Celebrating Women of Distinction Alumna: Debbie Douglas

October 30, 2018

In 2004, YWCA Toronto honoured Debbie Douglas with a Women of Distinction Award for her exemplary commitment to social justice. Debbie is currently the Executive Director of OCASI – the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants – a provincial body representing over 234 agencies across the province employing over 20,000 workers.

Recently, we had the opportunity to sit down with Debbie and reflect on the impact of the Women of Distinction Awards and discuss some of the pressing issues that occupy her time today. It was clear from our conversation that Debbie’s social justice work is far from over. She was, and remains, an inspiring Woman of Distinction.

What was the nomination experience like for you?

I was very surprised by the nomination. A friend had nominated me and I did not know. It was a very pleasant surprise when I received the call saying that I had been chosen as a Woman of Distinction. Personally it was affirming; I felt as if my many years of work was being recognized but I also realized that the work does not move forward because of one individual’s efforts. So I felt it was a recognition of the work that was done collectively – the work I had done with immigrant women, the work I had done with young women, and the film work I was doing at that time in collaboration with others.

And, it was great fun! It made my mother absolutely proud. It was a good year – I felt privileged to be in the company of the other women who won that year such as Sheela Basrur. I like being part of the Women of Distinction family. There are a few of us who have remained friends. Some of my colleagues are still proud to wear their Women of Distinction pin given to them at the time of the award ceremony.

Why do you think the Women of Distinction Awards are important?

It is important to celebrate and acknowledge the accomplishments of women for a number of reasons. It reminds us that the work we do is important. It is important for our mental health to be “seen” and to feel that we are not working in isolation. I like that it is not just one award but a number of awards for different categories which builds an activist community. There are some women who win business awards and who are activist in that space. I think it is important to recognize them as it is to recognize women working at the grassroots level, as well as young women in educational spaces.

As racialized women, we often do not get acknowledged for our work and so it is critically important that the work we do is seen as legitimate and impactful – that we are seen as making a difference to the larger community and to society as a whole.

Why is philanthropy important to the non-profit sector?

All of us have the responsibility to ensure we live in a society that is socially cohesive and where everyone has economic, social and political opportunities to advance. Programs, especially for poor women and girls, are critically needed but their financial longevity is often uncertain. Wealthy women, especially wealthy feminists, are an asset to our community. We need to tap into wealth to advance a progressive agenda.

What are some of the issues that occupy you today?

A number of things keep me awake at night. Not surprisingly, many of them have to do with issues relating to race, economic exclusion, and migration.

The last few years, I have been concerned about aging – aging men and women – particularly those from the Caribbean and especially older Black women who may have come to Canada in the 60s and 70s as part of the domestic worker scheme. What does it mean to have these folks, who contributed in very tangible ways to our society when they were younger, now face a life of poverty, housing precarity, and uncertainty in their old age?

Poverty and inequality is deepening in Toronto. We all have a responsibility, as I do at the helm of OCASI, to move forward progressive public policy.

The Women of Distinction Award is a reminder, a celebration, and a call to action – we need to build community and political will to push the policy levers and strengthen movements happening on the ground. We need to applaud the good work that is being done across our city so we can remain hopeful in the face of adversity.


By Jasmine Ramze Rezaee, Senior Marketing and Advocacy Officer, YWCA Toronto.