Anila Lee Yuen is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the Centre for Newcomers, a not-for-profit charitable organization that provides Calgary immigrants and economically disadvantaged individuals a solid foothold in Canada. During Alberta’s first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Anila oversaw an ethnic food hamper program for marginalized communities, providing 6468 clients with “culturally comforting” food. She also spearheaded and is leading the Calgary East Zone Newcomer RAPID RESPONSE for Covid-19 — a collaboration by government and frontline service organizations to respond to various issues by newcomers related to the pandemic.
In addition to the ethnic food hampers, the coalition is offering addiction and mental health services, employment and training, poverty reduction, and income support (including for those who aren’t eligible for government assistance). The efforts aimed to meet the needs of vulnerable Calgarians — in their community, and in their language (English and 23 others, to be specific).
With 25 years of experience in the settlement sector, Anila has spearheaded programming ranging from volunteer-led refugee supports to Indigenous solidarity for newcomers, and continues to lead in the settlement sector through volunteer roles as the Co-Chair of the Calgary Local Immigration Partnership (CLIP) and is the Vice Chair of the Alberta Association of Immigrant Serving Agencies (AAISA).
Larissa is a restorative circle keeper, published Indigenous and anti-racism researcher, award-winning ribbon skirt artist, and proudly passes on Métis and Jamaican ancestry to her daughter, Zyra. In April 2020 she founded Future Ancestors Services, a youth-led professional services social enterprise that advances equity and climate justice through lenses of ancestral accountability and anti-racism. Under Larissa’s leadership, the organization has already mobilized over $20K in donations for anti-racist and climate justice initiatives. Among their 140+ diverse clients are small youth-led collectives and non-profits; Canada’s most influential law firms and publishing houses; and the highest offices of Canadian government. Larissa’s experiences have led to her specializations in raced-based data collection, Indigenous and anti-racism research, accessibility, restorative circle keeping, restorative practice and conflict resolution, climate justice, and public policy.
Ravyn Wngz is an African, Bermudian, Mohawk, 2Spirit, queer and transcendent individual and is a member of the Toronto Black Lives Matter (BLM-TO) Steering Committee. As a co-founder of ILL NANA/DiverseCity Dance Company, Ravyn aims to challenge mainstream arts and dance spaces by sharing her stories — while continuing to create opportunities and platforms for marginalized LGBTTIQQ2S people, with a focus on African/Black communities. Ravyn also is the artistic director of OVA — Outrageous Victorious Africans Collective — a Dance/Theatre collective that shares the contemporary voices of African/Black and Queer/Self Identified storytellers.
She’s had a strong, ongoing presence in Toronto’s queer and Black organizing scence, but Ravyn’s leadership was made more broadly visible in 2020 when she made a speech at a BLM-TO Defund the Police demonstration, “in rage, hyperventilating, and on the verge of tears.” Ravyn’s vision of radical love and powerful presence as an outspoken leader for Black liberation is challenging wide-spread prejudices against Black trans women, reaching audiences who might not have otherwise listened.
In 2020, Canadian Olympian and soccer superstar Christine Sinclair added another accolade to her resume when she broke American Abby Wambach’s world-record total of 184 goals, becoming the top international goalscorer of all time (for both women and men).
It was a highlight of an already long and successful career; Christine has competed at three Olympic Games, winning back-to-back bronzes at London 2012 and Rio 2016. At London 2012, she was the tournament’s leading scorer, with six of Canada’s 12 goals, including a hat trick in the controversial semi-final extra-time loss to the United States. For her efforts, she was named Canada’s Closing Ceremony flag bearer and became the first soccer player to win the Lou Marsh Award as Canadian Athlete of the Year. As a lifetime soccer player and a member of Canada’s Hall of Fame, Christine is not only a role model, but an active supporter of girls and women in sports.
Rania Llewellyn was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer and member of the Board of Directors of the Laurentian Bank of Canada in 2020, becoming the first woman to lead an independently operated major chartered bank in Canada. Taking over the role at the end of October, Rania is leading more than 2,900 employees and over $28 billion in assets under management.
Born in Kuwait, Rania immigrated to Canada in 1992 where she began her 26-year career in the financial sector. As she progressed, Rania also worked to create opportunities for other immigrants; while at Scotiabank, she launched the StartRight for Newcomers program to provide banking access and support to newcomers in Canada. Rania is a recognized leader, and continues to innovate and expand opportunities for women and marginalized people in the financial sector.
Donna E. Young is the founding dean of the Faculty of Law at Ryerson University, which welcomed its first cohort of students in September 2020. With a scholarship focus on law and inequality, race and gender discrimination, and academic freedom, Donna is leading the institution in reimagining legal education to create a new kind of lawyer, driven by a curriculum designed to enhance diversity in the legal profession, and to improve access to justice.
Before assuming her deanship, Donna was the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School, and a joint faculty member at the University at Albany’s Department of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. With work focusing on criminal and employment law, federal civil procedure, and gender and race studies, Donna has brought a breadth of experience and interdisciplinary approach to her new role.
From engaging critically with technology as it intersects with the law to exploring new ways to expand the reach of representation and justice, Ryerson’s Faculty of Law is designed to prepare lawyers for the changing demands of the legal economy while increasing accessibility and inclusion in the legal field.
TikTok star Michelle Chubb is well known for sharing her culture and experiences as an Indigenous woman with international audiences while raising awareness of national issues such as Missing and Murdered Indigenous women. A 23-year-old Cree woman living in what is currently known as Winnipeg, Manitoba, Michelle initially began making videos on TikTok for fun, but chose to use her platform to raise awareness of issues affecting her community once she exponentially grew a following.
As a young woman finding her voice and forging her path online, she centres vulnerability and honesty in her work, and draws strength from her community and personal experiences to stay true to herself. Michelle is using her global platform to not only empower and uplift Indigenous youth, but is creating digital space for conversations that are often overlooked in mainstream media.
After a year of living with COVID in Canada, we all know Dr. Theresa Tam as Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer. A physician with expertise in immunization, infectious disease, emergency preparedness, and global health security, Dr. Tam has held several senior leadership positions at the Public Health Agency of Canada, including as the Deputy Chief Public Health Officer and the Assistant Deputy Minister for Infectious Disease Prevention and Control. During her 20 years in public health, she has provided technical expertise and leadership on new initiatives to improve communicable disease surveillance, enhance immunization programs, strengthen health emergency management and laboratory biosafety and biosecurity.
In 2020, Dr. Tam became a familiar face for many Canadians as her daily updates on the COVID-19 pandemic found their way into the nation’s homes. In late October, as the second wave was climbing, the Public Health Agency released its annual report highlighting the successes and shortcomings of Canada’s pandemic response so far. Dr.Tam used the opportunity to call for “structural change” across health, social, and economic sectors, saying that the efforts being made to address the inequality exposed by the pandemic — from improving conditions in long term care homes to income support for vulnerable workers — should continue beyond COVID. In her own words, “No one is protected until everyone is protected.”
Her particular focus on the health impacts of the pandemic on seniors, essential workers, racialized populations, people living with disabilities, and women showcase the breadth of her vision for an equitable society that protects Canadians from the threat of COVID-19, and future pandemics.
After volunteering with a non-profit organization in India, Claire Elizabeth Williams was compelled to pursue work that would make a real difference at home, in her own community. Returning to Canada in 2015, her passion for social change led to discussions around universal basic income and direct cash transfers for individuals experiencing homelessness — a bold idea that had been studied internationally, but never tried in Canada.
The next steps? Co-founding the Foundations for Social Change, where Claire is currently the CEO, consulting extensively with experts, and then launching the New Leaf Project in 2018, North America’s first direct giving project with people experiencing homelessness.
In October, 2020, the results were published — showing that the pilot project’s $7,500 transfer to 50 participants was a key factor in their ability to achieve greater food security, spend fewer days homeless, and access housing faster, improving stability and lowering the risk of trauma. Following Claire’s vision for social change, The New Leaf Project showcased the importance of meaningful and tangible support, breaking away from traditional models of supporting the homeless and centreing autonomy and dignity at its core.
Lori Nikkel is the CEO of Second Harvest, Canada’s largest food-rescue organization. In response to COVID-19, she has led the organization’s rapid scaling-up — growing from operating in Ontario and BC, to rescuing and redistributing surplus food in every province and territory. As a result of the pandemic and its economic fallout, more than 1.6 million Canadians are facing hunger or food insecurity for the first time. Under Lori’s leadership, Second Harvest has been a close partner to the federal government in meeting this desperate need.
When restaurants, foodservice businesses, and food distribution centres across the country halted activity in March, Second Harvest was there to ensure that instead of food going to waste, it was redistributed to those in need. On average in 2020, the food rescued through Second Harvest provided approximately 62,000 meals per day. This food was distributed by more than 2,300 partner organizations in more than 500 communities across Canada. Lori also led the expansion of Second Harvest’s web food donation app in April to reach food donors and nonprofits nationwide, and also led its transformation to become a funding hub that provided more than 1,400 non-profits across Canada with $20M+ in funds, grocery gift cards and food vouchers.
Lori was central to proposing and implementing the Surplus Food Rescue Program, buying surplus produce from farmers where it might otherwise go to waste, and ensuring it is distributed to community groups such as shelters and school breakfast programs. This enormous national food-diversion effort has yielded environmental benefits too, preventing more than 75 million pounds of greenhouse gas emissions (food waste rotting in landfills is a leading contributor). As a seasoned non-profit executive dedicated to food security and environmental protection, Lori is advancing the mission of “No waste, No hunger.”
Born in Iran and raised in Dubai, Azadeh Dastmalchi is the CEO of VitalTracer, a Canadian medical startup that designs smart wearable medical devices. A Ph.D. candidate at Ottawa University, she obtained her MSc from the same university in Biomedical Engineering.
In the last twelve years, her main field of research has been designing and developing medical devices, particularly vital sign monitoring and applied AI on bio-signals. In 2020, Azadeh introduced the result of decades of her work: a medical-grade smartwatch called VitalTracer. In addition to taking a wearer’s pulse, it uses biosensors and machine-learning algorithms to measure blood pressure, respiratory rate, blood oxygen levels, body temperature, and the heart’s electrical signals. According to Azadeh, the device can help detect symptoms of illnesses — such as COVID-19 — earlier, and ensure patients in high-risk facilities such as retirement residences can be isolated more quickly.
Azadeh’s work showcases the importance of patience and perseverance, as demonstrated by the success of her decades long research in biomedical engineering.
Catherine O’Hara is undoubtedly one of Canada’s most prominent and loved comedic actors. Raised in Toronto, Catherine kick-started her career at the Second City Theatre, rose to fame with her dazzling performances as a cast member on SCTV, and landed one her most successful career pinpoints as mother to Macauley Culkin’s Kevin McCallister in Home Alone. Years later, Catherine made another great entrance in her Emmy Winning role as Moira Rose on Schitt’s Creek.
The series was co-created by her longtime collaborator Eugene Levy and his son Dan Levy, but we have Catherine to thank for the cultural icon of Moira Rose; Dan credits her with constructing the socialite’s unique personality, from the unmistakable accent to the over-the-top wardrobe (even her bébés, the wigs). In 2020, after their final season, Schitt’s Creek became the first show to sweep all seven major comedy categories at the Primetime Emmy Awards, including Catherine’s win for Outstanding Lead Actress. It was the culmination of a six-season run that saw Moira Rose rise to cult status.
What was it about the oddball matriarch that so many devoted fans latched on to? Perhaps Catherine explained it best herself in an interview: “that self-delusion that we all have, especially in hard times, when we think we’re holding it together. Instead of a futile bitterness, I wanted there to be a weird optimism.”
As the Founder of Black Moms Connection, Tanya Hayles has grown a mom meet-up Facebook group into a global village dedicated to the growth and development of Black families — and by extension the Black community — through culturally relevant programming and resources. Launched in 2015 with 12 women in Toronto, today it’s an incorporated non-profit bringing together over 16,000 moms from across North America and Asia.
Throughout 2020, Black Moms Connection offered resources to help navigate the pandemic, racial inequality, and racial justice. Beyond offering the support of a community, they launched the first BMC scholarship and created an Emergency Fund offering grants to help with rent, food, formula, and other basic necessities.
Working with a volunteer staff and a board of two, Tanya also juggles her role as CEO of her own event planning agency, and in 2020 launched a diversity and inclusion consulting firm, Color In White Spaces.The foundation of work with purpose and her dedication to supporting Black women are at the core of Tanya’s efforts, and sustain the work of disrupting and diversifying both the motherhood and anti-racism education sphere.
Nelly Bassily is an intersectional feminist, sexual rights, and anti-racism activist and media maker with over 15 years of experience in the non-profit sector. Born to Egyptian parents in Montreal, immigration, diaspora, and identity also inform her activism. Currently the Director of Youth Initiatives and International Relations at DAWN Canada (Disabled Women’s Network Canada), she focuses her work on young women with disabilities and Deaf young women.
In 2020, Nelly oversaw and worked in collaboration with lead researcher Sonia Alimi on the creation of Girls Without Barriers, an intersectional feminist analysis of girls and young women with disabilities in Canada. The report identified gaps in research regarding the needs of girls with disabilities, and aimed to increase the participation of girls with disabilities and Deaf girls in girl-serving programs. In a world where the experiences of women with disabilities are often erased and overlooked, Nelly’s work is not only improving the accessibility of programs, but also increasing opportunities for Girls with disabilities and Deaf girls to develop their confidence and leadership as they witness their ideas and opinions transform into concrete actions.
Sheltering in place and finding herself with extra time on her hands, science lover and Fort McMurray, Alberta resident Maryam Tsegaye decided to enter the 2020 Breakthrough Junior Challenge –– a prestigious international competition for high school students –– on a whim. The contest called for a 3-minute video explainer of a complex scientific concept, so using dice, music, and stick figure drawings, Maryam playfully broke down quantum tunnelling and made it comprehensible for just about anyone.
Spending weeks on her submission, and using a computer that she described in an interview as “held together by binder clips and half the keyboard doesn’t work,” Maryam was completely unaware of the fact that she won until a socially distant reveal at her school. The first ever Canadian student to win the international prize, Maryam was awarded with a scholarship valued at $250,000 USD to fund her education, $100,000 USD to fund her high school’s new science lab, and $50,000 USD for her science teacher.
In November 2020, wanting to find a way to help those that were struggling amid an ongoing lockdown, Ali Haberstroh spent one afternoon compiling a spreadsheet of 50 local Toronto businesses, and shared her list on social media. The Instagram post encouraged people to shop locally quickly spread like wildfire, inspiring Ali to create Not-Amazon.ca — a full-fledged digital directory that quickly grew to over 4,000 independent small business retailers in Toronto, Halifax, Calgary and Vancouver.
Searchable by city and category, the site enables homebound shoppers to recreate the experience of “stepping out your front door or exploring a new neighbourhood.” By creating a platform to support local and small businesses — with an intentional effort to spotlight BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ and women-owned — Ali’s initiative positively impacted many struggling Canadian entrepreneurs at a time when they needed it most.
Born in Iran and raised in Canada, Dr. Gelareh Zadeh is a Professor at the Department of Surgery, University of Toronto, Head of Neurosurgery at University Health Network (UHN), leads Surgical Oncology at Princess Margaret Cancer Center, is a Senior Scientist at Princess Margaret Cancer Research Institute, and is Co-Director of the Krembil Brain Institute at UHN. But her newest title added to the list was perhaps her most impressive: she was appointed the Dan Family Chair in the Division of Neurosurgery at the University of Toronto in August 2020, making her the first woman to helm one of the largest neurosurgical programs in the world and the first to be named neurosurgery chair in Canada.
Going into neurosurgery 20 years ago, Dr. Zadeh was faced with a lack of women role-models — an issue that’s hardly been solved. Roughly 11 percent of neurosurgeons in Canada are women, and Dr. Zadeh has shared that she’s never operated with a more senior woman neurosurgeon. She’s also faced the expectation that women had to sacrifice having a family in favour of their careers. Now as a mother of two and a successful neurosurgeon, Gelareh is hoping to show women that they can have a family and a very successful, fulfilling career at the same time.
June Joplin, known by many as Pastor June, is a Mississauga-based pastor whose coming out as a transgender woman during a livestream sermon on June 14, 2020 proved to be the message of acceptance and love needed by many in the world of queer Christianity.
It is a message that is far too often lacking in the lives of transgender people, especially trans Christians who are often faced with the task of choosing between their true selves and their faith. Inspired by her own experience as an 11-year-old — the age when she felt called to ministry, while also having intense feelings that she should be a girl — June hoped to use her position as Pastor to provide the affirmation she’d lacked growing up to all those trying to reconcile their faith and their identity, especially transgender youth.
Shortly after the revelation, June lost her job after a congregational vote (52% in favour of termination, ‘for theological reasons’) that was in direct opposition to the outpouring of love from parishioners and supporters on social media. Nevertheless, June continues to share her message through weekly sermons, available on her YouTube channel, and guest preaching.
A daughter of immigrants who arrived in Canada from the Caribbean in the 1960s, Annamie Paul made history in October 2020 when she was elected the leader of the Green Party of Canada. As the first Black woman and the first Jewish woman to lead a Canadian political party, Annamie’s campaign platform included a strategy to help Canada fight climate change, a plan to defund the police, and a wealth “cap” to address wealth inequality.
A lawyer, an international affairs professional, and a long-time advocate for diversity in politics, Annamie’s career is highlighted by a broad range of roles that centre innovation and inclusion in decision-making, particularly women and Black communities. This next phase in her career will have its challenges, but she’s already showing promise for the future of the Greens. Running in October’s byelection in Toronto Centre, she ultimately lost the election, but managed to capture 33 per cent of the vote — a big leap from the five per cent the party had averaged for the seat in the three previous general elections.
A globally recognized expert in security, Bonnie Butlin is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Security Partners’ Forum (SPF), a global network of security professionals which acts as an information sharing nexus for hundreds of security and related associations, companies, educational institutions, and individuals across the globe. She also founded the Women in Security & Resilience Alliance (WISECRA), which came about in response to a growing need to build capacity for and with women in security and related fields.
Recognizing the importance of fostering women’s participation in security and inspiring young women to enter the profession, Bonnie launched a series of Women in Security Awards across the globe, including in Latin America, Singapore, India, Africa, Philippines, Malaysia, and New Zealand — plus an inaugural Canadian award in 2020. This year, she plans on launching in South Korea and Israel, continuing to shine a much needed spotlight on women who have advanced the security profession.
Darby Lee Young is the Founder of Level Playing Field, an accessibility agency focused on the implementation of universal design principles and accessible best practices. Born with mild cerebral palsy, Darby works to mitigate barriers that people like her face on a daily basis. In 2020, that manifested in an unexpected and personal way, when Darby collaborated with shoe designer John Fluevog to create a line of shoes — affectionately named The Darby — with a sole that is rubber, removable, and easier to repair, taking the needs of those with particular disabilities into consideration.
The work began when Darby approached her favourite shoe designer with a problem: because of her gait, her footwear always wore down in a particular spot, and lasted anywhere from a day to a month. Rather than the repair she was looking for, John Fluevog proposed a collaboration. The bestselling ‘Darby’ line now includes five colours, and is sold across Canada and internationally.
Kayla Grey is an award-winning journalist and an anchor for SportsCentre on TSN. She’s had a career full of achievements: upon her debut on SportsCentre in 2018, Kayla became the first Black woman to ever host a flagship sports-highlight show in Canada, and in 2019, she was a reporter for the Toronto Raptors during their historic NBA Championship run and their Championship parade, watched by 5.7 million people across Canada.
In 2020, Kayla used her platform for a different purpose. Her criticism of the use of racial slurs in sports media opened up a conversation on racism that had a ripple effect within the industry. Despite facing hate mail and social media attacks, she continued to shine a light on systemic anti-Black racism, as well as advocate offline for more inclusion in her industry. Whether it be behind the scenes or in front of a large audience, Kayla is working to ensure that she’s no longerone of a few Black women in Canadian Sports Journalism.
Sara Asalya is the Founder and Executive Director of The Newcomer Students’ Association, a grassroots, membership-driven organization working at the intersection of migration, education, and social justice, and a platform committed to promoting inclusion and equity for post-secondary immigrant and refugee students. In 2020, Sara led a transformational expansion of the Newcomer Students’ Association, enhancing civic engagement and political action for immigrant students, and developing a new gender-focused mandate to build the leadership capacity for immigrant women, amplify their voices, and centre their experiences.
Born and raised in a war-torn country, Sara witnessed first-hand the impact of violence, displacement, and trauma on the lives of war refugees — which guides her work as an award-winning leader and human rights advocate. In addition to the establishment of a successful grassroots organization, Sara is also the Manager of the Sister2Sister Program at Newcomer Women’s Services Toronto, where she builds leadership capacity among multicultural/multi-ethnic immigrant and refugee women. From promoting civic engagement to empowering women, Sara works to mobilize, activate and galvanize immigrant communities to take action for social change and impact.
Regional Chief Kluane Adamek (whose traditional name is “Aagé”) is a proud citizen of the Kluane First Nation and belongs to the Dakl’aweidi (Killerwhale) Clan. The youngest ever woman to serve as Regional Chief of the National Assembly of First Nations, Kluane leads Yukon First Nations communities in advancing their priorities, while advocating for those whose voices most often go unheard — particularly women and youth.
She declared 2020 the “Year of the Youth,’ dedicated to visioning, creating, and prioritizing initiatives on women’s leadership, youth empowerment and combating climate change. In February, her leadership made possible the first-ever regional First Nation climate gathering, “Shared Heart”, with a focus on intergenerational conversations between youth and elders. A month later, the Yukon Region held the AFN National First Nations Climate Gathering, hosting over 400 First Nations leaders, women, youth and elders to collaboratively discuss a holistic lens through which they could examine the impacts that climate change has upon First Nations’ self-determination, knowledge systems, self-sufficiency, and capacity to transition towards a sustainable and equitable future. Kluane’s dedication to First Nations’ self-determination, self-sufficiency, and capacity to transition towards a sustainable and equitable future led to the establishment of AFN Yukon Region’s Climate Action Fellowship, providing opportunities to Yukon First Nations youth between 18-30 to participate in digital and land-based training as they collaboratively develop a Climate Action Plan for the entire Yukon region.
Kluane’s leadership is building upon First Nations’ matriarchal wisdom — a topic she spoke on for a November TED talk — and paving the way for future generations.
We are honouring Camille Orridge with the 2021 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by Ricoh Canada, for her outstanding contributions to social change and healthcare equity. Over her 50+ year career — during which she climbed from ward maid to CEO — Camille has always prioritized patient and community needs, collaborating to build groundbreaking programs and initiatives that have had a positive and enduring impact on people’s lives.
“It’s certainly not the title. It’s certainly not the money,” says Camille Orridge, reflecting on her definition of success. “For some people, it’s who’s your network? My network is usually more community-based than it is high flyers.”
That’s not to say she hasn’t spent her share of time with high flyers — whether on the countless advisory groups, committees, councils and boards she’s been on, or in senior executive roles at healthcare organizations in Toronto.
While CEO of the Toronto Central Community Care Access Centre (CCAC) — a not-for-profit corporation funded by the Ontario government, serving close to 20,000 clients monthly — Camille managed an annual budget of $190 million and a staff of 480, working across various office locations and in 24 hospital sites. In her next role as CEO of Toronto Central Local Health Integration Network (LHIN), one of 14 health regions responsible for planning and managing local health care services in Ontario, she was in charge of allocating $4.2 billion to over 170 hospitals, long-term care homes, and community agencies, serving approximately 1.15 million Torontonians and hundreds of thousands of others who came to the area for care.
But all those big numbers don’t seem to matter very much to Camille either, at least not with respect to how she measures her success. Her view has evolved over time, but right now she likes a definition she heard recently: success is when not you, but other people can say that you and the work you have done have made a big impact and a difference in their lives.
And by that definition, Camille is undeniably successful. She’s had an immeasurable impact on the healthcare of Canadians, especially marginalized populations — largely because she’s prioritized helping others over personal advancement or ego.
“Throughout my career, nowhere in that journey was I conscious of ‘I’m achieving this, and I’m achieving this.’ It has always been, ‘What’s the work? Who am I connected with about the work?’” says Camille. “It’s later in life, as you look back, you see it. There are people who go on boards and do things to build their resume. I must say for me, and most of the people I worked with, building, we got into it with the activism approach, not a career-building approach.”
An unlikely beginning
Looking back to the very start of that 50+ year career, it’s interesting to see that healthcare wasn’t always Camille’s plan or passion.
“In Jamaica, if you didn’t become a secretary, you became a nurse or a teacher. I failed typing twice,” Camille explains with a laugh. “Then, when I was thinking of applying to nursing — and in those days, you go to England to train — I was 18, I got pregnant, and that was the end of that.”
At 20, she made the move from Jamaica to Canada, arriving on December 3, 1967. Her mother and aunt were already here and working at a hospital, and she followed in their footsteps, finding a job as a ward maid at Toronto General.
“I would say the greatest predictor of me ending up in hospital was the fact that for so many immigrants, hospital was the preferred job because it paid well and was pensionable,” says Camille. “Those are the jobs you went after, not because they were great jobs, but because they provided stability.”
“My involvement in politics was not as a politician, but it was how to make the system work better for people. Then that became part and parcel of the job for me.”
She had aspirations of becoming a ward clerk, but “in those days, not a lot of Black people were allowed to be ward clerks.” Eventually, Camille moved to Toronto Western to work as a medical records clerk. That opened up some opportunities, because the hospital paid for her to do a correspondence course to become a health record technician — and the learning didn’t stop there.
“I figured out very easily how to do the job in half the time,” explains Camille. “I found ways to make the job easier, creating space for myself — because everybody was happy, the job was done — and I used that time to learn other jobs. In about a year, I knew several jobs in the department, and it interested me.”
Unfortunately, she also struggled with a supervisor who she quickly outshone. She was looking for other jobs when, in 1972, Michael Manley and The People’s National Party (PNP) came into power in Jamaica. Camille moved back to work at a hospital there, so she could participate in the democratic socialist political movement.
Her family had always been politically engaged; she grew up with them talking politics, and strongly supporting the PNP. “My family were working class and poor, but they knew that education was the way out, and then they were very political with a party that valued education,” says Camille. “There was always, ‘Which policy is going to make our kids’ lives better?’ It was always about the kids.”
Growing up in an environment that emphasized improving the lives of the next generation left a lasting impression on Camille. “My involvement in politics was not as a politician, but it was how to make the system work better for people. Then that became part and parcel of the job for me.”
Moving up and making change
Several years (and an undergraduate and master’s degree) later, Camille moved into a VP role at the Home Care Program for Metropolitan Toronto. “That’s where I saw that you can really make a difference,” she says, pointing to two specific hiring practices that she helped change.
First, the organization had shifted their staffing model, requiring every nurse to have a degree. “What that did was immediately disadvantage all these nurses of colour, particularly those who had gone to England to train,” she says. “They grandfathered the nurses — and it meant that if you were working at one hospital, you couldn’t go to another if you didn’t have a degree.”
Camille found an ally in HR, and helped push through a change in policy: “If they had a nursing designation and were qualified as nurses, we were not going to demand the degree.”
Another hiring practice was offering full-time jobs to the pool of women already on board as casual workers. “That was usually white women nurses who had babies, and wanted to come back into the work world, but not necessarily full-time — and as casual they had control over their hours,” explains Camille. “Over time, our full-time staff were all white, middle-class women, because poor Black women couldn’t take a part-time job; they were always looking for full-time. We weren’t diversifying our workforce based on the way we hired. We saw that and changed our hiring practice.”
“My goal, to be quite honest, was never data. My goal was to reduce disparities. Data is simply a tool to get there.”
Camille learned that if you could identify systemic barriers in your job, you could work within your job to change them — a lesson she carried with her as she continued to move up in her career. By the time she became CEO of the LHIN in 2010, she had already identified the issues that she wanted to address.
“The acute care system was so dominant,” says Camille. “If the government was ever going to put money somewhere else, all you needed was one super-specialist with two or three high-power patients talking about how they couldn’t get treatment for their valve change. Everybody then says, ‘Of course, you got to give the hospital that money.’ But most people spend 80% of their lives outside of the acute care system.”
She recognized it was also important to fund the services that made a difference in the quality of people’s lives day-to-day. “For me, going into the LHIN was about building capacity in those services, increasing their role, and having the services they provide recognized.” And that meant working with community groups, says Camille. “Most of those services came about, not because government saw the need and funded them, but because communities saw the need and funded them.”
At the same time, evidence-based decision making had become a big thing in healthcare — which had a similar outcome of disadvantaging marginalized groups, particularly the Black community. “You don’t make any decision without evidence, and I realized we were not part of the evidence,” says Camille. “At the same time, we knew, for example, that our children were being taken away at a greater rate by Children’s Aid. Every Black person knew that. We knew we were being stopped by police more than everybody else. We knew those things, yet, when you talked about them, it would get dismissed because you didn’t have the evidence.”
Within that setting, the need to gather data became an important one — but it was only a first step. “My goal, to be quite honest, was never data,” says Camille. “My goal was to reduce disparities. Data is simply a tool to get there.”
Collaboration and community involvement
Even as CEO of one of Ontario’s 14 LHINs, Camille still encountered major barriers in shifting the system to a new way of thinking. “To be quite blunt, you’re at a table with 13 other CEOs, and none of them have the same interest in the populations I was concerned about. Their interest was their product services. Their interest was acute. Equity and diversity were not major issues for them.”
Her approach was to connect with allies in the same space, who had some common interest in moving the agenda — from hospital CEOs, to leaders in community health centers and community agencies, to her board chair, Angela Ferrante. “I always think activism is a team sport and not something you do alone,” says Camille. With an equity goal in mind, she was able to build a network willing to collaborate on initiatives that made a significant difference.
One of the best examples was Language Services Toronto, a shared telephone interpretation service for non-English patients, launched in 2012. At the time, interpretation services were offered at a few hospitals and community agencies, but it was a costly endeavour, and limited in scope. Camille advanced the work that was already underway, collaborating with those who had identified the issue. The result? Toronto hospitals and community agencies were brought together to bulk-purchase professional phone interpretation services. Not only did this raise quality and access, it also decreased costs. For immigrants and others with limited English proficiency, it enabled them to better understand information and instructions about their health, to ask questions, and communicate their preferences — effectively lessening the equity gap.
“I always think activism is a team sport and not something you do alone.”
Camille’s collaborative efforts also stretched beyond her role at the LHIN. In 2001, she co-founded Pathways to Education, a stay-in-school program for high school students, with Carolyn Acker, the CEO of Regent Park Community Health Centre. The two shared a desire to break the cycle of poverty for residents in Regent Park, and, inspired by their own experiences, they agreed education was how they could do it.
“Now my bias, Carolyn’s bias — she came from a poor Italian family, and education is what helped her break out of that cycle, and education is what helped me break out — it wasn’t strange that we both decided education was the way to go,” explains Camille. “We had only one goal: to improve the graduation rate of kids from Regent Park. That’s it.”
At the time, the dropout rate there was 56 per cent, roughly double the Toronto average. They reached out for support from businesses and wealthy donors. They reached out to young people in the community, their parents, and staff of local agencies and schools, so they could understand the barriers holding kids back. And then they worked to eliminate them, one by one. That ranged from providing tokens to get to school, to offering after-school programs. Through the continued efforts of Carolyn, the program has grown to over twenty locations across Canada, helping thousands of youth graduate from high school and break the cycle of poverty.
The next steps on her journey
In 2015, Camille retired as CEO of the Toronto Central LHIN, but her efforts to create a healthcare system that works for everyone were far from over. She became a senior fellow at the Wellesley Institute, a non-profit that works in research and policy to improve health equity in the GTA, with a focus on the social determinants of health.
She’s continuing her efforts on equitable data practices, with her focus now on data governance. Taking her same collaborative approach, her aim is to ensure that the data being collected is not sold to private companies, or otherwise misused — “because history has taught us we can’t sit back and trust that the system will do right by you.”
Her other current goal: “Supporting young people to be all that they can be, and to take their rightful places in the world.”
Rising through the ranks when she did, Camille has been the first Black woman to go through many doors. “My goal always when that happens, I need to open the door and I need to get at least two other people into that space. That has to be consistent throughout my life at all times,” she says, “because it’s sad when I’m still the first of everything.”
Her advice, then, for those young people who hope to follow in her footsteps?
“There should not be any rule that you feel you don’t have a right to be here — because you do. Step in and take your place.”
Jess Tomlin & Jessica Houssian, Co-CEOs, Equality Fund
Impassioned feminist leaders, Jess and Jessica have a combined wealth of experience in the International Development sector — particularly in the realm of development finance. Following the Government of Canada’s call for the Partnership for Gender Equality in 2018, Jess Tomlin and Jessica Houssian founded The Equality Fund, and were subsequently awarded $300 million by the federal government to invest in grassroots initiatives supporting women in the developing world. The fund is an innovative, Canadian-led consortium made up of 11 organizations that together make up the world’s largest women’s fund. In addition to the federal contribution, the fund has already gathered an additional $100 million from Canadian and international philanthropic foundations, with an aim to reach $1 billion in assets that work in support of gender equality over the next 15 years.
Sally Armstrong, Journalist, Author, Human Rights Activist
We are honouring Sally Armstrong with the 2020 Top 25 Women of Influence Lifetime Achievement Award for her decades-long dedication to sharing the stories of women and girls in conflict zones. An award-winning journalist, bestselling author, and human rights activist — her work is easy to admire, and even more impressive when you consider she started her career as a phys-ed teacher. She has provided an outlet to victims who want to have a voice, shone a light on struggles around the globe, and has used her unique talent, courage, and drive to be a catalyst for positive change.