Introduction: Cleaners’ Action was created in 1975 to advocate for Portuguese women working as office-building cleaners. That year, an organizing drive among cleaners at the Queen’s Park building-complex led to a first union contract with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The Ontario government’s services ministry then cancelled the union contract with the original cleaning company it had subcontracted to clean the legislative buildings, and signed a new contract with a different company. The workers were forced by this “contracting-out crisis” to accept low wages in order to keep their jobs. They also turned to community workers at St Christopher (settlement) House, who created Cleaners’ Action. Sydney Pratt and Marcie discuss how Cleaners’ Action assisted night cleaners with their individual problems and worked together with them to address workplace challenges.
Franca Iacovetta: So, let me just start by saying thank you very much to both Marcie and Sidney for agreeing to participate in this project.
I’m part of the Rise Up collective. This project we’ve called Women Unite Voices of Feminist Activists in Toronto, 1970s—1990s. And I’m really, really pleased we can do one of these interviews on having to do with Portuguese women workers, activism, the activism and networks of support around them. So, thank you very much for participating in this interview.
Before going into kind of the early questions, can I just ask that we all very briefly identify – introduce ourselves for the purposes of the interview? I’ll come back to ask you more about your – you know your biography and your influences and so forth. But just maybe some brief introductions. And I’ll start with you Sidney.
Sidney Pratt: Oh, in the paper you said Sidney first. How far back do you want to go?
Franca: How about you know your arrival in Toronto and –
Sidney: Oh, that’s halfway through. No, I come from a family that was socially active around the questions of slavery, and around the question of temperance. My grandmother was a stalwart in the Temperance movement. I often cheer her with a glass wine. So, it was in the blood.
When I was in high school in the States, I was in the Model United Nations. And I went to Girls State, which was a thing sponsored for girls who were interested in learning about politics and being in politics. And I ran the governor’s campaign at Girls State. So I was already éminence grise And that’s been my role ever since, is, I like to be behind, helping people figure out how to move ahead.
I went to Brazil – I was a high school teacher in Indianapolis for four years, five years, I forget. During that time I set up a Bistro, a little club for folk music for kids to come. And all of this was sort of a beginning of, not so much feminism, but seeing the inequalities among people.
For the students in the Bistro, it was because you couldn’t drink in Indiana unless you were 21. And so it was a way of finding a place where they were included. And it was at the beginning of the folk – folk movement. So it turned out well.
I went to Brazil in ’66. And I was still relatively conservative.
But in Brazil I was trained with a lot of priests and nuns who were just coming out of Vatican II. And we were – in fact; I was in a hotbed of the Catholic Left without knowing it. There was a – John Said and I were the only two non-Catholics who had ever attended. And all of the sudden we were exposed to things we didn’t even know existed in terms of social justice. Not in terms of feminism, OK.
So, in Brazil I started out in a girls’ school in the south, but I got transferred to the northeast where I worked with Dom Helder [Camara] and his team. And in – I was there for six years. Part of – six months of those six years, I spent in Switzerland with the World Council of Churches and the International – what’s it called? – The Institute of Bossey for Ecumenical Studies. And there I – on a world scale, I saw that what we were doing in Brazil was quite different than what most of the rest of the Christian world was doing.
And I also had a chance to work with Paulo Freire, because he had just come to the World Council and the people at the graduate school were very interested in making a connection with him. And, so, I did my monograph with him. It was a course in specialization.
And I had known about Freire’s work before. I’d read his book [Pedagogy of the Oppressed]. I knew the person that translated his book into English. And so that – he sort of pulled together a lot of things I had already been doing.
I came to the States, I returned to the States in ’72. I’d had severe bouts – a severe bout of hepatitis I couldn’t get over. And the political situation was getting very hot for us. I came back to Indiana, got a job in an alternative school. It was with a lot of people on the left at that point and at the beginning of feminism in Indiana. But I hated the States.
Got an invitation, got a call from Holy Trinity Church [Toronto] to come to Canada to make a speech. And never looked back. They took me down to Kensington and introduced me to Brian Smith, he had just come to St. Stephen’s [Community House], he was looking for a project and it was love at first sight. Me and Kensington Market, and St. Stephen’s.
So this was November [after leaving Brazil]. By January I had – I was going up once every couple of weeks. I became landed in March, or I don’t remember when. That wonderful interview, you people know about the immigrant interview where they ask you all these questions? I got 70 points. I asked the man, “have you ever given 100 points?” “Oh yes,” he said. “I had a neurologist who was going to the Yukon.”
So there begins my immigrant experience. I’d been an immigrant in Brazil, but I was protected. But this time I was not protected.
So I got to Toronto, had a wonderful time. John Sewell was Mayor. The Toronto Citizen was still running. I have a list here of things. This Magazine [is About Schools]: when I was in Brazil with hepatitis, somebody gave me two years full of This Magazine and I had read all of them. And I was in love with Canada. It was a very exciting time. I met John Medeiros [community worker] almost right at the beginning. Olga Kolysnik from The Grail [Toronto branch of an international social, political, and spiritual women’s movement]. The Canadian News Synthesis project. All of these things were perking at this time, ’72—’73. The Chileans came in ’73. And that also put an infusion of sort of analytical processes for all of us. Is that enough?
Franca: That’s enough for now, thank you. OK, Marcie, can you top that?
Marcie Ponte: I don’t know how to follow that, I’m sorry.
Sidney: Sure she can.
Well, I was born in a tiny island called Santa Maria off the coast of Portugal, one of the nine islands of the Azores. My family immigrated to Canada in – well I shouldn’t say – my mother and four of us immigrated to Canada in 1963. My father had been living here in Canada for a number of years, in Vancouver. So we immigrated to Vancouver.
He was living there working on the railways. He was – he loved Vancouver. Who couldn’t? Surrounded by mountains and ocean water, it was not dissimilar from being back home. But my mother’s family lived in Kingston, Ontario.
So, much to my father’s regret we took the train – VIA Train, which I love to this date, across Canada to Kingston from Vancouver. Lived there for a few years up until my father passed away. And so, then we ended up – my mother ended up moving in with my brother who was living here in Toronto. In a place called Leaside. I’m sure that’s familiar.
In Kingston, I lived in a very poor neighbourhood, where the Satan’s Choice were our neighbours. I will send you my York University speech that has all of this. But it was such a shock to go from a tiny beautiful island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean to Vancouver Island, which was just gorgeous, to Kingston, Ontario where our neighbours were a biker gang, to Toronto in Leaside, which was very middle class.
And then, I ended up going to Centennial College to study community development and got sent to Kensington Market to work at St. Stephen’s Community House; my field placement. And it was there that I got to meet Sidney and John Medeiros, and everybody that she’s referred to, at the same time.
I – one of my first tasks was to organize the Kensington Community Festival. And I rarely tell this story, but one of the things that I had to do was organize food for the festival. This was pre-you Sidney. And so, I invited my mother to come. She was a widower living in Leaside and totally far away from the Portuguese neighbourhood. I invited her to come and work – volunteer to cook food for the festival, Portuguese food for the festival with other local women – Portuguese women. It was mostly Azoreans at the time. I saw a totally different person in my mother.
She was lost in Leaside, because it was such a foreign atmosphere for her. Kensington Market was for her like it did for me, was we were alive all of a sudden, because you could smell the food, you could breathe the culture. In Kensington Market at that time, Sidney you might remember, they were still selling chickens – live chickens. You know, it was just a really vibrant place to be in.
That was when I realized I really wanted to do the work that I was set out to do, in community development and working with immigrant women. Because I saw something in my mother that I’d never seen before. She came alive, she was happy she was amongst other women. And so that’s what sold me on the work.
And I met Sidney. Brian Smith was my first employer, if you will, at St. Stephen’s at the time when Executive Directors actually lived in the houses. In the settlement houses, he lived in the – he and his family lived on the third floor. And it would just – it just mushroomed from there.
And Working Women Community Centre was created in 1975. ’74, sorry. And it was housed in St. Stephen-in-the-Field, of the church. Right at the corner of Belleview and College, north of St. Stephen’s.
And I sat on the first incorporated Board of Directors in 1976. So, long history in the sector. Long history with Sidney and some of the people that she’s mentioned, but it’s just stayed in my blood.
Sidney: Let me – can I pick up one thing that Marcie said that’s really important? Her father came before her family and worked on the railroads.
Sidney: This is something that most people didn’t understand about the Portuguese women, that while the husbands were in Canada, after ’54 more or less, working, the women were on sitios, on small, what’s the word in English? small farms. They were raising the family, they were organizing.
I met women who had five or six people working for them in the Azores while their husbands were in Canada. And so, they were highly skilled at administration. They weren’t dumb little old Portuguese ladies who didn’t know anything. They had a lot of talent. And we found that out – luckily we found that out very, very early in our work.
And so, I think that’s a hinge that we need to use, is, what were the expectations of the women? And certainly not to be slaves to their husbands and spend early morning to very late at night doing menial jobs.
Marcie: I think the other thing to add to that is the majority of the people coming to Canada in that era were from the Azores. And you know, they were not educated, they were illiterate – my mother was illiterate, but she raised a family of four and then seven, subsequently on her own. And you know, but the adjustment of having to learn to live with[out] your husband after a number of years.
Marcie: Was really difficult – was really challenging. But they were strong women, really strong women who persevered and never looked back.
Franca: Well, thank you. We’re at the introductions and you’ve already said many important things. So thank you for doing that. Because I was going to say that, you know – I was going to introduce myself as the interviewer and say that you know I wasn’t part of these – part of the events that we’re going to be discussing.
But I too – I am too the daughter of immigrants. And my father came first as a farm labourer in 1951 and my mother followed with two children – and who are my two older brothers. From Italy, from one of the poorest regions of southern Italy.
And I was the first Canadian born in 1957 in Toronto on Dupont Street. And then there were other kids after me. So there was six kids. My mother was a factory worker. And so, I understand exactly, you know, what both of you are saying about this stereotype that these were these women in the shadows, you know submissive women in the shadows. When in fact, they were such wage earners, right. They knew how to save, they knew how to – right, stretch the budget and, you know, manage, as you said. So I’m so glad that you said those things.
I’m also a historian and a member of the Rise Up collective and really glad to be doing this interview. And I want to thank you for the back and forth, which it was really, really helpful. And Sidney for some of those documents, which I hope we can talk about a little bit. And also the photographs. And also, a thank you to Susana Miranda who is, you know research and writing, has been really important. And I really hope that out of this too will give; Suzanne will have that last push to get that book manuscript out there. Because it needs to be – it needs to be out there.
So, as I said early on, in our exchanges, we’ve organized these interviews around kind of a moment. Because we can’t possibly do, right, full length like histories and everything. But we can sort of do a moment. And then out of there – you know, out of that will be a series of you know themes, topics, people’s biographies and so forth that come out of it.
So we ended up settling on the idea of 1975 moment. And the moment is, right, the kind of Portuguese Cleaners’ labour struggles around unionization at Queen’s Park, at the Queen’s Park complex. Where they get, right, a first union contract, and then there’s a contracting-out crisis. And out of that, we get the birth of the Cleaner’s Action program at the same time.
So our moment kind of bridges, you know, two interrelated moments. I don’t know that either of you were involved in that initial unionization campaign, right, or 1975? I think not. And you’re nodding in the affirmative. But you were involved in what came later.
So my understanding, and please correct me if I’m wrong, is that Sidney, you became centrally involved, right. In the cleaners’ contracting-out crisis, in terms of the women coming, raising complaints, you know trying to figure out what to do. And then, played a critical role in the founding of the Cleaner’s Action.
I gather it was your idea, and that was formed then in 1975 out of this contracting-out crisis. And so Marcie, I think you became involved in Cleaner’s Action a little bit later, like around 1978 or so. But by 1975 you were already at St. Christopher House? Where you’re –
Marcie: I was at St. Stephen’s in 1975.
Marcie: I came into it probably towards the tail end of ’75 and early ’76.
Franca: OK. Great.
Marcie: Actually, I went from St. Stephen’s to St. Chris. I was doing placement at both actually, both community houses. And Sidney, you were connected through St. Chris as I believe.
Sidney: St. Chris, I was working at the Free Interpreter Services.
Marcie: Yeah. And that’s where St. Christopher sends me to work with Sidney in Cleaner’s Action.
Sidney: Hoping to do things.
Franca: All right. Thanks. Sorry?
Sidney: Hoping a student would diffuse us.
Marcie: Did that work, no.
Franca: So I – so I thought I’d start – yeah – the question with, then, you know, the moment which we have this contracting-out crisis, where the, right, workers had fought for a union contract and then all sorts of things were going wrong.
And my question is – the first question is; you know, why did the women come to you Sidney? Why did the women come to you and some of your network of people?
Sidney: You have to go to the year before, ’74.
Sidney: I was at the Free Interpreter Service. And one thing really bothered me, and that is we would go with women, mostly women, to doctors or lawyers or whatever, and we’d take care of the problem and then four months later they’d be back with the same problem or a different problem. So I was really worried about this kind of circular thing that happened, nothing ever changed. It’s just you were there to offer a service, and if they needed it, yes.
Like brushing your teeth every night, you see, nothing was different. So I was very worried about that. And then we – most of the Portuguese – many of the Portuguese were moving westward, but St. Chis wasn’t.
So, Isabel [de Almeida] and I got an invitation from St. Veronica’s School to talk to the teachers who were in a panic about all of these Portuguese kids. I’ll give you an example of an issue; we have four kids and we didn’t realize they were from the same family because they all had different last names.
Another issue; the kids only have soup for lunch. OK. Oh, you should have seen that soup. Another issue; the mothers won’t buy gym clothes for the kids. So we began to meet with the teachers – I forget, Wednesdays, I think, for a brown-bag lunch. And we’d just listen to what the teachers said. And then, what we tried to do was to say, OK, how can we make the communication better?
So, what we did was; we had a friend at OISE [Ontario Institute for Studies in Education] who loaned us an OISE video machine/camera. And, for example, we went into the gym and spent a day in the gym filming. And then we put it together – I don’t know how – and we took it to people’s houses and we showed them the film.
And they said, oh, yes, we’ll buy gym clothes. They didn’t understand that gym meant the kids were running around and rolling on the ground and if they didn’t have gym shoes they were slipping. OK. And Portuguese people are very practical, they looked at it and said, oh yes, we’ll buy the shoes, you know.
They had a problem with the dentist. They had a dental program, so we got the dentist to work with us and we made another slideshow called My Child at the Dentist. And it just showed what happened and why, and good dental care. And then the mothers said, oh yes.
So, we would take this to a house near St. Veronica’s where there were four or five women, we’d ask them to come together during the day, and we’d show them a video, or we’d talk about what the teachers had said. And usually the women would say, oh, yeah, now we see.
It was never a question of trying to convince them or take them out of their comfort zone, it was they just didn’t have information. They came – the mothers came back to us with “… the school – we can never talk to the teachers because the school always has parent meetings at a time that we can’t attend.”
So we went back to the teachers and we said, how about we have something on Saturday afternoon with interpreters and why don’t – instead of just having a parent-teacher meeting, why don’t we have a knowledge fair? Where each teacher gives maybe 10 minutes—20 minutes with an interpreter about what they’re teaching. And they did it and they had 300 parents show up. So, it wasn’t a question of ignorance. It was that people wanted to know, there was no channel of communication.
We had a little office in the – there was a recreation centre right at the end of that street, and I can’t remember the name, so we had a little office there. Then what happened was, in December, probably ’74, a group of women came to me and said the union’s having meetings at a time we can’t attend. And so that’s – that was the first time they came to us.
Now, this has a lot to do with my way of organizing, which is not to be proactive in anything that’s not already brought up by the community. What I say is people have to trip over me and that’s when they say I might be useful to them. OK.
So we just kept going to place and place, and house and house. It helped out by the election where I worked for the NDP and went from – to millions of houses. Everybody gave me banana liqueur, I hate banana liqueur. I was royally drunk by the end of the day, but warm. And – but I had been in many, many, many, many houses.
So it was just – they didn’t come to me about the contracting-out, they came to me about the fact that they couldn’t go to the meetings, OK. This was at Queen’s Park. So, then the other issues came out – another big issue was, they were given percentage rises. And so, the men who earned more were always getting more cash than the women. And that came out in an English class. That in the English class we programmed; what a percentage rise does, and then they could see on the graphs that the men were getting more money.
Now also, because of Women Working with Immigrant Women, which you really should do some follow up on later on. Because it was a very interesting organization.
We were in touch with government people. That’s how I met Fern Gaspar. And so, they set up a room in Queens Park where I could give English classes. And I had a filing cabinet with my name on it in the cloakroom of one of these rooms at Queens Park. So we had English classes on site. This might have been the first English classes.
Sidney: And then struggled with the question of the issues. And the issues were: none of the materials showed women as strong and leaders, you know, women were housewives, they were shown dusting and sweeping and –
Franca: Well maybe this would be a good time to ask you to say a little bit more about, you know your role, and others, as you know ESL activists. I mean the great document that you sent me, “Literacy, Charitable Enterprise or Political Right?” Makes very clear where it stands in terms of it being a political, right, and a human right. And that it’s about empowering people and – right, and that ESL content isn’t neutral. You can either help, right, reveal the inequities out there or it can hide them. And you folks were doing a lot of important work about revealing the inequities out there. So can you talk a bit about that?
Sidney: Yeah, this was also part of what was going on at the time. Brenda Duncombe was at St. Stephen’s, John Medeiros was at the YMCA. We were all working together, we had something called – Literacy Working Group. We had all these names, we kept getting LIP [Local Initiatives Program] grants for stuff.
And then – can we tell the truth? – the LIP grant would be for three people and we’d spread the money among five. And then when they came to inspect us, we’d have so many people in the room, they wouldn’t know who was working for the project and who wasn’t. That’s how we got Mary Ellen Nettle, Marcie. Mary Ellen’s name on the project and we hired three people with her money.
Marcie: I remember.
Sidney: But the thing is this was all happening at the same time. This is a very fertile time in terms of people thinking about change. Not in the Alinsky – you linked my name to Alinsky. Yes, Alinsky had been there some years before, but not exactly in that sense.
We weren’t rioting, we weren’t breaking windows, we weren’t – what we were trying to do was to capture what people had to say and to use that to help them to reflect. It’s all Freire.
If you want, just a moment, I’ll go back to [my stay in Brazil] – I lived in a popular neighbourhood in Recife during – six months, and Dom Helder, the archbishop, was forbidden by the government to give sermons. So we had a group of people who worked with him. And what we did was — he would read up a passage from the Bible every Saturday afternoon.
And so we would work with him to select the passage and then before Saturday we would meet in the neighbourhoods with little groups of people and we’d go over what he was going to say. OK. And then they – each one of them would have other people come to their houses to listen and they would be prompted.
And there were always four things. And these four things have ruled my life since them. What is the story? How was the story Christian? What is the Christian action involved? What’s the responding action in your life?
So it was the same kind of idea in this – in the case of the women, it was what’s going on, what do you need? They needed English classes. OK. So we offered English classes. OK. And then, how is English going to help your situation? OK. What’s the use of English, how are you going to use it?
Well, I can know what my employer wants. First of all it was very sort of in a descriptive way, it was only later on they saw that they could listen to the news, they could in fact be part of the news. OK.
Then, what’s the action that you can take? So – do we have time for another story? Probably not. But the idea was to move the question ahead, on their terms. Does that sound right Marcie? You were watching this from –
Marcie: Yeah. Yeah, yeah. No, I taught one of those classes at Queens Park. I actually have a photo that I’ll send you, Franca.
And you know, right from the get-go what I learned from Sidney and Mary Ellen and Brenda, is that it wasn’t about me. What I was doing with the women was not about me.
And it was – it was really teaching from a community development perspective in that hearing what women have to say and teaching from that perspective. So it wasn’t teaching the ABCs, we weren’t doing that. We weren’t teaching the hellos, how are yous, we were talking about issues.
Sidney: Issues, that’s right.
Marcie: And we were empowering women around those issues. And which – and you know at our centre today, we run language classes, it’s all about you know how to have conversations and the traditional English approach. That’s not what we were doing, we were working from where the women needs work and the English just flowed.
The more we talked about the issues, the more we talked about how to empower – we helped to empower them, the English just started to come. And it was a natural English – I mean they weren’t perfectionists. But they were able to manage their lives in English, yeah.
Sidney: Well, and that’s another place for investigation is the movements towards a national literacy program. What happened in Ontario, the books that were published by those people – I left some with you Marcie, right?
Marcie: I have put a lot of them onto Sue Colley. Franca. Sue Colley is working with Franca on this project. So I’ve given Sue a number of those books and I have a whole lot more to pass on. Sidney sends me things and I’m a bit of a historical hoarder, so I have a lot of this stuff in here.
Sidney: I was, but I have to get rid of this stuff. I left a whole box of photos with World Literacy of Canada when I left. And there were probably lots of photos from the union work and from the immigrant work together because I was in a dead hurry. And I didn’t choose them well.
Franca: Yeah. Though – and fortunately, Miranda has been able to get some of those photographs, I mean you with the women workers and so forth. There are a number of group shots that at least give us a sense of people in action. So I mean I guess what you know, I would say in response to what you’re saying, which is fascinating, is that you fit – you know you fit the prototype of, you know, grassroots movement, right.
Franca: You’re really working from the bottom up, right. And working with women’s issues and then how do we go from there.
So I’ve got — I kind of have two questions about that. One is, if you could talk a little bit more about how did women – how did women present their stories to you? In the sense that – I understand that, you know, that sometimes they were just perfectly blunt, like I need to know English so that I can understand what my employer wants, so I can read this union contract.
But I also wonder whether, did they put it also in terms of “I’m struggling, you know, in order to feed my family and I need to be able to do these things?” Did they, you know, articulate stories around it? Or was it, you know, in that kind of very pragmatic way, which you’ve talked about it? Either of you?
Sidney: No, people were very not forthcoming about personal problems. I’ll give you – I’m now going to give you the example I didn’t give you before, because it’s an example.
We knew, because I’m a gringa, because I went into houses and I wasn’t another Portuguese woman. Sometimes people would tell me things because I was like talking to the priest, you see. And so, what I discovered was a lot – not a lot, but a number of women were being battered in one way or another. But they would never talk about it to anybody else. I knew that.
So what I did is I put them all together in an English class. And I knew every single woman in that group had suffered some kind of abuse. And I had a social worker, I can’t remember who it was – who was with me, it was a Portuguese speaker, and we were offering English classes. And we just let it go on and on and one day a woman came in with a black eye. And all the women started questioning and she started crying.
And then, one by one, I’ll never forget, they all talked about it. I stayed for maybe three more lessons and then I let the social worker take over. Do you see? Do you agree with me, Marcie?
Women are not forthcoming. Nobody ever complained to me about the life they had when they got up at five in the morning and worked until two in the morning picking worms in the cemetery. No one ever complained about that.
Sidney: Am I right Marcie?
Marcie: Yeah, absolutely. I mean the difference between you and me at the time, is that you were seen as –I mean I always thought you were a nun.
Sidney: Yeah, I know. A lot of people who did. But I was never a nun, I never wanted to be a nun.
Marcie: I always, and I would go home and I would say to my mother, I’m working with this nun, she’s fabulous. And, but in a different, there was a different kind of respect that people, that women had with you [Sydney] than they had with me, because I was all of 17 years old.
Sidney: Yeah, well.
Marcie: And how did I – what did I know. And I think they saw me as a vehicle to move things to you. And say, tell Sidney that this is what’s going on and we need her help, which was great. Yeah.
Sidney: But just to be clear about what Franca was saying, is that I never found people to be forthcoming about their problems. OK.
Marcie: No, no, absolutely not.
Sidney: It’s just in the culture.
Marcie: Yeah. It was very quiet.
Franca: Right well that – right OK, that’s really, really interesting.
And also what, Marcie, you said about assuming that Sidney was a nun, also gets at another question that I had. Which had to do with – I kind of wondered. Because I, you know, I – excuse me if I have put you into some kind of a pigeon hole Sidney, but I began to think of you as you know someone who came out Liberation Theology, Paulo Freire and the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, [unintelligible 00:35:11] Empowerment.
Sidney: It makes me a nun? It makes me part of the Chicago Seven.
Franca: So my question was going to be, did people know who you were? You know, or did they think you were sort of the nun or the almost nun.
Sidney: No. I don’t think they knew who I was. No, I don’t think they knew who I was. And nobody – I laughed at your question. Nobody ever asked me where I came from, what I did. I was with the Portuguese Free Interpreter Service; I had a bond with people.
People thought when they got a settlement of some complaint they had and got $16,000.00, or whatever, they came and kissed my hand, you know. And they thought that I had something to do with this, because in many countries, you know, you can work behind the scenes and spring [correction: speed] things up.
Awe, I’m just remembering a moment. Oh geeze, I’ll see if I can remember it well. Yes, there was one case where the guy wouldn’t – the woman’s husband died and they wouldn’t free up the money for her. And I finally got it by saying to the guy, OK, pretty good, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to come with her and her six children, and the CBC. And we’re just going to come and sit until you do something. And by God he did it the next day.
Marcie: Well –
Sidney: The Alinsky tactic.
Marcie: So, here’s the difference between the way Sidney was doing work and the way that we were doing work at the time, is that most Portuguese people, Azoreans mainly, if they wanted help with someone, would go to a travel agency.
Marcie: And the travel agent would help them out, however badly it was. And that’s – that’s where people got their help. And yes, they paid for it.
And when someone like Sidney, who is not Portuguese, looks like a woman of God, is representing God, is suddenly, is able to fix your problem, you know help you with your needs, and ask nothing for it, was remarkable at the time. Like Toronto was a strange place in the ‘70s and ‘80s for many Azoreans because the reliance of people was to go to the travel agency to get help. And it – it was – this was unheard of that they could come to someone like Sidney. Who wasn’t Portuguese and had no vested interest in, and wasn’t interested in making money, just wanted to help someone out.
Franca: Right, yeah.
Sidney: And John Medeiros was also there, except he was Portuguese.
Marcie: Yes. Yeah. But he ended up – he was my first full-time employer at the YMCA, at Dovercourt and College. And he’d already sort of moved a level up from that grassroots organizing. Although he was instrumental in the English in the Workplace Program.
Sidney: The Liberals in those days were throwing money at stuff. Those were the LIP grants. Where all Liberal money was being thrown at the left, you see.
Marcie: Well that’s how Working Women got created.
Sidney: Pretty much.
Marcie: Working Women got – Working Women Community Centre got a small grant.
Sidney: We got a – there were two kinds of grants created – I can’t remember the name of the other one – but years and years we used that money.
Sidney: You know. We used it to our advantage.
Franca: Yeah, no it’s fascinating how much LIP grants come up, right, in the context of, right, in the context of activism in this period. They were important grants. And then – as you said earlier, people knew then how to stretch the grant so that we could do even more work, right. With what were sometimes really modest kinds of grants.
Franca: Well some of what you’re saying leads me to another question.
First of all, as an Italian – part of an Italian immigrant trajectory, we had the travel agents too. And I have, you know, vivid memories of me as a kid having to go with my mother to the travel agent, you know and waiting in the room, you know, and then paying the agent and so on.
And so the notion that Sidney was doing something so different, you know and you could go to her and she was a kind of problem solver. You know without a bill at the end of it was obviously really important. But it leads me to ask too about just kind of the network of the women.
Because I love the exchange that the two of you are having. And you mentioned some of these other women, and I’d love to know more about them, right.
So, Mary Ellen has come up and Brenda Duncombe has come up and Medeiros as one of the men. I mean they’re mostly women and then there are some men. Can you tell me more about this network of women that you were part of?
Sidney: I lived with Brenda in Brazil. And when I went back to the States, we travelled together with another friend by bus, train, taxi, boat from Recife down to Chile and then up again to Mexico City and then Brenda went back to England and I went off to Indianapolis. And then — then somewhat later to Toronto.
But I – when Brian and I were setting up he wanted a daycare centre [at St. Stephen’s, in Toronto]. And I said I’ve got the perfect person to work for you. But that’s when immigration was beginning to put the screws on. So, it was so interesting.
We went to – so we set up this request for a worker who had to speak Portuguese, had to be religious, had to have been born in the West Indies, because there were more and more West Indian people coming in, we had about six qualifications. And I swear to God, the next day, the guy from Immigration called and he was so excited, he said, I’ve got just the perfect person for you, and it was Brenda.
But you see that’s – you’re talking about political action. Political action means, you look at where the dynamic is. You don’t go against the dynamic like this, you figure out the dynamic, and then you use the dynamic for what you want.
So, we got Brenda. And we had this little attic, we lived in an attic on Dundas Street, on top of Bellwoods Park. And Brian got us that place. And then, because we had been involved in an ecumenical project in Brazil, we brought two men from Brazil to live with us. We moved to the house on Dovercourt. The famous house on Dovercourt.
Marcie: I have to tell you a story about that house.
Franca: OK. Good.
Sidney: Tell your story.
Marcie: No, no. You carry on.
Sidney: No. I might have lost my train of thought here.
Franca: You were laying out some of the people.
Sidney: And it was me and the two guys. The two guys, one was a pastor from the Reverend [Reverendo] Habernando from the Episcopal Church and one was a Benedictine Monk. And their job was to go into the immigrant community and work as immigrants.
In our innocence, what we hadn’t counted on, were both of them were university educated and they’d never gotten their hands dirty in their lives. And it was really hard, the dynamic was just as difficult as it could be to get these guys – finally they got a job at a restaurant, and it was just awful.
So we went to another thing – it merits [you] looking at CUT, the Canadian Urban Training, do you know about CUT? With Wally?
Franca: Just a little bit.
Sidney: Wally Brant – Wally Brant, Wally – something like Brant. It was funded by the Churches. And we spent a year going to CUT and they helped us a lot to define what we were doing in the ethnic – immigrant community.
Now Brenda and I had often gone around the neighbourhood and we saw a house on Pauline Avenue that had a sign, Covenant House. And we thought it was the nuns from the Church down the street.
When the boys left, we were sort of echoing around the house and – oh, there was somebody also at the Anglican Church that kept saying, you have to meet Mary Ellen Nettle [who lived in Covenant House].
So finally, we went – I think we introduced ourselves. And here’s coincidence – everything is coincidence. When Brenda and I were speaking in the churches, this is something we have talked about before, they would, sometime, let us into their jumble sales. Because we didn’t have a lot of money, we didn’t have any money. And we’d pick up stuff we needed for the house. So we picked up a little Wedgewood creamer in one of these jumble sales and we went to have tea with Mary Ellen, and she had the sugar.
Somebody had given one to one church and one to another church, because she was United Church. Her house was part of the – what’s the word – the housing cooperative. The Wood Green Housing Cooperative.
Marcie: Two things. Well, I grew up in a traditional Catholic household. But I was inquisitive kid. And when I asked – would ask what you know what certain things meant, about Catholicism, I could never get a straight answer. Like nobody could really explain to me, other than the Madonna, you know.
And so what – when I came to be in contact with Sidney and Brenda and Mary Ellen, it suddenly made sense to me that it wasn’t about the Catholic Church and it wasn’t about the icons. And it wasn’t about Catholicism the way that I had been brought up to understand it, but it was about living. It was about being with people. And it was about how we utilized what we – how we used our faith to move things forward. So that was an important moment for me. When I was – during that period.
The other thing is, that I really learned from this collective of women is that – is how to seize opportunities. And how to be strategic about what you’re going [for] – what you’re trying to do. But it wasn’t about chase – it’s never been about chasing money to get things done, it was what you do with that money. And how you strategically utilize the relationships that you build to get what you want. And so that has stuck with me for 46 years. And that’s how I continue to do the work.
The Dovercourt House was an interesting – I live not far, I live about four streets away from the Dovercourt House. The Dovercourt house is just north of Bloor, I live at Bartlett and Dufferin, near Dufferin. And so, I’m a walker, and so one day I was going for one of my walks. And I was coming down Dovercourt and there was a woman outside that house. And you know, the older I get, the less fear I have to ask questions. And so, I said, oh, did you know this house was once a Cleaner’s Action house? And the woman looked at me like I had horns. And so I had to – I explained to her what the house, what once happened in this house and the activism that took place in this house.
And the woman was thrilled beyond belief. She was just, she was just so excited to know that the house that she lived in had history, had a progressive history. And so she invited me in.
I went in and looked at the house and it was just like, oh my God. I was like Déjà vu. I mean, the house had been renovated, but it was like, holy cow. The kitchen was still in the same place Sidney.
Sidney: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of –
Marcie: Where we used to have our lunches, it was still in the same place.
It was lovely. But, in terms of the women’s network at the time, you know when I think back, Sidney, there weren’t many people my age – there were – who were active.
Sidney: Yeah, I know.
Marcie: Who carried on the torch, if you will. And there’s still – they’re still not around. I mean there were maybe two or three. But they eventually disappeared and so, I wouldn’t say that a network was created – a women’s – was created out of this movement. But a legacy has certainly been created.
Franca: Right. And that’s –
Marcie: And that’s kind of where I see my role is, I have always seen my role as I try to carry on the legacy of Mary Ellen, Sidney and Brenda.
I mean, Mary Ellen – my first introduction to electoral politics was with Mary Ellen, who ran for school trustee.
Sidney: Out of that house – out of the Dovercourt House.
Franca: Yes, so – can I – I – Marcie – can you – I have a picture here.
Marcie: Yeah. It was Mary Ellen; was the first electoral candidate that I had ever come across. And they said, oh, yeah, it’s easy, you just go knocking on doors and you tell people to vote for her. And I thought I’m not going to do that.
And they said, yes you are, you can do it. I remember Sidney saying to me, Marcie – Marcelina is what my real name is, and she would say, Marcelina, you can do this, you just go and talk to your people and you tell them to vote for Mary Ellen.
Sidney: And drink that damn banana liqueur.
Marcie: And I drank the Kool-aid and did it. And it was, and I have had a relationship with the NDP ever since. Because after Mary Ellen and I got involved with the NDP, worked for the first Portuguese candidate to run in the federal election, Idalina Azevedo’s son [Manuel] at the time. And it just carried me through. So, for me it’s about – the network really wasn’t there, but the legacy has continued.
Sidney: I think it was more network than you expect.
Marcie: Well, maybe I missed it along the way.
Sidney: Yeah we all – we rented out some of the space, or we loaned it out. Lynn Kay and Michelle Swenarchuk had their first offices upstairs.
Marcie: Sidney, I’m not saying there wasn’t a network of women. What my – my memory of it, is, that network was confined to a period of time. And women are still connected, but the network itself didn’t really carry on.
Sidney: Yeah. I just want to say, other parts of what could constitute a network. I don’t think for the network in the sense of an organization was created.
Sidney: But we were – the legal people who were working on social justice issues often went there. Laurell Ritchie, Madeleine [Parent], the union people were connected on another side, the literacy [people] were connected on another side. The literacy people were connected on another side. TVO was doing very, very ambitious things with Linda Rainsberry, but that was connected. So we had many, many connections around the same dinner – lunch table. And we would invite people to come sometimes because we wanted to talk to them.
And that’s how I got to government, is that we invited government people to come. And they made their case and we said maybe there’s – maybe there’s – you know, we should take what government can do more seriously. And that was one of the things that made me decide to go [to work with the Ontario Ministry of Culture].
Franca: Right. OK. Thanks. And I thought too that someone like Brenda would have also had some experience living in an intentional community. So there was a sense of community networks and of nurturing those kinds of networks. So that was partly where my question was coming from.
Sidney: Our house in Recife was a community also. And it – again, it didn’t set up an institution OK. There was nothing that came out of it that you could say, oh this institution – I’m sort of against that I think. What came out was a lot of people got the chance or the courage to go on and do something else different. [53:11]
Franca: Can you tell me what happened to – what happened to Mary Ellen and Brenda, some of the key people who were involved? Did they move on to other things or – ?
Sidney: Just one moment – about that house, the Cleaner’s newspaper was produced on a mimeograph machine that the Women’s Press gave us, they were getting rid of it. And Penny Goldsmith, does anybody remember Penny? – she has a press on the west coast now – she arranged for us to have that. So that’s what enabled us to produce it. We’d already moved to the house on Bathurst by that point. Yes.
Mary Ellen and Brenda both went to work for the Downtown Church Workers in the Anglican Church.
Brenda continued for many, many years to give literacy classes and wrote based on the work we had done earlier of very sophisticated literary curriculum, which probably got nowhere.
Mary Ellen continued working with the church workers and then she had to stop because her mother got sick. We lived in this co-operative, in the Wood Green Co-op. Mary Ellen moved out and she eventually went to help found a retreat centre in Guelph, near Guelph. in Guelph.
Sidney: I got a chance to move into the Toronto Women’s Co-op in ’86. In yeah, ’86. You know the Beguinage.
Sidney: OK. I was President of the Beguinage in ’86 and ’87. And that’s what I really wanted to do, you know I was more interested in – I was only President because I was older than everybody else. Nobody had any administrative experience.
But it was very – I really enjoyed being there. Except for the 26 steps to get up to our apartment. But yes, I think, community, I think it’s in the blood, you know. I like to live in community.
Franca: I was going to ask you some more questions that are, like, specific to Cleaners’ Action and also talk about some of the Portuguese women workers that you worked with.
So first of all, for Cleaners’ Action, I understand what you’re saying, and it’s fascinating that you were doing this work alongside all sorts of other work and there’s overlapping – right, multilayered networks, and activities, and organizing and activism that’s going on. And the really – and the pragmatism, like the pragmatic way you’re you know responding and then trying to move things forward. I think that’s really great, and I have the notion that it’s – it is during a really heady time where there’s a lot of activism going on and you’re participating in that. And I think both of you – you know conveyed that really, really well. So, I thank you for doing that.
But I also thought, in terms of Cleaner’s Action, I had two questions. One was, my sense is that you actually were also investigating, right, what’s going on in cleaners’ workplaces, were you? That when women brought you know brought issues to you, you were actually out there investigating, so I want to ask you about being social investigators in terms of women’s work conditions.
Marcie: Oh, I will tell you. This is another one of those Kool-Aid moments. Where there was a union meeting, SEIU [Service Employees International Union] was holding a union meeting at Queen’s Park with some of the women – with the women workers. And Sidney says “you have to go into that meeting and observe and hear what they’re saying. And you have to come back and tell us what’s going on.” And I, like totally green, thought, I’m not going to do that. She said, “yes you are. You’re going to go in there and you’re going to pretend that you’re someone’s daughter.”
And sure enough, she sent me in with one of the women, and I sat beside this woman who pretended that I was her daughter. And I sat through the whole meeting and listened to the union rep talking to the women. And I then came back and said, this is what they said Sidney, they’re going to do this, they’re going to do that. And some of the women weren’t happy.
And so, yeah, it was – I went on to work in the labour movement for 12 years after that. I learned more in that moment – well, I’ve learned a lot of things working in the labour movement, but that really gave me the impetus to understand how labour works.
Sidney: You left out the important part; I was in the bathroom.
Marcie: Yeah, you were. I was the dirty one inside collecting the information.
Sidney: I’d been banned from the building.
Franca: OK. I saw a reference to your having been banned from the building. Right. Right. Is this with the SEIU at that point? Was that with the Service Employees’ International Union?
Sidney: It could have been St. Chris, who knows.
Marcie: It was the Service Employees International Union as well as CUPE [Canadian Union of Public Employees], CUPE came in shortly after. But those were the two unions that were organizing cleaners at the time. Right.
Sidney: I just want to answer her question a little bit more directly. Yes, we did do – I gave one example already, when we looked at – English class the difference between men’s wage and women’s wage. It wasn’t just the difference between; it was the difference over a series of years of how the difference expanded.
But we had another one, for example, there was a question of time enough to do the work. And so, we in fact had the women, there was a question of cleaning the stairs at the black buildings, the Toronto Dominion Centre.
So we had – we went with the women – dear God and did all the stairs – we went with the women and timed how much time it took to in fact do all the stairs they were supposed to do. We had other things, we had a woman – they said the women couldn’t manage the cleaning machines because they were too heavy. So we had some women ask the men to let them use the machines for 15—20 minutes to just try it out – you know it was easy to use, they were all automated.
So, I don’t remember a lot of things. But, in fact, yes. There were times when we actually had to do some – it wasn’t scientific, OK. But it was to, in fact, look at the situation and see what it was – where exactly the problem was.
Marcie: But I think the – what was really important about what Sidney’s talking about is that we were able to go to the unions afterwards and say “this is what your members are saying.” You know, like we could shame the unions into properly representing these women.
Sidney: Oh we had such fun. The head of the SEIU flew to Toronto to meet with me at Queen’s Park. Me who knew nothing about this, I was in over my head; I had no idea what I was doing.
And so I walk into this meeting. I was so nervous about the meeting that I fasted for 24 hours before. And the trouble is, when you go on a strict fast, you’re higher than a kite. But you’re very focused.
Sidney: If something falls on the floor you take a minute to pick it up, you’re extremely focused. So I was so focused. I walk in, and there’s a mezzanine when you walk into the main building, and the women were all in the mezzanine watching me come in.
So this guy, he tells me this stuff – he says if there’s a strike, they’ll bring in women in helicopters and they’ll come in through the roof. And I had this vision, and I almost burst out laughing, this vision of these little Portuguese women with black scarves [on their heads] who just kept climbing down from the helicopters to go to work, you know. The people wouldn’t do that.
The other thing is that we had a great ally in Gabriella [Castro]. Gabriella worked for the Portuguese news. So when there was going to be something, Gabriella would adjust either something in her clothing or something on the wall, or something she said, so it was a sign that a certain – that we were going to do something.
I sent you a picture of Gabriella.
Franca: Yes, I was just going to pull it up. There she is, Gabriella Castro and you.
Sidney: Yeah. What I didn’t send you was what was written below it, which was, “Would you buy a used car from these women?”
But what I wanted to say was, we had this meeting at the CBC and we’d been interviewed before, and what happened in every interview was the male interviewer would say, well what does your husband think about this, you know. Or how do you take care of the children? And they always push it off into some domestic problem for the women.
So what we had in this interview, which was a television interview, was it was written on our hands the points we wanted to make. And no difference what they asked we answered with what was on our hands, the women did. And so, throughout the interview you see the women looking at their hands.
Franca: That’s great, that’s the great political strategy right, no matter what they ask you, you get your message across. And so they were all practicing it, yeah.
Sidney: Radio François [Canada] – the wonderful reporting they gave us, they started out with the picture of the Queen and then they panned down to the women. We had the best reporting. Rosemary Speers did a very good job. But the TV Quebec, the TV Français, did the best visual reporting.
Franca: Good to know. And Gabriella Castro went on to have – like she had a full-time journalist career?
Marcie: Well, she was Azorean, and the women appreciated the fact that she had a certain status in the community through me. And so they looked up to her. And the fact that she was supporting this work made things even easier.
Sidney: Well, also she was the news.
Marcie: Yeah, exactly.
Sidney: Claire Richard is living in the East End, in a housing co-op, and it might be interesting to talk to her, Claire had just come from Portugal, saying that she didn’t think there would be a revolution. And two weeks later there was a revolution.
Marcie: There was a revolution.
Sidney: I was in the Portuguese Free Interpreter Service, I did not know the revolution had happened. I was by myself, everybody else was out to doctors and things. And all of the sudden people came pouring in with red carnations and bottles of liquor, you know – and singing, Grândola, vila morena….
Franca: Wow, that’s great.
Sidney: Franca, it was very heady times in those days.
Franca: Yeah. And my related question, which you know, broadens it our further, is that I didn’t know, and I think I learned, right from reading the material on this, is that there was actually an International Cleaners Movement. So, you’ve got Cleaner’s Action Toronto, but there were also other Cleaners’ movements elsewhere.
Sidney: It wasn’t a movement, it was a happenstance. It was a happenstance.
Franca: Yeah? OK.
Sidney: May Hobbs had written a book, and I happened to be in England, and happened to see the book [Born to Struggle]. And the book was called Cleaner’s Action. I was in England in ’75. And my friend Cecilia Walrave had worked with us in Brazil, she was part of Brenda’s congregation. And when she returned to Belgium she worked in the factory and then she started working with night cleaners. And she would write me about that work. And I thought – the unions were – I was a good friend of Laurell [Ritchie], and the unions were pretty well working with the factory people, I thought. But nobody’s paying attention to the night workers. And, of course, that was principally the women.
The other thing, you were asking how they got to us, how we got to them. I took the bus four or five times a night for a year, either the streetcar across College or across Queen, or across Dupont – no, I forgot the name.
But I took – every night I was on one of those between 4:00 and 5:00 in the afternoon, listening to what people were saying. OK. Because nobody thought I spoke Portuguese. So every – almost every night I was on one of those, standing next to people listening to what they were talking about.
Marcie: You can still take, you know you can still take the subway at about 3:00—3:30 and you’ll be sitting amongst the Portuguese women going on to work downtown to clean buildings.
Franca: Right. People sometimes would say –
Sidney: I want to ask you a question, you’ve shown me as this strong feminist, and I want to say this is not feminism based on any reading or any theory. It was because we happened to work with women and we happened to be interested. The issues that affected with the women were the issues that we thought were important to address.
Franca: Yeah, no I think –
Sidney: – wasn’t feminist, by theory and by conviction. But I was sort of – I happened to be there at the time.
Franca: Mm-hmm. Right. No, and I think that’s really important for me to clarify. Because we also, you know in terms of even our archive and our website, that there are kind of forms of activism which seem to fall neatly into some feminist model, you know and others that don’t. And that we shouldn’t be imposing labels on people that are not – you know, not you know – that don’t align.
Sidney: Yeah. No, you can be without knowing it. Clearly if you look at what I stood for and what I did, these were feminist actions. OK.
Sidney: So, you can come to it by choice, you can come to it by how you live your life.
Franca: Right. And that’s one of the things we’ve been discussing as a group is you know if the activism moves forward generally the goals of feminism then, you know, that’s a broader understanding of what kind of work is going on, as opposed to trying to label people you know a feminist, not a feminist, or what have you. But I do appreciate that in the formulation of my questions, I kept assigning a feminist label. So, I and I appreciate the clarification, it’s really, really important.
So, here’s another label, so would both of you, or either of you, accept the label that sometimes has been attached to you. Which is community consciousness raising – no sorry, consciousness raising community workers is a way that people have referred to some of this activism. Like community workers who are also trying to raise a political consciousness of the workers, as well as you know address pragmatic needs.
Sidney: Clearly – no doubt.
Franca: But it’s not –
Marcie: You know I wouldn’t say that I would label myself that way, it’s just the way, it’s just the DNA approach of how I do the work. And I don’t think of it – when I do the work I don’t think of it in those terms. I just think of it – if we can raise consciousness through the process, we’re halfway there.
But I’m, yeah, I’m like Sidney. I don’t think of them, I don’t attribute labels to myself, I never have and maybe that’s just the training I’ve got from her over the years.
But I just, you know it’s just you do the work because you believe in social justice, and you believe in raising consciousness, and you believe in bettering lives for people, and you know I’m a vehicle to help move that mountain.
Sidney: I think mine is more specific because I worked with [Paulo] Freire and with the groups in Brazil. I think I was more aware of – much more conscious, of trying to become conscious of my own role and what could happen in the community. I just – last night I was doing a little research around this just to see what else had been written and I found something from somebody in Saskatchewan on the Edu site, where he was criticizing – I think it was a man – he was criticizing the work with immigrant women, saying that the activists were white Anglo-Saxon women who weren’t part of the community.
I just looked at it quickly because it was quite late. But yeah, that’s true. But, you know, what do you do, I started something and people responded, you know.
Marcie: Yeah. So Franca, you probably read through the book [Making the City] that I gave you? I don’t know if you did.
Marcie: I’ll go fast. Because Debbie Douglas would have mentioned this in her piece.
Marcie: Where in the early ‘80s when International Women’s Day was beginning, it was very white. It was very white feminist. And there was a point at which – I forget what year, where immigrant women – I was involved – I was the Executive Director for Women Working with Immigrant Women at the time and we raised the issue with IWD, that there was no visibility. There was no immigrant, there were no immigrant women visible, it was a group of white feminists. Which was fine. But there was something missing
And we had to fight to get out to find our place at – in that march. And we fought back, we made the case. And immigrant women – Women Working with Immigrant Women and Working Women’s Community Centre actually that one year led the march.
Marcie: Because there was a sense – I mean I think we just – we just said to them, you know we’re not – we’re not labelled as feminists but we’re doing feminist work.
Franca: Right. And so – and you’ve touched on – both of you on an issue that has come up for us too, is trying to figure out what that relationship was between – again, these are – you know inadequate labels, but the relationship between the immigrant women’s activist movement and the mainstream feminist you know activist movement.
Franca: And it’s complicated.
Marcie: It was very complicated.
And I remember at the time when Henry Morgentaler had his – opened his first clinic on Harbord Avenue [correction: Street]. You know we – I was out there marching with everybody else. But you know it was a very white movement, because you couldn’t talk about abortion rights in a Catholic context, in religious communities right.
So it took a long time to bridge those gaps within – between the feminist white community and immigrant women, and what we were trying to do at the time. What we were doing was a slower process, because we were bringing women, as you said, from the ground up. Whereas I think the feminists at the time were talking about issues in a larger level and that. You know. So it took a long time to bridge that gap.
Franca: Well, maybe it’s a good time to just ask you two about some of the immigrant women. Of course, it’s too bad that we could not have included among us, right, Leopoldina Pimentel, there’s photographs that have Idalina [Azevedo], there are other women, and I just wonder if you want to comment on any of those women. Did you develop relationships with them? I mean I understand the pragmatic nature of the, you know, Cleaners’ Action, vis a vis the women. But just wondering whether you want to comment on them as personalities. I mean –
Sidney: Be honest.
Marcie: I will just say I’m still good friends with Idalina Azevedo. At any point, she would be more than happy to do an interview. She loves talking about that era and her activism. Unfortunately, COVID probably won’t help that.
Sidney: We can meet together Marcie.
Marcie: Yeah. She – I’ve maintained a strong relationship with her family. She’s still, you know, in her 90s and go – and she’s strong as ever.
Franca: Well that’s fantastic.
Sidney: I’m good friends with Fernanda Couto, who was the first President of the CTCU union [Canadian Textile and Chemical Union] at McGregor Socks and I stayed at her house when I was in Canada two years ago. But, no, when I went to government, I was travelling a lot and I didn’t – I didn’t have the connections – the personal connections, you know. And I don’t remember specific people very well.
Marcie: I have to tell you, there have been two women in the last 10 years that – I’ve been at No Frills at Dufferin Mall, and one woman standing behind me, and said, you look really familiar. And I looked at her and I said, oh, I don’t know who you are. And she said, yeah, yeah yeah. And she started telling me stories [about cleaners’ strikes and union meetings]. That’s happened to me twice at No Frills.
Sidney: Those are the stories that I think would be interesting to get. Is from their point of view.
Marcie: Yeah, where I would find these women now I don’t know, it just happened to be that they were behind me at No Frills at the cashier.
Franca: So, we’re getting to our final reflection questions, thank you for hanging in there through this whole time, it’s been fantastic. So among the reasons why we’re doing these interviews is to also think about what were some of the lessons learned. And what you know today’s activists, young activists, might you know take from the kind of work that you were doing. So I wonder if you have some thoughts on that?
Marcie: Oh, my goodness.
Franca: I know it’s a big one.
Marcie: That’s a big one.
Sidney: Let me start.
Marcie: Yes please.
Sidney: I see the work as creating practice places. I don’t think we have answers to the big questions of socialism or democracy or communism. I think we’re over that now. We can see – none of these are very good solutions for solving problems.
So, I think that what we do is we create small places where we practice living together, negotiating, figuring out how we’re going to share things, how we’re going to organize our economic life, our social life. And those practice places are perhaps the best place to begin to develop some new way of being.
What I say to people is if you look at the perfect teacher – the perfect teacher or social worker or community worker is the one who is in the audience the first time and then they’re helping the presentation. Then they’re making the presentation. Then they’re back in the audience watching their students.
So I’m absolutely delighted that Marcie has taken up the mantle and she I’m sure will lead other people. I mean that’s what gives you eternal life.
The other problem is that – Marcie said it best I think, when we’re strategizing we learn to look carefully at what was going on. Not just to say, we’re going to go smash windows, which was another way of acting in those days, you know.
What we learned to do was to see what are the elements at play? That’s why we had so many different people involved. It’s because it wasn’t just one thing or another, it wasn’t us and the enemy, you know.
When I went to government it was fascinating the first year, because I learned that money doesn’t come – “chunk.” But in fact, there’s an infinite number of ways to spread out how something is costed. And it was wonderful, because then I could go back to the groups and teach them how to set up a budget.
So, I think that’s one thing that – I’m glad you said that Marcie, it’s really important to know that you can’t just go and “chunk” – things are going to be different.
Marcie: No. And you know for me it’s –I always, I think history is a real informer and can really help shape how we go forward. And so, you know my mother’s story in 1977 — 76, or whatever it was in Kensington, for me shaped how I viewed how I was going to work with immigrant women going forward. And – so I think history teaches us a lot.
But one of the things that I – you know I’ve been doing this work Sidney since I was 17. And I’ve been through a period – you know you go through periods of time where you hate funders, because “funders are the bad guys.” Funders – and I’ve never actually approached [correction: learned quickly not to approach] it that way and I think it’s done me well. I – for me funders are just people.
And if you’ve got – so I’ve learned the art of just having conversations with funders to say, this is why I want to do what I want to do. And this is how much it’s going to cost. And we figure out how to do it together. And it’s part of that strategic planning and strategy, that you know, you don’t always have to beat up the enemy. Or look at the other person as the enemy and beat them up. Because, you know, there can actually be some really good work that can be achieved as a result.
And I would say some of the work that we’ve done at Working Women Community Centre has been a direct result of that. When I look at the education work in particular, you know, the whole issue of streaming was happening in 1975 when I first started. Well, the immigrant kids were being streamed left right and centre out of the academic world.
Marcie: I – you know and so you can get angry about that and you can sit back and you know beat up the school boards and educators and whatever, or you can take that and you can build on it and fix the problem through doing some really excellent work. Which I think we have been doing. And we have a model program that is now seen as doing just that.
But it hasn’t been because I’ve been rabble-rousing, we’ve been you know throwing bricks, we just we – you know you learn the art of conviction. You really believe in what you’re doing, you believe in why you’re doing it. And that the outcome is going to be greater than the actual process. And so, that’s the lesson I’ve learned over the last 46 years and it’s done me well.
Sidney: Can I just say something?
Franca, you dismissed me in the middle of the third page [of interview questions]. When you say Sidney left in 1980 for a government job. But in fact, I did but I didn’t stop doing what I was doing. I continued working with the CTCU and with the immigrant women as a translator all those years. I continued doing community action work in all of Ontario and on the nation-wide.
I wrote the curriculum for citizenship. If you read the curriculum, you can see that all these things are coming into it. I wrote the curriculum on AIDs, nationwide. I didn’t stop at all. I just began to figure out exactly what Marcie’s saying, there are huge resources available and people within who don’t have a notion, because they’ve never been in a community of where that can go.
One of the things that facilitated our work a great deal was that the Newcomers Services Branch of the government of Ontario in those days was very open to immigrant women. And Anna Furgiulele and Betty Butterworth were part of Women Working with Immigrant Women. Many of the women who worked there were immigrant women themselves.
The Newcomers Services Guide produced a guide that was in 50 languages of how to save yourself, no – how to manage your first years in Canada. So, I think people have to understand that – that these aren’t enemies. They’re people who may not have the point of view that you have, but there’s a lot of energy in these systems.
Sidney: I’m glad you said that.
Franca: Yes. Thank you yes.
Sidney: I didn’t leave the government job.
Franca : Yes. And I thank you very much Sidney, for clarifying my dismissal of you it was not intended. But I sit corrected. And I’m really glad you elaborated on that, because the activism and the work continues. And we don’t need to draw you know tight boundaries or lines or labels and so forth. And so, I really appreciate that.
And I mean, on that note I think this has been fantastic. I really, really appreciate the time that you’ve taken to talk about these issues and to reflect on, right, the work that you’ve done and it’s been really fantastic. Really great for me and on behalf of Rise Up, we thank you very much for doing this.