With the histories of Canada’s Indigenous peoples and the slaves stolen from their communities during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade behind and in front of her, Angela Robertson stood on the convocation stage to accept an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from York University. The Oct. 19 ceremony took place during fall convocation for graduates of the School of Arts, Media, Performance & Design, Faculty of Environmental Studies, and Faculty of Liberal Arts & Professional Studies.
Robertson, a social justice activist and advocate for women’s and low-income people’s rights, paid tribute to her mother, grandmother and great grandmother, who nurtured her as a young feminist in the Toronto Black Women’s Collective, and to the men in her life who work to undermine patriarchy.
Dedicated to people and communities facing discrimination, poverty and marginalization, Robertson, an alumna of York University, is a passionate feminist leader whose activism and career is focused on community support. Beginning in the 1990s, Robertson worked as an editor of social issues manuscripts at Women’s Educational Press, served as an adviser to the Minister Responsible for Women’s Issues, was a manager at Homes First Society and the Community Social Planning Council of Toronto, and was the executive director of Sistering – A Woman’s Place for more than a decade. Since then, she has expanded this impressive resume to include a directorship at Women’s College Hospital, and is currently the executive director of Parkdale Queen West Community Health Centre. Each vocation benefited from her undiminished passion and leadership. She is also the co-editor with Ena Dua of the book Scratching the Surface: Canadian Anti-Racist Feminist Thought.
“History which is not unique to me – history of my great and grandmother and my mother, as the work that I do, and the impact I strive to have, is inextricably linked to their histories and the histories of other women across this city,” she said in her convocation address. “It is my relationship to this collective history that has shaped my commitment to social justice and striving always to create new ways of being in the world.”
Growing up with her great grandmother and grandmother in rural Jamaica, Robertson understood the immense stress of poverty. Her grandmother went to work at 13 years of age tying and cutting sugar cane, cleaning houses and schools. Robertson’s mother left Jamaica when her daughter was just five years old to work as a domestic in Toronto.
“In witnessing their struggles, I made a promise to myself, for the line of mothers and grandmothers that I would sign myself up wherever possible to fight and change those things that devalue women’s, black, low-income and working people’s lives, and produce poverty and shame; rage and illness; hurt and silence; inequality and injustice,” said Robertson.
She urged the graduates to join her and use their degrees to make an impact on the world. “With your knowledge and the privilege of the degree we must band together to take actions big and small that will have an impact of creating more equity and justice,” said Robertson.
”It is in your interest to fight for a higher minimum wage; the organization of work that reduces precarious working conditions; a social assistance system that enables people to move out of poverty; support for unions and unionization because we know that there is a unionization advantage for racialized and women workers,” she said.
A publicly funded education system, enhanced social programs, equitable immigration and trading policies, opposing violence against women and the importance of valuing Indigenous women (because there are more than 800 missing and murdered Indigenous women) are all worthy issues requiring collective indignation and action, said Robertson.
Her recommendation to those gathered for convocation was that every day they strive to live their values with purpose and urgency, no matter how impractical. “I believe that no act of resistance/interruption is ever wasted. They serve as inspiration for others. They affirm the struggles of others near and far and they affirm the moral imperatives that it is our individual and collective responsibility to work for what is just and right,” said Robertson.
“Thank you to the communities of women, men and trans folks to whom I am committed and who have allowed me to be an ally in the work. They have survived abuse, live with immeasurable losses, and have suffered the indignities of poverty, the stigma of mental illness and substance use, the brutality of racism and homelessness and the immense loneliness they all bring. They have been resilient, have found places of joy and love in the in the face of it all,” she said.
Each of these communities, said Robertson, have taught her that compassion, dignity, recognition of each other’s humanity can be hardest to find. “I accept this award therefore with a plea, that you see the impact of inequality – poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia, colonization – and that you claim your ability to have meaningful impact by taking actions to interrupt inequality,” said Robertson.
“Finally, I believe that to deliver on this we must rely on ourselves and on each other to be allies in our struggles. Your struggles for justice must be my struggle for justice because there is no justice in achieving access and equality for some, while leaving inequality in the path of others.”