Show Up for Social Justice: Vote this Election


Margaret Hancock became the first woman appointed Warden of Hart House at the University of Toronto in 1997. On May 24, she will receive the 2018 YWCA Toronto Women of Distinction Award. In an interview with YWCA Toronto, she reflects on the importance of social justice and why voting matters this election.

Social justice seems to permeate your life and has informed much, if not all, of your work. What does social justice mean to you and why is it so important?

It does permeate everything – I think that is what has inspired me the whole time. It started at a younger age when I met someone who asked me some really hard questions and challenged my thinking. It was a consciousness raising moment. I came from a privileged background, and I did not think much about social justice growing up.

Once you start asking questions about justice in the world, why are things the way they are, do they have to be that way, is that fair, is that respectful, can it be better – your eyes are opened and you cannot go back. That is why for me social justice permeates everything. Once you have that lens, it is everywhere and you cannot unlearn it. It mediates your daily life – from your self to your relationship to your children to someone who stands beside you on the subway – all the way to more systemic issues, social policies, and international affairs.

You have been active in the community for many decades. How have the challenges facing women and girls changed or remained the same?

There clearly have been some victories particularly in the last 30/40 years. We have had some victories around reproductive rights, particularly in this country. We have had some movement on child care, equal pay for equal work – all those elements that are really foundational to creating a socially just society. However, I think those victories can be seen as fragile in many ways. We have made gains but they can be eroded and taken away. In many instances, like the child care story, they are incomplete. So we have made gains but I think we are still struggling with many of the same issues.

The #MeToo movement is fascinating in that in 2018 we are having such a moment of awareness about an issue with we have struggled  for decades. We really have not shifted the needle on it very much at all. Yes, we have had some gains: women work more; women definitely have more stature and status in society; women are more educated than men these days or at least more numerous in post-secondary education than men, but these gains can be lost if we are not cautious.

Switching to current affairs, there are two elections coming up this year, one is the provincial election in June and the other is the municipal election in November. What issues do you think will be important and why?

Both provincially and municipally we are still fighting for universal childcare and we should not be. That one baffles me because it is such an obvious thing to do to support all families. Women are still disproportionately poor even though good strides are being made around minimum wages and workplace situations, but women are still disproportionately poorer than men.

Gender-based violence is still a reality and the supports for that, although strengthened recently, are still insufficient. Women are isolated and vulnerable to harm as a result of that. Women are still doing the bulk of unpaid work and when families split up, women often bear a disproportionate amount of caregiving work – this contributes to gender-based poverty. There are still some real disadvantages for women that we should be able to fix. We are closer but we are not there yet.

Unfortunately, the richest one percent secured 82% of the wealth created in the world last year (according to Oxfam). Inequality is getting worse at a global level. Provincially and municipally we feel the effects of rising inequality as well; so something is not working and we need action from both provincial and municipal governments to support our communities, eliminate poverty, and narrow inequality.

Housing and education are also connected to these issues. Housing is a basic right and a basic need. Yet every year, it is an unmet need and from shelter to supportive housing options, many people are left in precarious housing situations. More must be done by all levels of government. I believe these issues will be important in these upcoming elections.

Why are programs like those at YWCA Toronto important?

They are not just important – they are essential. For women who are experiencing gender-based violence everything falls apart for them; it affects their self-esteem, it affects their ability to raise their families, find a job, and live their lives. It can be a crushing experience. Our work at Family Service, like YWCA Toronto, starts with them when they are really in crisis and hopefully helps them stabilize and become more resilient. That is critical – if you cannot help women get through that crisis stage, they will get stuck.

We have many ways in which we support women to find their paths. Women are incredibly strong obviously. So whether it means they need education, supportive housing, to be able to temporarily leave their families and get stable somewhere else, help with their kids – whatever that takes, the variety of programs that YWCA Toronto offers really tangibly supports women’s needs. The work that we do at Family Service Toronto around mental health and gender-based violence, really contributes to that too.

Any advice for young activists and advocates?  

There are some lovely clichés I really like. I like relentless incrementalism. I like celebrate the victories but do not forget the struggles. I like fall down and get up again. I like keep going, keep going, keep going.

I especially like show up. I think people often do not realize how much showing up matters. You might ask yourself, ‘Should I go? Is it important for me to go? Will it make a difference if I go?’ – it matters! You meet people, you make connections, and you build movements. So show up. Just keep showing up and things will happen. It takes courage sometimes if you are showing up to something new or different, but just try to show up. You never know who you are going to meet, what you are going to learn, and what you might achieve together.

In the context of the election, showing up means – especially for women and young people – showing up to vote. Lots of people do not act on that right but there is a great deal at stake this provincial election and it will be critical to show up.

Showing up means learning too. We have some complex issues that we are trying to solve, and there are people in leadership roles who are trying to say things that sound simple but are, in fact, ill-informed. We owe it to ourselves and our communities to be better informed about what some of these issues really entail. Everything from transit and housing affordability, to the impact of a good minimum wage – showing up means trying to think from a place of evidence and knowledge and not a place of fear. Showing up means not just showing up for yourself but for your community as well.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity and was conducted by Jasmine Ramze Rezaee, Senior Marketing and Advocacy Officer at YWCA Toronto.