“Be Tenacious For Social Justice”: Heather McGregor’s powerful convocation address

It has been a banner year for YWCA Toronto CEO Heather McGregor. In June, she received an Honorary Doctorate in Laws from Ryerson University in recognition of her over 20 years of leadership at YWCA Toronto.

Heather’s skill in growing and expanding YWCA programs has improved the lives of women and girls all across our city. We could not be more thrilled to see Ryerson University bestow this honour on her. The following is an excerpt from Heather’s convocation address delivered to students at Ryerson University’s G. Raymond Chang School of Continuing Education on June 13, 2017. This speech also appeared in a blog post for the United Way Toronto & York Region entitled “As convocation speeches go, this is one of our favourites...”

As a child, I always told myself that I wanted to remember how smart I was and that my opinion as a child was important. Then as I got older, I never wanted to feel that I could not change, but on the contrary would always be on the cutting progressive edge of important issues and not be stuck in old, inflexible ways. Now that I am old, I value the experiences of a lifetime, which inform my progressive approach. (I do hope it is progressive.) My conclusion is that life-long learning is the key to a fruitful and productive life.

You who are graduating and celebrating learning in such diverse fields are sure to share this view. I have been astonished at the diversity of learning that you all represent—photography, psychology, communications, fashion, business of all sorts. But I would also like to acknowledge that many of you have completed this phase of your education not in the ordinary way of a full-time four-year program. For so many different reasons— family responsibilities or financial pressures—you have demonstrated that you were determined to learn no matter what your particular situation. I admire your tenacity – your persistence—your commitment to learning. Congratulations to you all, to your friends and family or others who may have encouraged you. This is an important day.

And so I want to speak to you about the importance of tenacity, persistence and commitment as you continue your life journey.

I have been so touched by the fact that Ryerson has given me a Doctorate. And one of the reasons is that I feel as if it is a strong message that the social services and activism have been recognized as being such an important part of our community life. I want to urge you to agree.

I have done a lot of things in my work and volunteer life. I have been a waitress, a mailing company trainer and postal code sorter, a political campaign manager, a community development coordinator, a Board Member, a mother and now much to my surprise, the CEO of the largest women’s organization in Canada—YWCA Toronto.

These are the things that I think have helped me—curiosity, boldness, humour, risk taking, and, of course, what I admire about you—tenacity, persistence and commitment to learning.

I have learned that curiosity and a commitment to learning leads to wonderful and useful surprises. Imagine my surprise when despite the fact that I failed grade 12 math and having an aversion to accounting, I discovered that I loved budgets.

I am convinced that boldness, humour and risk taking led to the development of the largest supportive and permanent housing project for women in the past ten years in Canada. The Elm Centre, just steps from here, is your neighbour and houses a creative combination of 165 units of below market affordable apartments, as well as 85 rent- geared-to-income units for women who have mental health and addiction challenges.   As well, there are 50 apartments for women of Indigenous descent.

Boldness, humour and risk taking were demonstrated by signing with the building contractor before we had firm financing, as well as the audacity of starting an ambitious capital campaign in 2008 just when the markets collapsed. We could have cried, but we chose to laugh and succeed through tenacity and persistence.

So I want to urge you to consider our community. Think of the issues that are threatening our society and think of the steps that you can take to work for positive outcomes.

But first, here are the discouraging facts.

  • While the percentage of working women in Canada has increased from 42% to 60% in the past 30 years, women earned 73 cents for every dollar earned by men in this past year.
  • While it is true that when girls start school they are more likely than boys to do well in reading, writing, and forming friendships, by adolescence, 50% of girls reported that they wished they were someone else. In Grade 6, 36% of girls say they are confident but by Grade 10, this has plummeted to only 14%. 50% of girls in Grade 6 are on a diet, girls are four times as likely as boys to be sexually assaulted by a family member. I am sure it will not be a surprise to you that Indigenous girls in Canada are especially at risk. They experience alarmingly high levels of depression, suicide, addiction, HIV infection and poverty.
  • When it comes to Violence Against Women, half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. 67% of Canadians say they have personally known at least one woman who has experienced physical or sexual violence. Approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner. On any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn’t safe at home. Indigenous women are killed at six times the rate of non-Indigenous women.
  • While Canada is a rich country, the face of poverty in Canada is a woman’s face. 37% of First Nations women live in poverty, 33% of women with disabilities live in poverty, 28% of visible minority women live in poverty, and 16% of single senior women live in poverty.

So these statistics are shocking, alarming, unacceptable. Why have I taken this moment to speak of them? Because I want you to acknowledge the importance of tenacity, persistence and the commitment that I know you have and apply it to working for a more positive, healthy and equitable society. You have already demonstrated your strengths by your presence here today. I urge you to use those strengths for others.  Love your neighbours. Respond to the appeals of faith communities. Become knowledgeable about the gaps in service and the need to reduce poverty. Join advocacy groups, give to the United Way, which by the way, raises more money in Toronto and York Region than any other United Way in North America. And speak up. Be bold. Take risks. Be tenacious for social justice.