York unites against inequity

For over 12 years, York University has recognized International Women’s Day (March 8) and International Day for Elimination of Racial Discrimination (March 21) with a month of special events that address concerns of sexism, racism and related issues.

This year’s theme, “United Against Violence and Discrimination: Past, Present and Future”, incorporated workshops, poetry readings, film screenings, and women’s self-defence classes. The events were organized by York’s Office of the Ombudsperson and Centre for Human Rights.

On Tuesday, March 8, a reception recognizing International Women’s Day featured performances by dub poet, story teller and actor d’bi young, and speeches by Fiona Crean, ombudsperson & director of the Centre for Human Rights, and Talat Muinuddin, women’s advocate.

On March 21, York presented Giller Prize-winning author Austin Clarke, Roberta Jamieson, CEO of the National Aboriginal Achievement, and poets Rudhramoorthy Cheran and Luis Eduardo Mejicano (who is also known as SPIN).

The diverse offering of speakers and events focused on women’s rights, equity and the elimination of discrimination. The events were organized with unity in mind and were aimed at bringing people together. All speakers called for tolerance and a daily awareness of the harm caused by inequity, racism and sexism.

To open the month-long series of events, Teferi Adem, adviser to York’s Office of the Ombudsperson & Centre for Human Rights and master of ceremonies for the event, called on participants to connect the two dates because they stand for the same goals and objectives – the elimination of inequity, violence, discrimination and sexism. “I would like us all to reflect on what the elders of the First Peoples of North America have been teaching us, called ‘Great Consensus’. We are all supposed to hope, wish and plan for the future seven generations to practise and experience peace, love, mutual respect, understanding and learning to coexist as equals without fear of violence, harassment and discrimination.”

D’ bi young, spoken word and dub poet, performed a dynamic repertoire of poetry. “It is an honour to be here with you today,” said young. “I will speak on womenism and feminism and what it means to really commit yourself.” She urged those present to continue to work on behalf of the message of March 8 to March 21 Coalition on a daily basis and to carry the commitment with them every day.

Left: d’ bi young

“Today, the strong black woman passed away… the doctor said she died of natural causes. But those who knew her and those who used her nature, she is dead from being silent when she should be screaming,” chanted young. She continued with a selection from her role in the hit Toronto production Da Kink in My Hair, and ended with a performance of “Blood” which focused on the shame women feel about their bodies.

Following young’s performance, Pat Bradshaw, Chair of the York Senate, provided greetings to the participants on behalf of the University’s administration. “The focus on International Women’s Day is timely,” she said. “International reminds us that we are interdependent.”

Fiona Crean, the new ombudsperson for York University, urged those in attendance to remember that the struggle against racism, discrimination and inequity goes hand-in-hand with the struggle for women’s rights. “Every day is women’s day, every day we shoulder our half and more of the burdens of the world. Every day we raise our children and work to produce the resources to maintain our families, and still we find time to look after our community responsibilities. Is one day enough?”

Left: From left, Talat Muinuddin, Fiona Crean, Teferi Adem and Pat Bradshaw

“We cannot expect to have equity for ourselves in a society that does not offer equity to all its members,” said Crean. “It does me little good to find equity as a women, only to find inequities because of my disability or my culture.”

She called for the creation of an equitable society. “Equity means we make a special effort to ensure that everyone’s needs are met and to reach out to those who don’t come forward. We need to work with others to say ‘It is all right to be different’,” said Crean. “Our very future depends on our ability to break out of patterns and thoughts that limit us.”

Talat Muinuddin, president of the Women’s Intercultural Network, shared her thoughts on International Women’s Day and the role of peacemaking. “Our gathering and many other around the world are bearing witness to and recognizing the social, economic and political injustices that women are subjected to on a daily basis. We are celebrating in solidarity with women around the world. We must remember those who are living in conflict and poverty and those whose rights are violated. How far have we progressed and what do we need to do? Please reflect on our progress and where the struggles remain.”

On March 21, York celebrated the International Day for the Elimination of Racism with a series of readings and speeches given by literary and human rights luminaries. The event was opened by a dynamic spoken word performance by the poet SPIN. His impassioned poems “Synchronicity” and “I am Mama Earth” addressed themes of racism and the abuse of the environment.

Left: From left, Roberta Jamieson, Fiona Crean and Austin Clarke

Author Austin Clarke read from his work The Polished Hoe. His selections highlighted the narrative of an American slave in 1834 who is travelling north. Her experiences reveal the realities of segregation and the shock of riding a train through a town called “Lynchburg”. “I was expecting that all of the coloured Americans would stand up and walk to the door and jump off or stand their ground to protest against a name as awful as that,” read Clarke. “It is the same thing as naming a residential district in Israel ‘Auschwitz Boulevard’.”

Rudhramoorthy Cheran, a poet and research associate in York’s Centre for Research Studies, read from a number of his poems, “About Rifles”, “Ash”, “Amur” and “The Giant Tree in the Rainforest”. All of the selections focused on human rights abuse in Sri Lanka.

Right: From left, Rudhramoorthy Cheran, SPIN and Teferi Adem

Ending the event, Roberta Jamieson, CEO of the National Aboriginal Achievement and former Chief of the Six Nations of the Grand River Territory, gave an impassioned speech about human rights and the discrimination faced by the First Nations peoples of Canada. She received an honorary doctor of laws degree, awarded during York’s Spring 2003 Faculty of Arts convocation ceremony.

“We have all experienced some form of explicit or implicit racism,” said Jamieson, who admitted that she had to overcome her own barrier to understanding the challenges faced by people coping with mental health issues. “We need to think about our mindsets and understand the root causes of inequity and we need to join forces with those who are working against other ‘isms’.

“We expect a great deal of this country and we must find ways to correct the problems we have here at home because our own children are looking for us to act in the right way. After all, the Creator made us all one family,” said Jamieson.