Helen Tucker is gone, but Voice of Women lives on in other voices
Mississauga’s Jaqueline Burgoyne (left), Janis Alton (centre) and Alana Sarapicknas were part of the Canadian Voice of Women delegation that participated in the United Nations’ Status of Women Commission’s annual gathering in New York in mid-March.
As three generations of Mississauga peace women huddle around the table on a bright spring morning, Helen Tucker hovers nearby.
Or at least, her likeness does.
In the middle of the living room table, Janis Alton has placed a photo of Tucker. She is wearing a signature outsized sweeping hat, beaming broadly at the camera.
Appropriately so. Tucker is a touchstone for both Alton, whom she mentored, and for all women in Canada’s peace movement.
It’s hard to imagine two women as stylistically different in their approach to their international non-proliferation-of-nuclear-weapons objectives as Tucker and Alton.
Tucker, who died in 1998, was a flamboyant former actress who commandeered centre stage, whether she was at Mississauga City council seeking support for the World Citizen Registry, coordinating a First Nations Pow-Wow in Port Credit Memorial Park or making a deputation at the UN.
In the shadow of the Cuban missile crisis in 1960, the long-time Credit Reserve resident co-founded Voice of Women. It has been the spine of the country’s peace aspirations ever since.
Alton, a former public health nurse, first heard Tucker speak about her cause at the local Unitarian Church. “She was so far ahead of us,” says Alton, who watched Tucker convince a somewhat sceptical local council and mayor to support initiatives such as mundialization (declaring Mississauga a world city), joining International Mayors for Peace and celebrating Earth Day, which was considered a radical thing at the time.
Hazel McCallion subsequently became an active supporter of the cause.
“I’ve been going to the UN since 1986,” says Alton of her annual Canadian delegations to New York on behalf of VOM, which she has co-chaired for many years.
That first year there were 12 delegates who attended an intense week at the UN. This year, 30 went to the Status of Women Commission hearings, including first-timers Alana Sarapnickas, 23 of Meadowvale and Jacqueline Burgoyne, 47, who grew up in Brampton but now lives in Lakeview.
It was an eye-opening experience for both women.
Burgoyne just happens to have a Nobel Peace Prize winner in the family. Her aunt, Mairead Corrigan Maguire, was recognized in 1976 for her efforts to end “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland.
Every day and every panel discussion was a revelation, says Burgoyne, who’s on leave from her job at Mississauga Hospital while she recuperates from chemotherapy for breast cancer.
“I accidentally walked into a session on breastfeeding in the Amazon and saw how much difference a few people can make to women’s and children’s lives,” she recounts. A huge fan of documentary films, who has dabbled in the art herself, she was “deeply moved by powerful, disturbing films” such as the Oscar-winning A Girl in The River, about honour killings, and I Am Nojoom, Aged 10 and Divorced, about a Yemeni teen forced into an abusive, arranged marriage.
Sarapnickas knew all about the UN from her global studies at the University of Waterloo. She, like Burgoyne, got started with Voice of Women by volunteering at its gala, then was swept away by the cause and the commitment she saw from women such as Alton.
The former Blessed Edith Stein student – dubbed “the flower child” by her co-workers at Air Canada for her volunteer work – knows about difficult conditions in vulnerable communities. Her parents John and Patricia have lived, worked and taught among indigenous communities in Canada’s north for many years. Her father “who’s like Survivorman” she says, was a teacher at the Dufferin-Peel Board for two decades.
“Every single place he’s worked I’ve visited so I get to see the issues personally. We need more involvement of indigenous women in the Commission on the Status of Women,” says Sarapnickas.
Her UN experience proved that “think globally, act locally” isn’t just a slogan, but a game plan for survival, says Burgoyne. “You might not be able to change the world, the country or the city, but you can make the difference in the life of one person.”
After three decades of UN visitations, Alton might be forgiven if she were somewhat jaundiced about the process. Her activist’s voice is still very soft. Her activist heart is still very determined.
She measures progress in the amazing reforms she has witnessed, the presence of so many more women in positions of power and the proliferation of Non-Government Organizations like VOM. Some of those are now part of official national delegations.
“I see momentum – it’s there,” says the Port Credit resident who founded the annual Christmas carol sing in the local park 40 years ago. She hears the voice of civil society emerging from every corner of discussion on the world stage.
“I have a lot of hope and confidence in the UN. After all, it’s the only thing we have like it.”
• VOW closely follows the work of two UN commissions, the Disarmament Commission which meets annually in September and the Status of Women Commission which meets in March. “We try to inject a focus on disarmament into the Status of Women context,” says Alton. That body was set up by former American First lady Eleanor Roosevelt in the late 40s. “She saw there was not enough for women.” Alton has attended many SWC sessions over the years but the most successful was one in Beijing which produced a statement on behalf of all girls and women. “It’s the standard that every subsequent conference measures itself against to ask ‘how are we doing?’” says Alton.
• it is a source of come frustration that there are no actual recommendations from the UN sessions. Instead, because of the need to balance political, religious and cultural differences in a multitude of nations, there is a set of “agreed conclusions.” This year’s conference focussed on sustainable development goals. “The aim was to put wheels under those goals,” Alton says.
• every year while in New York, VOW delegates the Canadian mission there. The issues they pressed in their meeting this year with the mission secretary included enhancing peace education scholarship and re-establishing relations with North Korea. Alton was part of a group of women who crossed the Korean DMZ last year to try to build relations between the two halves of a country that was torn apart by war in the 1950s.( http://www.thestar.com/news/world/2015/05/22/veteran-mississauga-peace-activist-among-women-crossing-korean-dmz-porter.html)
• Alana Sarapnickas was looking for the meat of issues in the sessions she attended. Too often, she found motherhood statements and countries mouthing platitudes that didn’t correspond with her knowledge of their actions. “The substance came from the NGO side panels, not from the main Commission events.” One of her favourite moments was when a series of countries spoke about their goals of being inclusive of women, then representatives from tiny Lichtenstein got to their feet.
“They said we don’t have equal representation and here’s what we’re doing to add more – they had a national plan, which is really important.”
• the Mississaugans were walking through a hotel lobby one morning when Burgoyne recognized recently-appointed Canadian Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett. She and fellow ministers Marie-Claude Bibeau (Development), Patricia Hajdu (Status of Women) and Jody Wilson-Raybould (Justice) were on their way to a press conference. The Mississaugans made U-turn and were among a group of Canadians who were able to get inside to listen while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau committed in a press conference to a strengthened emphasis on mediation, conflict prevention and peace operations, among other things. “In a very nice way he said ‘Canada is back’” Burgoyne says.
Trudeau went on to declare himself a feminist. He spoke of how that declaration should be like saying the sky is blue and the grass is green. “The crowd was just erupting.” She was pleased to hear Canada’s leader say that the country will seek a seat on the security council.
• Burgoyne wasn’t very happy with another Canadian Cabinet minister who also gave a press conference during the week. Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion was cross-examined by reporters on why his government was honouring the $15 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia, despite its depressing record of human rights violations. Dion said the deal will stand unless Canada has proof of Saudi violations. It was the same answer that Sarapnickas received from Dion’s
parliamentary secretary, Mississauga Centre Liberal MP Omar Alghabra when she was part of a delegation to Ottawa to see him. “They are just not acknowledging that there is proof,” says Sarapnickas, who is considering going back to school to get her master’s degree in global peace studies.
• Over the years, Alton has been involved in a number of community efforts including the carol sing which is now done in conjunction with the Port Credit BIA. She chaired the now-defunct Peel Peacemakers, which lobbied for conflict-resolution curriculum in local schools, among many other initiatives. She also founded the Port Credit Village Project which fosters discussion on issues affecting village ratepayers. The Project will host its next public meeting Tuesday May 3 at 7:30 p.m. at Clarke Hall. Ward 1 Councillor Jim Tovey and University of Toronto Professor of Landscape Architecture John Danahy, both Lakeview residents, will speak about the trip to Scandinavia they took last year to see innovative urban design and storm water projects. The talk is titled The Climate of Change: Weathering the Storm to Sustainability.