away. This was so close to a hospital and they had a defibrillator and they were all trained in CPR, and they did not raise a finger…
I got involved with the homeless community and I found out the horrors that the homeless people experience at the hands of police. Many of them are already disabled, have suffered brain injuries or have mental illness… Victims are shamed for what happens to them, what happens to their family members. This is a very lonely job to have, so it is good to be in with this group. Another way I have been coping with it is I joined the Raging Grannies and I became a subway busker. I am a licensed Subway Busker in Toronto and I sing in the subway at all hours of the day and night about and to my husband, and about things I care about and I want to make sure it stays in the public eye.
I am at the time in my life where I am determining what my passion is and what forms of activism I’d like to follow. I am a fairly recent graduate from Trent University, 2013, I took Politics there as well as Canadian Studies, focusing on Social Policy and demographic issues. I think some of my passions are leading me towards people who live on the fringes of society, people with disabilities, women, people of different demographic groups. I think that is potentially because for the majority of my life, I have silently felt on the fringe of society.
I’ve recently self-identified as a woman with a disability, but it is an invisible disability, so a lot of people can’t see that I often feel alone. So moving forward in life I would like to help people, but being a younger woman, it is difficult to find a career that balances my passion with being able to financially support myself. I am kind of in this weird limbo state trying to balance everything. I like that I can go to these different venues where I can meet women who are in substantial stages of their lives and have made such impacts on their communities. I’m very thankful that things like this exist and that I can be here.
My name is Elizabeth Vezina and I think my story is quite different. I really admire all of you women who have been active and activists all your lives. I have never done anything in my life as an activist, I have never been involved, I was one of those people who just complained…
As a single mom I worked really hard to support my daughter. I worked in a completely male-dominated field, I was always the only woman in the boardroom, the only woman in the meetings. So you really have to work quite hard, you have to be better really, than anyone else to succeed. And that’s what I did.
When I retired it was like “oh my god, what am I going to do?” Work had been 90% of my life. So I really had to reconstruct myself and, not knowing what to do, I went back to university…I knew the world was not in good shape, but after some of the courses I had taken, I thought, “boy we are really in a mess.” Also at that stage in my life, I really wanted to give back.
There were several influences that came together. I had a granddaughter and you know I was holding her and she was this tiny little package all wrapped up in pink and I thought, “this poor specimen, what is she coming into?” A research project at school directed me to the Raging Grannies. When I first saw an article on the Raging Grannies, I thought, “What is this?!” It looked exciting; it looked like something I could join in, something I could do.
Sure enough, after the first meeting, I’ve been there every time. And they were really gracious to accept me in because I felt I had no background, no understanding of what was going on, and they still accepted me as a Raging Granny. There was one thing that I could do and that was work with computers and you know they wanted to get involved in Facebook and YouTube. So it’s lucky that I’ve been able to help them do some of that stuff.
I think my message is that there are a lot of women out there who don’t know what to do, they would like to help. They have all kinds of life skills and I really want to encourage them to join all of the different groups that are there. Thank you.
Rose Marie Whalley
I had these ideas when I was quite young that I suppose began me on my path. My path is absolutely to totally oppose capitalism and of course now we have globalization as well. But I somehow started out on this path because of my own experience, here we were hungry and I used to say to my father, “what’s happening here?” and my father would say “remember your station in life, lass.” My station in life was to work in some local factory and I, thank goodness, rebelled against it.
Now in 1960 there was the terrible incident in South Africa, it was the Sharpeville massacre… I was crying I was so moved and I got involved in the Cape Fruit Boycott in Manchester in 1961, 62. I went from that to training college and became a teacher and I went from that to Banning the Bomb. I was really interested in and I am still really appalled by the idea of nuclear weapons, all these years later… At that time there was the war in Vietnam, and I thought, in the folly of my youth, I’ll go to America and I’ll tell them what they are doing and then they will stop! So that was indeed what I did. So I went for about four years in the States as a community organizer and of course things got a little bit hot there for me so I fled across the border. That’s how I came to Canada, I came to Montreal, it was really quite fortunate.
In Montreal, I had a child by that stage, and so I got involved in the Daycare Movement and self-help clinics, toy exchanges and I kind of tempered things there for a minute while my daughter was young because I didn’t want her to grow up with an absent mother, you know constantly at meetings. So I calmed things down as I raised my kid. I went back to school, then I joined the Voice of Women and we worked on the rights for Native women, peace and anti-racist education, and of course we did a lot of work in those days on what was happening in Central America…
Around 2003 I knew I was going to retire as soon as I could to continue my activist work and so around 2003 I started, with a few other people, this radio program called OWL. We’ve never quite defined what it means, is it Old, or Older, Women, Live or Alive. I say that we are old, but people are a little bit, coy about saying they are old. So we have this program once a month… And with the radio, of course, even though we so often are invisible and silenced as old women, we’re not really because we can talk on the radio. And it has been really wonderful to see these women who at first… would not talk on the microphone… but eventually the microphone gave them a sense of power and control and they have so much to say, it’s been a really wonderful experience and we continue.
One of my street activism things, was this group that I started with some others, called LOLA, Little Old Lady Activist. LOLA is committed to a just, safe and non-violent world where we and future generations can live in hope, harmony and security and that we can add our wisdom and strength of our voices to the world to say no to globalization.
More to come. Please check back soon!