On November 8-10, 150 members gathered for the 15th biennial OPSEU Women’s Conference in Toronto, themed "A Woman’s Journey: The Art of the Possible." OPSEU activists were inspired by the journeys and activism of the many guest speakers, shared stories with each other about their own journeys, and committed to working on issues important to them in their locals and regions.
Opening and closing smudging ceremonies, as well as sunrise smudging on Saturday and Sunday mornings of the conference, were led by sister Pauline Saulnier, giving an opportunity to participants for a time of contemplation and the opening of their minds and hearts for the day’s events.
The conference opened on Friday night with a series of educational and inspirational performances by a broad range of artists. Faith Nolan kicked off the evening with her guitar and sense of humour, singing folk and blues songs about solidarity and women’s issues. Alysha Singh and Shanice Ramcharran wowed the participants with their energetic and upbeat Bollywood dancing performances. Spoken word artist Nadine Williams electrified the audience with her passion and her humour, reciting several poems from her book, Pen on Fyah. Dancers and a musician from the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto, led by Cheryle Jacobs, shared some deeply moving traditional songs and dances. The participants also had a chance to browse an international market of fair trade goods that evening.
After a warm welcome to the conference from President Warren (Smokey) Thomas and Second Vice-President and Highest Ranking Woman Debbie Tungatt, Saturday was a day of inspirational speakers joining the participants to share their journeys to activism. Amanda Sussman, author of The Art of the Possible, was the keynote speaker, and she shared not only her own experiences with successful campaigns she has led (notably the "Because I am a Girl" campaign with Plan Canada), but also advice with the participants on how to effectively lobby the right people at the right time in order to achieve change.
Four well-known female members of both the federal and provincial Parliaments joined us for a discussion on Good Women in Politics: Rathika Sitsabaiesan, MP for Scarborough-Rouge River; Catherine Fife, MPP for Kitchener-Waterloo; Peggy Nash, MP for Parkdale-High Park; and Cheri DiNovo, MPP for Parkdale-High Park. After sharing their experiences as women in politics, the conference participants had a chance to interact with and ask probing questions of the politicians about how to overcome the obstacles women face in politics, and how to get involved themselves.
A panel on Success Stories of Aboriginal Women included three strong Aboriginal women: writer, educator and Indigenous literature academic Lesley Belleau; lawyer and educator Margaret Froh, a Director with Métis Nation of Ontario; and community worker Bridget Perrier whose activism focuses on awareness-raising about how the sex industry harms Aboriginal women. These three women inspired everyone in attendance by sharing the way their life journeys led to the activism and work they are doing today, as well as the challenges they met and overcame along the way.
Finally, the participants heard from three activists on a panel about Campaigning to End Poverty and Violence Against Women. The panelists were: Sonia Singh from the Workers Action Centre in Toronto, an organization that is spearheading the $14 minimum wage campaign; Ida Mukuka, a field representative based in Zambia with the Stephen Lewis Foundation; and Arlene Jane Pitts, an activist from Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, who co-founded Stop the Arrests!!!, a coalition fighting the stigmatization and arrest of sex workers. Participants learned about how these women’s life experiences motivated them to get involved in activism to create change on the issues that affected them.
Two documentary films were shown, on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Miss Representation is a documentary that challenges the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women to achieve leadership positions. Solar Mamas is a documentary about the challenges faced and overcome by a woman from a Bedouin community in Jordan who attended Barefoot College, a school in India that teaches illiterate women from countries around the world how to become solar engineers in six months in order to bring solar power to their communities. The films prompted a great deal of contemplation and discussion among the conference participants about how they could relate to the challenges faced by the women in the films, and how to overcome them in their own lives.
The conference wrapped up on Sunday with participants breaking into groups by region and identifying the issues that they would like to work on in their regions. After lively discussion together, each region presented the issues they want to move forward to all participants. The conference closed with individual commitments by each participant to become active on an issue of their choice. Participants wrote those issues down and pinned them to a clothesline that stretched in a circle around the conference hall.
The Women’s Conference motivated OPSEU activists to take leadership on the issues that are important to them. It provided them with the information, tools and inspiration needed to mobilize for change.