A life of leadership, social activism and civic engagement
May 4, 2017
While familiar with some of the other YWCA Women of Distinction Award recipients, what caught Ceta Ramkhalawansingh’s attention is that four of the seven winners are University of Toronto (U of T) graduates.
Joining the 1974 New College graduate are retired Royal Bank of Canada chief administrative and financial officer Janice Fukakusa, writer & human rights champion Ishita Aggarwal and reproductive endocrinologist Dr. Marjorie Dixon.
In addition to shaping her life, Ramkhalawansingh said the U of T prepared her for leadership, social activism and civic engagement.
“When I started as an undergraduate in 1968, I immediately became a student leader fighting sexism on campus,” she said. “I was also engaged in student participation in university governance and I sat on committees.”
In her second year, Ramkhalawansingh was at the forefront of the movement that successfully lobbied for the establishment of a women’s studies program
“It was just one course, but it was a huge struggle to get it,” she pointed out. “One of the things I learnt during the process is what it actually takes to make small changes within an institution in terms of trying to convince people to attempt something. That course was one of the first of its kind in Canada and it has since evolved into a full-fledged institute which offers Master’s and PhD degrees.”
The Women & Gender Studies Institute (WGSI)) is dedicated to exploring the entangled work of gender, race and sexuality in identities, relations, practices, theories and institutions. It has developed a distinct strength in transnational feminist studies which links questions concerning nation states, citizenship, colonialisms, diasporas and global capitalism with concerns about how to understand the gendered, queered and raced politics of subjectivity, activism and knowledge-making.
Ramkhalawansingh was a program lecturer for seven years and, in 2002, was made a WGSI honourary member for her leadership in developing women and gender studies as a field of study in university education.
In the last three decades, she has funded nearly 50 scholars to carry out research to advance women’s equality.
“When Ceta entered the U of T as a 16-year-old undergraduate in 1968, the environment was very different from today,” said former WGSI directors Kay Armatage and June Larkin and former undergraduate co-ordinator Judith Taylor who combined to write a nomination letter supporting Ramkhalawansingh for the YWCA Woman of Distinction Award for public service and social justice. “Hart House was a men-only club and engineering was notorious for its misogynist student newspaper. There was only one woman professor in the entire English department.
“…Her pioneering work in developing women’s studies at the U of T has done much more than contribute to the advancement of academic knowledge in an enormous and ever-expanding field that has had a profound impact on all scholarly disciplines. Her work has also, without question, utterly transformed the social environment for women entering university. These are enormous achievements.”
A former College of Electors New College representative, Ramkhalawansingh is also a member of the Harold Innis Foundation, the Massey College Quadrangle Society and the Innis College Council.
She graduated with a child studies diploma and completed a Master’s and the residency requirement for a PhD at the U of T’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE).
While in university, Ramkhalawansingh was a writer/researcher for the Women’s Press and she worked for nearly 18 months with city school board trustees who were engaged in rewriting school board curriculum and programs to address barriers immigrants families faced.
After graduating with a Master’s in 1981, she joined the City of Toronto diversity management office and rose to the position of diversity management & community engagement manager before retiring in 2010.
She led the city’s ground-breaking human rights, equity and diversity policy and program development, worked on reviews of women hiring in male dominated fields and ensured the rigorous enforcement of the city’s Employment Ontario contractors program that saw the employment of women increase from 29 to 51 per cent among 8,000 firms in a seven-year period up until 1992.
“I was fortunate to become involved in this work at a time when there was real openness to addressing these issues on an institutional level,” said Ramkhalawansingh who was a Canadian Coalition for a Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies steering committee member and co-founder of the Gender Equal Senate campaign. “The city didn’t seem to have the budget crunches back then, so we didn’t have to deal with the financial opposition to these programs.”
Three years ago, she served on city council for nearly five months as the Toronto-Spadina interim municipal representative after Adam Vaughan won a federal by-election.
While serving as a councillor, Ramkhalawansingh proposed that city council support a gender inclusive national anthem.
“Every council meeting begins with a performance of ‘O Canada’,” the former MATCH International Women’s Fund president, treasurer and board member said. “For years, if I’m singing the national anthem, I sing gender-neutral words. So for me, it was just a continuation of what I’ve always done.”
As a neighbourhood activist, Ramkhalawansingh has worked to secure rental housing, create social housing, protect and expand green space and challenge development proposals.
When bulldozers threatened to raze The Grange where she has resided for the last 46 years, she successfully negotiated with the developers to protect residential housing in the downtown community and, over the years, fiercely fought to safeguard the community’s residential quality from the Art Gallery of Ontario’s expansion.
While reviewing development proposals in her ward nearly 13 years ago, she found that very few units of housing suitable for families were being approved.
Her research provided the basis for Vaughan to implement a program requiring developers to include a percentage of developments for family housing.
As a role model and door opener, Ramkhalawansingh created mentorship and internship opportunities for employees and students within their Toronto Public Service (TPS) and initiated the ‘Profession to Profession’ mentoring program that matched internationally-trained professionals with TPS mentors.
She has also been a Scadding Court ‘Investing in Our Diversity Scholarship’ program advisor since its launch 16 years ago.
“Ceta has also assisted with our project on the review of police complaints and our youth leadership and entrepreneurial projects,” said Scadding Court Community Centre executive director Kevin Lee whose nomination letter was endorsed by Member of Parliament Adam Vaughan, Learnxs director Pedro Barata, Harbord Village Residents’ Association former chair Tim Grant, artist Charles Pachter, World Pride Human Rights Conference co-chair Doug Kerr, Mandela Legacy Committee chair Lloyd McKell, lawyer Ed Waitzer, Maytree Foundation founder and chair Alan Broadbent, Pride Toronto former executive director Kevin Beaulieu, Ralph Thornton Centre executive director John Campey and councillors Joe Mihevc and Joe Cressy.
“She has always been available to provide advice, to coach and to counsel…She is a lifelong activist, feminist and city builder with a long track record of supporting local and global initiatives that create more inclusive and equitable communities. Her integrity, her commitment to breaking barriers, her passion for equality and her dedication to sensible city building are unparalleled. We have seen this selfless dedication consistently over the past 45 years.”
Scadding Court senior manager Rebecca Keenan along with Alina Chatterjee, Robin Buxton Potts, Michelle German and Ange Valentini also penned a nomination letter that was supported by several community members, including retired politician Zanana Akande and Ryerson University professor Dr. Akua Benjamin.
“Ceta is someone who doesn’t seek recognition for her work,” they said. “Her activism, whether it is as an advocate, community organizer, volunteer or in a professional capacity, is rooted in her personal commitment to social change and transformation aimed at bringing about gender equality and equity for all.”
Ramkhalawansingh said the passion for her activism was fueled by her parents.
“They did a lot of community work in churches and schools,” the 2012 winner of the Constance Hamilton Award, that recognizes individuals who have made significant contributions to improving the social, economic, cultural and political status of women in the city and have encouraged others in their efforts to achieve equality, added. “My dad was very involved with the Blind Welfare Association, the Himalaya Club and our church in San Juan, working with people who are less fortunate. From a young age I learnt that you must not turn a blind eye if you see unfairness.”
The family of five migrated from Trinidad & Tobago in the summer of 1967.
Her father passed away four years later while her mother – Mamin – is still active at age 93.
“She does her gardening and still goes to church,” said Ramkhalawansingh who is the chair of Word on the Street Canada, the Learnxs Foundation and the city’s Caribbean Carnival liaison committee. “I have strong genes so that means I wouldn’t be going anywhere soon.”
Depending on which side of the fence you are on, that could be good or bad news.