This story will be prefaced with a feature interview with our mayor, Lisa Helps.
Introduction to the interviewee: Mayor Lisa Helps’ time in office has been defined by a bravery and unrelenting dedication to tangible political solutions which is rare in Canadian municipal politics. With a background in activism and community organizing, Helps’ brings a refreshing competence to the table. With a collaborative piece of incredible and powerful women throughout history, we thought we would start with a modern day example, and an example close to home. So, during the month we sat down with Helps to catalogue her bold career in politics for our March Issue Cover. Below is the transcribed interview with slight edits for flow.
Sierra: Considering your start as a community organizer and activist, what made you jump into politics?
Helps: What made me jump into politics was really seeing, based on my community organizing experience, what can happen when you bring a group of people together, create a shared vision, and get things done. That was kind of all of the work that I did as a community organizer, was okay, what do we wanna do together, and bringing people together, and then, and then doing it. And so politics is just that same thing, it’s just on a different scale. Basically when I first was elected as mayor, I said well I’m gonna keep doing all the things I’ve been doing, but now I’ve got a budget of, 240 million dollars and a staff of 800! So there is a lot more impact you can have. I would say, I think what inspired me, was the ability to scale up that impact. And then why I ran for mayor specifically, is cause I was a counselor and I was feeling a bit frustrated, just watching the way the city operated, our residents have so much potential, there’s so much good energy here, and I felt like city hall was a blocker to potential, rather than helping people unleash their potential, so yeah, that’s why I ran for mayor.
Shloke: We were looking, and we realized that you were the first female mayor to have been elected in over, or about a quarter of a century, so about 25 years. So we were wondering what you thought might differ between the experiences of men and women in the political arena.
Helps: Yeah, no, it’s a good question, and I’m also only the second woman ever elected in the city of Victoria. Things in social media, mostly men, who are upset about a decision I’ve made, will write, like, well listen dear, whereas if the mayor was a man, they would never say that… that’s the biggest thing, the tone of misogyny that comes with criticism.
Cassie: Do you feel that your treatment by the mainstream media is different in any way?
Helps: I would say, I’ve got a very good relationship with the media, I think the media is really really important in helping to get the stories out, so I would say, again, everything is relationship based, and I have a good relationship with all of the reporters and all of the stations. However, I think social media is the absolute worst place for women in leadership roles.
Omar: In the piece we wanted to feature one of your bolder moves in your political career, which was to forego the oath of allegiance at your inauguration, so I was just wondering what went into that decision.
Helps: I would say an even bolder move was to remove the statue of Sir John. A. MacDonald from the front steps of city hall three months before elections.
In terms of not swearing allegiance, when I was elected originally, there was one oath we were required to swear by law, the oath of office, to serve the community with integrity, one reason I chose not to swear the oath of allegiance to the queen was that if I was going to swear an oath that day, I wanted it to be a meaningful one to my community, not to some monarch in England. But the other reason was because I think England was a real colonial power, and these are the homelands of the Songhees and the Esquimalt nations, they’re not the homelands of the queen.
Well the John. A. MacDonald decision, that was really just, if we’re serious about reconciliation, which we are, we have to take our directions from the people’s who’s homelands the city’s built on.
Politically, it was probably the stupidest thing I could have done, but I didn’t care. It wasn’t about politics, it was about doing what was required to have a reconciliation process. I would never have said to the nations, let’s wait until I am re-elected, and we will move the statue then. That would be completely disingenuous.
Cassie: You recently accepted an invitation from Alberta oilsands, and you said that you were going to it with an open heart and an open mind, so I was wondering the importance of that kind of approach and how it’s shaped your experience.
Helps: I think there is a real danger right now, not just in Victoria, or in Canada, but around the world, of narrow-mindedness or populism, making up our minds before we even have the facts. I think that is the worst possible thing for democracy. I think it really has the ability to erode civil society. I think Pearson College is the exact antidote for that sort of thing, by the way, which is why it’s so awesome. But I will come back from Alberta with a deeper understanding of somebody else’s perspective, and having deep understanding of other people’s perspectives, helps us to form decisions. I think that can make us better leaders and better citizens.
Women from Our Countries
Sylvia Fedoruk (1927-2012)
After earning an M.A. in physics, Fedoruk became the chief medical physicist at the Saskatoon Cancer Clinic, where she helped develop the first cobalt radiation therapy unit, a technology that has since helped over 70 million people worldwide. Additionally, Fedoruk served as the first female chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan, the 17th Lieutenant Governor of the province. While staying active in her spare time, Fedoruk was also inducted into the Canadian Curling Hall of Fame.
– Written by Tess Casher
Dr. Hawa Abdi (1947-today)
A Doctor and a Lawyer in her own right, Abdi managed to chart her own incredible course in a society which relegated women to the margins of society. Through a scholarship to Kiev granted in the heat of the cold war, Abdi excelled in school, and as mentioned before, was able to achieve the distinction of both Doctor and Lawyer. When the Civil War broke out in 1991, Abdi stayed to help the thousands of casualties to come. When Al-Shabaab surged, she literally ran them out of town. With this boldness and virtue, it was not long before Andi had built a vibrant charitable foundation. The Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, now headed by her two daughters, has been and remains an integral part of Somali society. To find out more about her work, visit the Foundation’s website (https://www.dhaf.org/)
– Written by Omar Farah
Viola Desmond (1914-1965)
Viola Desmond was a Nova Scotian born African Canadian woman who, according to the government of Canada Parks Canada website, “brought nationwide attention to the African Nova Scotian community’s struggle for equal rights”. In a theater in New Glasgow she routinely refused to sit in a segregated seating section. When charged for her “crimes” she fought the charges, showing strength and the ability to rise above within a system that was designed to oppress. She is now a Canadian symbol of the struggle that many groups faced to gain equal rights. As well, her face is present on the $10 bill.
– Written by Rebeccah Raphael
Tu Youyou (1930 – today)
Tu Youyou was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2015 for her discoveries concerning a novel therapy against Malaria. She was the first Chinese scientist to win a Nobel Prize. Born in Ningbo, Zhejiang, she has worked in China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine for more than 50 years. Her success of extracting artemisinin, a substance which inhibits the malaria parasite, from traditional Chinese medicine has led to the survival and improved health of millions of people.
– Written by Cindy Gao
Muthoni Wa Kirima (1931 – today)
The narratives of the struggle and attainment of independence in Kenya from the British are often told in the lens of men. Stories of the Mau Mau warriors, a group of Kenyans who rebelled against the colonisers, forget to mention an iconic woman named Muthoni Wa Kirima. Not only did Muthoni Wa Kirima rise up to the role of a marshal in the Mau Mau movement, but also united and led 162 other women to rise up and fight against colonial British. Muthoni Wa Kirima was a fearless woman, that independence came from within through the liberation from colonial mentality. Even after the independence of Kenya, she never backed down from advocating for justice and the recognition and the compensation of freedom fighters in the country.
– Written by Kamene Mang’oka
Marta Raudales (1921-2015)
Born on April 9, 1921 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. She was a women’s rights activist by writing critiques for newspapers and magazines. She wanted to pursue her dream and abolish the gender roles of society that wanted her to be a housewife. She wanted to study medicine but met with male authorities and a dictatorship along the way. Fighting for equality, after nine years of studies, she became, in the 1940’s, the first female doctor in Honduras and my Grandma years later.
– Written by Antonio Midence Ordoñez