Ryerson awards honour Viola Desmond legacy
March 20, 2019
Witnessing child birth for the first time inspired Dr. Karline Wilson-Mitchell to become a midwife.
It happened in the early 1980s when she was doing an obstetric clinical rotation at Toronto East General Hospital (re-named Michael Garron Hospital).
Jamaican-born British-trained Maisie Terrelonge was the labour and delivery nurse.
“This lady just seemed to have intuitiveness, creativity and compassion,” remembers Wilson-Mitchell who is the director of Ryerson University’s midwifery education program. “I was 24 at the time and I told myself I wanted to be just like her helping bring babies into the world. That never left me.”
While pursuing her midwifery certification at the University of Miami from 1988 to 1992, social justice issues and advocacy for vulnerable populations aroused her interest.
“As a graduate student, I realized that race in the United States matters when it comes to access and opportunities,” said Wilson-Mitchell who is a participant in the Canadian Association of Midwives Twinning project with Tanzania. “I think I had always had this concern for social justice, but midwifery gave me a platform and vehicle from which I could make social justice a part of how I can make a difference in my community. That stayed with me in the care that I gave when I practiced in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia and when I returned to Canada after 20 years in the US.”
Wilson-Mitchell joined Ryerson in 2008 after serving as a certified nurse midwife for four years in the Greater Atlanta Area.
She was returning to a familiar place, having obtained her undergraduate degree at the downtown public research university.
“Education opens doors and gives power,” said Wilson-Mitchell who migrated with her parents from Jamaica as a three-year-old. “For many of the applicants to our program, I wanted to be able to hold access for them and help equip them. Midwifery is a very challenging profession, physically, emotionally and mentally. We are there to be a voice for those who have entrusted their care to us and the families that we are here to advocate for.”
Academia and learning have always appealed to Wilson-Mitchell who relishes engaging students.
“I get a joy out of them,” she pointed out. “You are teaching millennials who use a different language, but still need a lot of direction in ways that we would not have thought of. It really makes me self-reflect and try to take a critical sociology and human rights view of everything I do and even the way I speak. Some of the terms that we learned when we were younger aren’t politically correct now. I learn with, from and about my students. We are all learning together. It is an intellectual partnership.”
Seldom do professionals rise to positions of power without the support of others.
For Wilson-Mitchell who supports and mentors in the Chang School’s International Midwifery pre-registration program, her mother – Sally Miller is a retired nurse – and Ryerson University professor emeritus Dr. Enid Collins are those backbones.
“Dr. Collins was one of my nursing school teachers at Ryerson,” she said. “She was one of the very few people of colour teaching at Ryerson in the 1980s. She spoke out for students of colour and made family and maternal newborn nursing exciting for me. As someone who always had a global perspective on things, she was truly a great mentor and friend.
“With my mother, I thank her for instilling in me just the desire to learn and to be around academia. Instead of fearing it, she wanted me to embrace it and use it as a stepping stone to level the playing field.”
In 2016 while pursuing a doctor of nursing practice degree at Frontier Nursing University, Wilson-Mitchell was the inaugural winner of the American College of Nurse-Midwives Foundation's Carrington-Hsia-Nieves Doctoral scholarship for Midwives of Colour.
Her thesis title was, ‘Midwives and Perinatal Nurses Perceptions of Barriers to Quality Maternity Care for Jamaican Adolescents’.
“My previous research program over the past eight years led me in this direction to look at global health issues,” Wilson-Mitchell noted. “From the new immigrant and refugee clients I cared for, and particularly those who had experienced family violence of some kind, I was led to go to the origins of some of these adolescent newcomer mothers. That led me to the Caribbean and specifically to Jamaica to look at the psycho-social stressors that affected adolescent mothers in low or middle-income countries. Jamaica has made tremendous strides towards decreasing adolescent pregnancy rates. However, Jamaican adolescent mothers continue to be a vulnerable population with tremendous psycho-social and health needs.”
Earlier this month, she was the recipient of another prestigious honour -- the Ryerson Faculty Award bearing the name of Dominican-born Dr. Dorothy Wills who was Canada’s first Black female Dean.
She retired as the Dean of the Faculty of Applied Technologies at Vanier College in 2000 after an illustrious career in which she served on the Immigration & Refugee Board of Canada and co-founded the defunct National Black Coalition of Canada (NBCC). During her tenure as the NBCC executive director, the coalition successfully challenged the Nova Scotia law prohibiting the burial of Blacks in White cemeteries.
The award was presented at the 11th annual Viola Desmond ceremony that’s part of Ryerson University’s Black History Awareness series.
The awards bear the names of female Black Canadian trailblazers.
Classical violinist Christina Smith was recognized with the Dr. Sylvia Hamilton Student Award.
“Just to be in the presence of Dr. Hamilton and other people who have done some amazing things is so humbling and quite an experience for me,” said Smith who is a fourth-year Professional Communications student. ‘I am so grateful to be part of this.”
Listening to her mother play Handel’s ‘Messiah’ turned the 21-year-old Ryerson Caribbean Students Association president on to classical music.
“I was about two years old at the time and I used to sing along with her,” she recalled. “I honed my skills when I spent two years in Jamaica while attending St. Andrew Preparatory School in Kingston.”
Smith aspires to pursue a musical career as a classical vocalist.
Hamilton is an award-winning filmmaker and assistant professor in the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College in Halifax.
Amanda Taylor Wheatle was presented with the Violet King Henry Ryerson Staff Award while Stephanie Croisiere, who completed her Master’s in Public Policy & Administration at Ryerson, was honoured with the Dr. Beverly Mascoll Alumni Award.
At the time of her death in May 2001, the entrepreneur, philanthropist and Order of Canada recipient was the president of Mascoll Beauty Supply Ltd., and a staunch supporter of Camp Jumoke.
Ryerson final-year student Anny-Aysel Ineza and Brianna Glanville-Forrest, who attends Vaughan Secondary School, were the recipients of a Viola Desmond bursary and Recognition Award respectively.
Arriving in Canada at age eight as a refugee from Burundi, Ineza has made great strides in her adopted country.
She quickly developed a passion for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and community involvement while enrolled in her French high school international baccalaureate program.
“In high school, I had a Black teacher who was very passionate about teaching and the subject matter,” said the thesis student in Ryerson’s Financial Mathematics program. “That’s where I developed such a love for Maths. What he did for me was exactly what I did for my younger sister who is now pursuing Mathematics studies at the University of Ottawa.”
In July, Ineza will join the TD Management Data & Analytics Lab at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.
She intends to become an economist and work with an international organization like the World Bank.
“The end goal is to go back to the Motherland and make a contribution,” added Ineza who co-founded the Ryerson Algorithmic Trading Group and is an Ultimate Canada Frisbee player.
Glanville-Forrest started a Nubian Book Club at her high school and, in Grade 10, joined the Leadership by Design (LBD) program that offers leadership and career development for students until they graduate with an undergraduate degree or, for those choosing to go further, a graduate degree.
“Out of the LBD program, I got a mentor who is like a big sister and it opened networking opportunities for me to meet successful Blacks in the community,” said the Grade 12 student who aspires to be a psychiatrist.
Fiona Glanville accompanied her daughter to the awards ceremony.
“I am overwhelmed with joy and so proud of Brianna,” she said. “She excels in everything she puts her mind to.”
Viola Desmond, a Halifax beauty shop owner, rose to prominence after being refused to sit in a New Glasgow theatre balcony section designated for Blacks in 1946. Instead, she sat on the ground floor reserved for White patrons.
She had gone to the Roseland theatre to pass time while her car was being repaired.
After being forcibly removed from the theatre and arrested, Desmond was found guilty of not paying the one cent difference in tax on the balcony ticket from the main floor theatre ticket and fined $20 and $6 in theatre court costs.
When efforts to overturn the conviction at higher levels of court failed, Desmond closed the business, moved to Montreal and enrolled in a business college. She eventually settled in New York where she died in 1965 at age 51.
During her tenure as Nova Scotia’s first Black lieutenant governor, Mayann Francis -- on the advice of the executive council -- exercised the Royal Prerogative of Mercy in 2010 to grant a free pardon to Desmond which is based on innocence and recognizes that a conviction was an error.
That is the only time that a free pardon has been posthumously granted in Canada.
Desmond is featured on the new Canadian $10 banknote that was released last year. She’s the first Canadian female on the face of a banknote.