Shoulders Squared: Celebrating Gender Equality in Canada

diane-and-donna-e1498694152446.jpgThis photo was taken in September of 1967, the year of Canada’s Centennial. My younger sister, Diane, and I were waiting for the bus to pick us up at our farm on the first day of school that fall.  Look at the posture. Squared shoulders, straight arms. We are keen to go back to school.

In 1967 we celebrated Canada’s Centennial.  It was a hopeful time and I remember my sister and I, two skinny fair-haired, blue-eyed farm girls, were invited to ride on a float in in the Centennial Parade down the main street of the village of Teeterville, Ontario. How times have changed, in the name of honoring the Canadian virtue of ‘Compassion’ we were dressed in burlap sacks, hair wild and faces blackened to represent poor children in Africa.

Fifty years later this wouldn’t fly, but the hope, our wide smiles and waving arms are vivid in my mind. The 1960s were a hopeful time. You didn’t talk openly about misogyny; this was lift-off for the age of empowerment.  Raised in a traditional family–it was our grandfather’s, father’s and then our younger brother’s names that were painted on the family barn–my sister and I were raised to believe we could be anything we chose to be.

FullSizeRenderFifty years later, in 2017, we celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary, and our journeys since we were those young farm girls forced my sister and I to figure out how to navigate in ways to sustain those squared shoulders. My sister chose a more traditional role, closer to home; I chose a pathway less predictable than the women before me, and one that took me far from home.

Looking back…How did we get from 1967 to 2017, from young girls to women, in an age that promised gender equality yet didn’t, really, take down the practical barriers?  The answer, for me, lies in a fervent belief that our dignity was innate, that our sense of worth was never in question. 

Although I didn’t pay a lot of attention to politics as a young girl (hard to believe for people who knows me now), it was August of 1967, one month after the celebration of Canada’s Centennial, that Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “Where Do We Go From Here?” speech in Atlanta, Georgia. Reflecting on King’s message, as an adult, allows me to understand how power and love are able to work together, in ways that sustain that sense of dignity in my sister and me, giving us both the temerity and compassion required to stare down systemic misogyny, when needed.  Here’s an excerpt:

5355384180_dfd3e21da9_oMartin Luther King speaking to a rally, 1967, Wikipedia

“Power properly understood is nothing but the ability to achieve purpose. It is the strength required to bring about social, political, and economic change…And one of the great problems of history is that the concepts of love and power have usually being contrasted as opposites—polar opposites—so that love is identified with the resignation of power, and power with the denial of love. Now we’ve got to get this thing right. What [we need to realize is] that power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic…It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.” 

This is tricky. Power, alone, doesn’t work…power without love is cold and ruthless. It is power ‘over’ others which can easily erode their dignity. And, love, alone, doesn’t work either. Love without power is polite, conflict avoiding and can undermine your own dignity or that of others if you create victims.

Let me share a recent experience with misplaced love that explains this conundrum.

Donna 2016 2

One year ago, I made the decision to run for leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, a political party in Alberta. (Notice the squared shoulders in this campaign shot!)  I was well backed by a group of Millennials and others, however, after circumstances revealed themselves I chose to withdraw.  Coincidentally, the same night that Hilary Clinton lost to Donald Trump, and unexpectedly, the same afternoon that another female leadership candidate withdrew from the PC leadership race.

Everywhere I go, people pour out condolences that I had to put up with abuse as a female in politics. At a YWCA fund-raising dinner, Calgary’s mayor, Naheed Nenshi, and several other dignitaries spoke of this harassment, and I was always included, as one of the victims. While I was clear that any abuse of any politician was offensive, I tried, often unsuccessfully, to explain that I had not been harassed and to restate my personal reasons for deciding to leave the race.

In fact, I felt really solid in my decision-making. In this PC leadership bid, our campaign team had two goals: We wanted to get the opportunity for me to be viable as a candidate in the second ballot, and we wanted to be able to talk about policy issues we cared about during the leadership campaign. By late last October it was clear to us that another leadership candidate, Jason Kenney, had sewn up the race, and that there would be no real talk of any policy issues or media coverage of the issues that our campaign cared about. So, we chose to step out at a logical decision-point.

I wasn’t angry about the leadership race or the process. But, I was angry that my message was being overlooked or twisted in supposed support of some higher or larger aim (protecting women in politics from harassment). Cast as a victim of misogyny, I actually lost my power and my voice.

Turning people into victims rarely works.   I learned that in Yemen.


Dr. Ahlam Binbriek of Mulkullah, Yemen, on right, with a young girl

In 2001, I founded Bridges, a Canadian volunteer-based humanitarian organization invited by Yemeni communities to teach and mentor local doctors, nurses and midwives, lawyers and judges, journalists, teachers and politicians. To maintain the dignity of the people we were training, including people like Ahlam, we had to see these people as our counterparts. Yes, they were vulnerable. But they could not be treated as powerless victims. They were not helpless. And, we weren’t white knights zooming in from the West to save them.

Combining power & love to sustain dignity, Martin Luther King style, is a recipe for leading change, sustainable change, often from the edge of the inside. This includes changes in how traditional, patriarchal families, workplaces and communities evolve to create the space for more gender equality. Yes, laws, rights and legal remedies are essential. Yet power, alone, won’t work especially when the people involved are people you love.

Donna Kennedy-Glans, July 1, 2017


5 thoughts on “Shoulders Squared: Celebrating Gender Equality in Canada

  1. Thanks for a tone and a perspective that moves us beyond victim mode to hope. Interesting point: “The answer, for me, lies in a fervent belief that our dignity was innate, that our sense of worth was never in question.” Certainly that would have been the case in the example you use in Martin Luther King. He saw his worth, his image and hope through the lens of his faith.

    1. Thanks for the comment Mary-Elsie. Faith is one place where people often talk about dignity (especially Catholics!). And, faith as a source of our core values is critically important. Yet, I do know many people who feel the same way about dignity –our innate sense of worth as human beings–who aren’t faith-based. When you pick up a newborn baby to hold, anywhere in the world, you can feel that sense of worth of that wee individual. How do we lose that feeling…and how do we get hold of it again, and again, through our lives…to propel us to take the power and love needed to challenge the status quo?

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