Shirley Douglas addresses International Women’s Day event
By Caitlyn Langille
On March 8th, in celebration of International Women’s Day (IWD), an event was held at Access Point Danforth. Run by Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services, Access Points Toronto-wide are an attempt to improve health outcomes for the most vulnerable immigrants, refugees, and their communities by facilitating access to services and addressing systemic inequities.
Organized jointly with Dan Harris, Scarborough Southwest MP, and Shwasti, this well planned celebration was a truly empowering experience. Shwasti is a Bengali word that means comfort and wellbeing, which reflects the organization’s main objective to bring comfort into the hearts of women. This group was founded one year ago, on the last IWD, with the goal of creating new horizons for women who have been experiencing social, emotional, and cultural isolation.
The theme for IWD, which is announced annually by the UN, was “inspiring change” — a call to advocate for women’s advancement worldwide. Beginning with its first event over a hundred years ago on March 8th, 1911, IWD recognizes the positive gains made in female empowerment, while also drawing attention to areas requiring further action.
The choice of Shirley Douglas as keynote speaker was a perfect complement to this theme. A resident of southwest Scarborough herself, she was delighted at the opportunity to speak on this occasion. At the age of 79, Douglas is still very active in her political advocacy, primarily for the maintenance and improvement of our publically funded healthcare system.
In her speech, Shirley drew upon many influences from her long life in Canadian social advocacy, including her father, Tommy Douglas, whom she referred to as her greatest inspiration. As a child, Shirley was present for the early conversations about our healthcare system. She referred to the eventual establishment of publically funded healthcare as an example of “what people can do for a community when they think politically.” As both a mother and a daughter, Shirley learned that we must teach children to be helpful, because “you’re not the only one helping, people are helping you too; this is the start of community.”
IWD, in Shirley’s words, is a day to “remember what has changed.” “When people ask me why don’t women have more power,” says Shirley, “I answer, we have much more than we had.” When she was younger, the girls were told they couldn’t do math and science because “they are lovely and darling and do other things.” Shirley admits that by the time she was 35 she had accepted that men would be the lawyers and doctors, but now, over 40 years later, more than 50 per cent of medicine and law students are female.
Pointing to a young girl in the audience, Shirley exclaimed “you can be prime minister, if you want to!” To everyone, she emphasized that “you’ll never be happy unless you figure out what you truly want to do and do it – you CAN do it. . . .All of us are afraid sometimes, but you just have to say to hell with it!”
Overall, Shirley Douglas’s speech was an excellent centerpiece to a triumphant event which also featured music from the Bengali Children’s Choir and Valerie Shearman of Stand United 4 Women and Girls, as well as performances by traditional African, Bangladeshi, and Nepalese Dancers.