As luck had it, Shirley Douglas got a 13th floor apartment when she moved with her twins Kiefer and Rachel Sutherland from L.A. to Toronto’s Crescent Town neighbourhood back in 1977.
The actress, activist, and daughter of medicare founder Tommy Douglas told a story about that lucky perch during an International Women’s Day speech at the AccessPoint centre on Danforth Avenue.
Many in the packed room knew exactly what building she meant when Douglas described her home of eight years above the only ice cream store in Crescent Town – the day-long event of speeches, music and dance brought many residents and nearly a dozen community groups from the neighbourhood, long a popular home for families new to Canada.
“My memories of Crescent Town were tremendously happy,” she said, recalling how she used to yell down at her son Kiefer, now a Hollywood actor and star of TV’s 24, because he refused to wear a helmet while playing pick-up hockey.
“I used to step out onto the balcony in the middle of them playing and yell, ‘Kiefer, put your helmet on!’ and the whole place was just humiliated,” she said, laughing. Kiefer later said that he tried to spot her in the apartment window, but was looking at the wrong one because the floor numbers skip from 12 to 14.
Besides raising two of her children there, Douglas said she enjoyed Crescent Town because it is a tight-knit place, much like her Prairie hometown of Weyburn, Saskatchewan.
“That’s where I first learned, through my mother and father, that organizing and helping each other was a daily way of life,” she said.
“It wasn’t a special occasion.”
Whether community building in Weyburn and Crescent Town, or protesting the Vietnam and Iraq wars, advocating for US civil rights or protecting Canadian medicare, Douglas said she has always found women key to organizing change.
“For me, the number one thing always is to collect the women around me,” she said.
“It doesn’t have to be 5,000 people,” she said, recalling how just 50 people came out to the first anti-Vietnam War march she helped organize in the US. Later she would join more than a million marchers in the Peace Moratorium of 1969, the largest protest in US history.
“With a group of 20 people you can launch the world,” said Douglas.
Inspired by a similar belief in grassroots change, Sufia Shahid shared the floor along with Douglas on March 8, to celebrate the first anniversary of Shwasti, a non-profit she founded exactly a year before to empower women in the neighbourhood. Shwasti is a Bengali word meaning comfort and wellbeing.
“For us, International Women’s Day is not just a day, but a day with goals and missions,” said Shahid, a life-long social worker.
In its anniversary magazine, members of Shwasti wrote about some of the challenges that remain – domestic abuse, so-called “honour” killings, and the discrimination against women and girls in financial matters. While some are less common in Canada, they wrote, they are problems faced by women both here and abroad.
“I have been one of the few lucky women in my generation who have had access to good education, good work, and a good life in Bangladesh,” said Shahid.
“But I have seen many more women who didn’t have the same opportunities.”
Now a few weeks shy of her 80th birthday, Douglas spoke about the many gains women in Canada have made since she was a girl in the 1930s and 1940s.
“The great thing I saw was that my mother and father had a joint checking account in 1933,” she said, to loud applause from the audience.
“I never realized how odd that was.”
With roots in the labour movement, International Women’s Day began in 1911 when women in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland held parades to demand the right to vote and hold public office.
Today, the United Nations notes that those rights are nearly universal around the world, but only a fifth of parliamentarians are women.