Cree Elder Pauline Shirt and First Nations Women Drummers lead International Women’s Day march in Toronto
Article and photos by Allison Ridgway
The road to equality has been a long one for Kim Malcolmson. The 78-year-old pro-choice activist proudly continued this journey on Saturday, marching with thousands of other women and men through downtown Toronto to celebrate International Women’s Day.
“I choke up every time I come to this march and see all the people,” she says, her words almost drowned out by the sounds of chanting and drumming that fill the air. “I’m so happy I feel like crying.”
Malcolmson was one of 500 activists who joined the abortion caravan in 1970, riding from British Columbia to Parliament Hill to demand the removal of abortion from Canada’s Criminal Code. She and many of the others chained themselves to the railings of Parliament Hill, while others infiltrated the House of Commons to protest inside.
On Saturday, she carried her pro-choice banner proudly, surrounded by the next generation of feminists and activists.
“Fires are burning – We are rising – No more violence – No more abuse – Respect our bodies – Respect our choices,” read the theme for this year’s rally, which spotlighted issues facing Aboriginal women and the Idle No More movement, as well as reproductive justice and sexual abuse. The event attracted many varying organizations, however, each adding their own voices and perspectives to gender equality’s united call.
“The thing that’s unique about this rally is you’re really encouraged to self-organize and bring your own issues,” says Andrea Calver, a member of the International Women’s Day Toronto’s organizational committee. “It’s all about communities coming together and bringing their unique voices to the cause. We’re proud that it’s such a diverse march.”
Marching down Yonge St. on a busy Saturday morning, the excitement and happiness of the crowd was tangible, despite the serious topics of protest. Feelings of unity and sisterhood enveloped the procession. Marchers danced in the street, sang and beat drums as onlookers clapped and took pictures, some even joining to march along for a few blocks. Cheers erupted whenever a passing driver honked their horn in solidarity.
Signe Clemente marched with her eight-year-old sister, Beryle, as part of the Filipino Centre of Toronto. It was Beryle’s first time attending the rally.
“I hope she can see that the scope of society is much larger, much less sheltered and much more diverse than her life in the suburbs,” says Clemente on why she decided to bring her sister to the rally. “I don’t want her to feel isolated as a woman of colour. I want her to grow up strong and knowing what she is fighting for.”
Although International Women’s Day was on March 8, organizers chose to celebrate on a day when more people would be free from work and school. The rally began with speeches at University of Toronto’s OISE auditorium explaining the history of the day and the issues of inequality still affecting women worldwide. First celebrated in the early 1900s by women workers fighting for equal pay and safe working conditions in New York City, the day is now an official holiday in 27 countries and nationally acknowledged in many more.
In the auditorium, Cree Elder Pauline Shirt, a leader of Canada’s Idle No More movement, blessed every Women’s Day event worldwide with a prayer for universal solidarity and sisterhood.
“We may not have millions of dollars in the bank, but we can have millions of bodies on the streets,” said Toronto Health Coalition’s Julie Devaney to the crowd. A disability rights activist and author of My Leaky Body, she knows first-hand the demoralizing experiences women can have in healthcare and justice systems around the world.
Renée Knapp has marches in the rally every year. This year, she’s accompanied by a group of friends.
“I’ve always been a feminist,” she says. “I was raised to believe in myself and my strength – that I could do anything. I was surprised when society told me otherwise.”
She says she marches in the rally to help free women around the world from political and economic oppression and to remind onlookers that the patriarchy is still a near-constant presence in women’s lives.
Lauren T., meanwhile, chose to carry a simple message with her: never let the world squash the love you have for yourself.
“I wanted a really positive message,” she said. “Women worldwide are dealing with body image issues caused by the media and unrealistic expectations. I think we could all use a reminder sometimes of how beautiful we really are.”
The march ended with a fair at Ryerson University. The marchers linked arms and danced in a circle as a First Nations Women Drummers group beat out a rhythm and onlookers cheered.
“I feel really good marching and chanting with all of these people who feel the same way I do,” said Susan Gapka, smiling as she watched the dance. “I love meeting all these wonderful women and men fighting so hard for gender equality. It makes me see a positive future ahead for women and women’s rights.” M