Transcript: The March 8th Coalition

Judy Vashti Persad and Carolyn Egan are both long-time organizers of the International Women’s Day rally and march in Toronto, and members of Women Working with Immigrant Women.
They speak of their experiences of building an anti-racist women’s movement in the eighties and nineties, along with the work of many others. This resulted in the most diverse, broad-based, vibrant and continuous International Women’s Day rallies and marches in North America, with the leadership of Black, Indigenous, South Asian, Asian and other women of colour. The events bring thousands into the streets every year with an anti-racist, anti-heterosexist, class perspective, fighting for a better world for All.
Sue Colley: I'm very pleased to have with us today Carolyn Egan who has for many, many years been with the International Women's Day Committee; and Judy Persad who was also for many, many years with the International Women's Day Committee and with Women Working with Immigrant Women. So perhaps you two would both like to briefly introduce yourselves and then we'll start with some questions.
Carolyn Egan: I am Carolyn Egan, as you said, and I was involved in the initial 1978 International Women's Day I'm also active in the union movement and pro-choice/reproductive justice movement.
Judy Persad: Hi, I'm Judy Vashti Persad. I entered the IWDC (International Women's Day Coalition) in 1986, that wonderful year. I've worked with anti-racist organizations, women's organizations, the Cross-Cultural Communication Centre, Women Working With Immigrant Women, and also within the labour movement and with the broader social justice movement. So it's great to be here, thank you for asking.
Sue Colley:I think we could start out as you suggested by talking about the origins of the International Women's Day march and rally in Toronto. And I imagine, Carolyn, you'd like to start with that, right?
Carolyn Egan: Yeah, thank you very much. Well thinking back to 1977, that's when the idea came to start organizing again for International Women's Day. And I think that it was a small group of about 10 or so women, mostly socialist feminists and we felt that it was really important to bring back the energy and the militancy of the movements of the sixties when the women's liberation movement, the Black Power movement, the anti-war movement, the gay liberation movement, the American Indian Movement were in the streets fighting strongly for demands and winning.
And we felt that we had to respond to things that were going on in the newspaper and the media that the women's movement was dead, feminism has achieved our needs, we don't need it anymore which was such a ridiculous concept because women's liberation was far from won and I think we also wanted to get back to the roots of International Women's Day.
It was declared in 1910 by Clara Zetkin and other socialist women in Europe and it was commemorating the strikes and the lockouts, the marches that immigrant women, garment workers had been involved in earlier, a few years earlier than that in New York City fighting for better working conditions, for better pay and for dignity and respect that they clearly deserved in their workplace.
And also that was echoed in – I think it was 1912 – in Lawrence, Massachusetts when thousands of women workers struck against the robber barons in the mills there and they organized, they fought, self-organized and, speaking 22 different languages, they were able to bring unity and fight and win. And I think that was the spirit to bring class issues back into the women's movement in a way that made a real difference. So we felt let's give it a try.
We decided to aim high and we called a meeting, and 200 women came out, which was just dynamite, it was just so exciting and we felt that this was something we could proceed with. A lot of debates, discussions and one of the key debates was whether we should have a march and rally that was within the self-defined feminist community, women only, or should we broaden it out and have trade unions involved, immigrant communities involved and make it a very large event if we could. And that was the decision that was made in the end.
And as I say, we were aiming high, we chose to rent Convocation Hall at the University of Toronto 1,700-2,000 people it holds. So a lot of organizing was going on getting the speakers. And I remember the day of the event itself. We were there and it was set for 11:00 a.m. I don't know, but 11:00 a.m. came and we were there, the speakers were there and barely anyone else and it was like, “Oh my heavens we may have overstretched ourselves here.”
But I remember Jess MacKenzie, one of the organizers, had come running in saying, “They're coming, they're coming” and the hall over a matter of minutes just filled up and it was just a very, very exciting event. And the speakers, they put forward their issues, they spoke, we went into the streets, there was a very dynamic march.
And interestingly enough, one of the issues that the media really picked up on was the deportation of Jamaican mothers. Sherona Hall, from that committee, was one of the speakers. So it set a real marker in many, many senses and since 1978 we've had marches and rallies. This year is one that was virtual, but last year 11,000 were in the streets and it's hugely successful.
But there was a real problem, and the problem was that it was not diverse, it was not representative, and it really didn't reflect the women of Toronto and all the struggles that were going on in the way it should've. And the deportation of Jamaican mothers was one issue among seven, if I'm remembering properly and I think it was the sixth and there was no appreciation that racism profoundly affected all of the issues that we were organizing around.
And I think if you look at childcare, if you look at violence against women, workplace concerns whatever, the impact on Black women, Indigenous women, South Asian women, Chinese women, all women of colour was profoundly different than the impact on white women and no matter if they were all from the working class, no matter what, and that had to be dealt with. It had to be recognized and an anti-racist class perspective had to come forward.
And so that was something that had to be learned and I think that racism is a huge barrier to unity in the women's movement, any movement. And I think that through that experience if you were going to build a unified movement that really took on the state, that took on the corporations, took on capitalism if you will, that maintains racism and all exploitations and oppression, then it has to integrate an anti-racist perspective.
And if we were going to build an inclusive movement, we had to learn that lesson and really there had to be the broad participation and leadership of racialized women if we were going to fight and win. I mean the March 8th Coalition took up issues. You know, for example in the next year 1979, the Puretex strike, which was the strike of immigrant women garment workers, led the march. It led the march. But again, it was one issue, one campaign and there was no integration and that was a real, real problem. And –
Sue Colley: So Carolyn, can I ask, why do you think that was? They were socialist feminist women who presumably had an anti-imperialist, anti-racism perspective but why do you think that the movement started out with basically being – 90% white women -?
Carolyn Egan: Well I think it was just a lack of understanding of how important it was and how critical it was if you were going to build a real movement that was going to be effective. And not that it was entirely white, but it was way majority white, there was no two ways about it, and I think that that had to change. And frankly, it was the work of women of colour, racialized women that began that process.
Sherona continued on and a few years later in 1981 two organizations, Women Working with Immigrant Women (WWIW) and the Coalition against the Marcos Dictatorship chose to come into the coalition as organizations. And WWIW had women from a lot of different backgrounds, Maria Teresa Larrain was the coordinator at that point and a number of the activists who came in were from Latin America.
They had become political refugees to this country fighting the dictatorships in their own country and had encountered all kinds of racism, discrimination, bigotry. And in the Coalition against the Marcos Dictatorship most of the women were from the Philippines, they were fighting the Marcos dictatorship at home, they were working here as well, and they were working particularly in the areas of caregivers and domestic workers.
And they raised this issue, if you were going to be a representative movement, you had to really take on the inequities that racism created and change the structures, change the way you deal with issues, change the whole programmatic approach, the organizational approach and it had to change in significant ways. And where we always had a trade union outreach committee because there were many women from the trade unions, working-class women, in the coalition and they initiated an immigrant women's outreach committee and with others, developed leaflets particularly geared to those communities.
And this was a process of change that had to take place and women had to learn and unlearn. And I think there was sure, as you say, a theoretical understanding of the need to fight racism and fight colonialism and imperialism absolutely, but when it came down to the actual doing of it, it wasn't happening and that's where the problem lie and as I say WWIW played a very significant role in this.
And Salome Lukas who when Maria Teresa stepped down, she became the coordinator of WWIW and she interestingly had been one of those Puretex strikers back in 1979 and she took on a very significant leadership role. And, as time went on, Judy came into the coalition as well and the two of them really were very strong leaders pushing this process. And it was a hugely important process that I think has made a real difference as time has gone on in a way the coalition functions, who leads the coalition, and the issues that are highlighted. So I'll leave it at that.
Sue Colley: Thank you, Carolyn. That was a wonderful synopsis of what it was, almost 10 years or more than 10 years really.
Judy Persad: That was.
Carolyn Egan: I could've said a lot more [laughs] but I didn't want to overdo it.
Sue Colley: You are so good at this, Carolyn. You are amazing. I can't believe it.
Judy Persad: But Carolyn, how you described that 11 o'clock and no one there and just waiting, I could just feel it. And then when you saw the streams of people coming in, I had to wipe my eyes there a little bit because actually I felt that relief and excitement. So that was wonderful.
Carolyn Egan: Thank you for saying that because sometimes you just have to take leaps of faith. You know, you just have to, “Let's do it, let's try it and let's go and if we fail, we fail but we got to try” and thank heavens it worked out.
Judy Persad: I think movements reflected what was also in society, the structures in society and movements prioritize transformation and change and fighting for social justice. But you still have to face those structures and the same oppression or barriers that you see in society and the thing is movements then needed to make the commitment to transform. So it may have been theoretical, but I think the commitment and the work that it took, that was the step that was needed, but that was great, Carolyn.
Carolyn Egan: For sure, absolutely.
Sue Colley: So Judy, when did you first get involved and how did you perceive this problem and come to terms with how you might address it?
Judy Persad: Well, you know what, I'll start a little bit with Women Working With Immigrant Women because for me that was part of my entry point into Toronto. I was in Toronto about two years, I just finished university and now getting involved in the movement. So I think I'd like to talk a little bit about WWIW because it really had a key role.
WWIW was created in 1974 and it was created as a network for community workers and community-based agencies who worked with immigrant women. And it was a way to bring people together to have some sort of a collective action in pushing for services and programs and engaging in political action around the needs of immigrant women. So that's why the organization was formed.
Sue Colley: What kinds of organizations were part of Women Working With Immigrant Women?
Judy Persad: I could just mention some, Carolyn can add more there; but the Working Women Community Centre, Immigrant Women's Health Centre, I think Rexdale Women's Centre.
Carolyn Egan: Yes, yeah.
Judy Persad: Carolyn, do you want to add others?
Carolyn Egan: Yeah. There were a whole range of groups that don't exist now. I think the Immigrant Women's Health Centre was called something different at the time and varying collectives of women who were fighting on different issues etc. and I think the Cross-Cultural Communication Centre had a role in that as well.
So, many different groupings from different communities and when specific struggles would come up like for example the deportation of Jamaican mothers, people would connect to the network then as well.
Judy Persad: Yes. It was something exciting happening at that time because WWIW was part of this alternative women's movement that existed and other organizations that was being created. So you would have – and I'll refer to Women Working With Immigrant Women as WWIW, and the Immigrant Women's Health Centre they started in 1974 and then you had the Working Women Community Centre in 1975, Rexdale Women's Centre in 1979, I believe, and the Coalition of Visible Minority Women in 1983.
So here you had the development of organizations geared to meet the needs of immigrant women, to advocate for immigrant women and women of colour at that time and it was an alternate or an alternative women's movement. We also had a provincial organization called the Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Ontario. And then there was a national organization, the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada and these were all part of this alternative women's movement and that speaks to the need that was there.
The movement was not appropriately addressing and pushing for advocating for the needs of immigrant women and women of colour. So this movement was forming and it was exciting to be a part of that, Women Working With Immigrant Women had a major role in that provincial and national organization.
And I think when you look at the projects that WWIW did, they were quite ground-breaking. I mean in 1983, or in the early eighties at least, Women Working With Immigrant Women worked with the Cross-Cultural Communication Centre to start the Shirley Samaroo House and this was a shelter for immigrant women escaping violence. That was ground-breaking at that time – actually it still is.
Together with the Ontario Council of Agencies Serving Immigrants, OCASI, they organize a city-wide forum focusing just on immigrant women's issues and needs. In the early nineties, it created a handbook called Towards – I think it was developing an anti-racism action plan. And this was a handbook that was developed for community workers in service organizations. They could use this handbook to work towards implementing anti-racist policies and practice within the organization.
So those were three projects from the start that we were involved in. But I think something that's also important is that WWIW made the conscious political decision to work within the immigrant and women of colour communities, but also work with broader movements such as the women's movement and the labour movement, and this was not a decision that was made by all organizations.
Some organizations just work within the communities they were a part of and represented and that was great; WWIW made that decision because we saw that to really create change and systemic change it was important to join with other progressive movements. And yes, there were challenges within those movements as we know and we're going to talk about, but we made the decision to be a part of it and work within it to change the structures, policies and practices within it, to be a part of it to advocate on a larger collective level.
So in 1984, Women Working With Immigrant Women joined the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) and that was a national organization for women in Canada. And later on, we pushed for the creation of a committee called the Visible Minority Women and Immigrant Women's Committee. And the reason we pushed for that was again to have a collective visibility within an organization where our numbers were few.
It was a way to build power within NAC and one of the resources that we created was Towards an Anti-Racist Women's Movement and this provided a guide, a way forward for NAC to transform itself. It spoke about changing policies and practices within NAC that it can be more accessible, more representative, really to integrate an anti-racist perspective within that organization.
I'll tell you, this is why I stayed and was a part of WWIW for so long we did exciting work and while I was there, Salome was the staff there and it was just exciting to work with her and just – you know, just do this work in all the different movements and still to connect with organizations within the people of colour, women of colour, immigrant communities. One of the projects we did was called – it's a study, it's called “No Hijab is Permitted Here”.
And I put that in quotes because that is the title of the study and we worked with the Canadian Arab Federation, the Council of Muslim Women, the Federation of Muslim Women, Canadian Auto Workers and United Steelworkers of America, Carolyn's union. You know, so here we were bringing together these different sectors and the study was to focus on the experiences of women, Muslim women wearing hijab when applying for work within the manufacturing, sales and service sectors – and the No Hijab is Permitted Here was something they heard when they were applying.
And the study, it was a small study, but it clearly showed the discrimination that was experienced and it documented the Islamophobia that these women experienced. And this was probably in the late nineties or early 2000s but that was not something that was spoken about a lot in the media, in the mainstream, so it was quite exciting to do that project with these groups.
Another project we did was with the labour movement, working with different unions to document the history and the organizing of workers of colour within the labour movement and how workers of colour were pushing for change within the labour movement. Salome and I wrote that resource. And actually, I'll just show a picture of it here. So I can get that to you also, Sue, and it's called Through the Eyes of Workers of Colour: Linking Struggles for Social Justice.
So again, this was an incredible project and ground-breaking again and it was so important to document – just as I guess you are doing in your project here, it was so important to document the experiences of workers of colour and many of them women of colour. So those were some of the work that WWIW did, so it gives you a history of where we were coming from.
And then Carolyn mentioned by 1981, I believe, WWIW had joined the March 8th Coalition and this was to bring a voice of immigrant women and women of colour to the March 8th Coalition. And I think they spoke out about the approach that the coalition, the single-issue approach that Carolyn mentioned that the coalition was taking. That was the first year, as we mentioned, that there was a leaflet, materials in different languages other than English, and there was also the Immigrant Women's Committee formed that year.
A few years later, 1984 – and I want to read this because this was in the leaflet that came out in 1984, “This year we are highlighting the experiences and the struggles of minority, native, immigrant, and poor women. In addition to fighting the worst of sexist discrimination, we also confront racial discrimination on a daily basis”. So this was another step, an important step in transforming the March 8th Coalition.
One small step, but a step that was necessary for transforming the March 8th Coalition so that it can become a little more representative, a little more welcoming to communities who had historically been excluded. That gives a little history of WWIW and our entrance into the March 8th Coalition.
Sue Colley: That's great. OK, so you've brought us up to 1984
Judy Persad: Yes. So in 1986, racism was still not seen as a major concern for the women's movement. And, yes, issues had been covered but when you look at who determined the political direction of the March 8th Coalition, it was still white women. And when women of colour were chosen as speakers or if they participated in the coalition it was the “Native” woman or the “Indigenous” woman, the “Black” woman, the “South Asian” woman and it was always the other.
Still we were the “other”. And this needed to change. I mean if the women's movement was to be a movement to represent all women, there had to be change. It had to reflect and incorporate the lived realities of all women, the lived realities of Indigenous women, of Black women, of South Asian women.
And yes we also group as women of colour but each of these communities have their own unique historical reality with the country and the society, with the movement. So it just had to be incorporated and this was a challenge that was put forward in 1986, the challenge to change.
Carolyn Egan: A process had begun to do that and that was because of WWIW and the Coalition against the Marcos Dictatorship and I would say the work of people like Sherona from the Committee around the deportation. So that was a process from the beginning.
But as Judy was saying, racism had to be taken on full square and I think that's when, in 1986, WWIW was one of the initiators of that too. Because the theme was “No to Racism from Toronto to South Africa” because a huge struggle was going on in South Africa. And that was to be the entire theme of the day and that was a big, big change as I remember it and that was initiated by a group of women who got together. WWIW called that meeting if I remember, Judy, if that is correct.
Judy Persad: Yes.
Carolyn Egan: – and groups like the Latin American Women's Collective and the African Ethiopian Hunger Campaign and the – you know, there's a whole range – WWIW, there was a whole range of Women of colour organizations that came together, initially met with WWIW and IWDC, which was a separate organization but was part of the organizing and that's what was put forward. That's my memory of it, Judy.
Judy Persad: Yes. Other organizations, there was the Coalition of Visible Minority Women –
Carolyn Egan: Yeah, yeah.
Judy Persad: – the Communications Workers of Canada. So it is important to name these organizations because this was a group and as Carolyn said led by WWIW and IWDC bringing this proposal forward to the March 8th Coalition and the proposal was to make the focus of that year racism and only racism. And I just want to read a few – and we do have this leaflet also – well the proposal, sorry, some quotes from the proposal.
“It is time for the feminist movement to recognize in a very public way that the struggle against racism is our struggle. We hope to use March 8th, 1986 to make a resounding statement about this. For this reason, the coalition must lead the way in efforts to build the feminist movement on an even broader basis and to bring the issue of racism to the attention of the coalition's component groups. We think it is time to put the issue of racism front and centre. We propose that the central theme for March 8th be women saying “No to Racism from Toronto to South Africa”.
So that theme was brought forward to this group by this group of organizations led by WWIW and IWDC. So that's how it came to the coalition and of course, it was accepted. But having this as a theme brought more women of colour into the coalition than previous years and as I mentioned at the beginning, that was my first year.
And when I speak to women who were involved you hear and understandably so you hear, “Wow that was a challenging year. That was a difficult year. That was a stressful year”, it's like, “Oh, 1986”. But for me at least it was an exciting year because; it was a doorway into feminist organizing and politics in the city and it was a wonderful pot of just feminists from different communities coming together. And yes, there was struggle and yes there were challenges and confrontation and debate and rightly so.
Women of colour, and this included Indigenous women and Black women, South Asian women, Asian women, this group of women of colour were saying, “Wait a minute, how things are organized it's not working for us”. They questioned the way the politic or we questioned the way the politic of the day was determined, who was in the leadership, who determined the politic, who got invited, how did people get invited, how decisions were made.
So all of these things were challenged, and I think through this challenge, through the debate, through the struggle, change began to happen in the March 8th Coalition.
Sue Colley: So before – Carolyn, can you just give us an outline of how the coalition was structured prior to this; how was it organized, how were decisions made etc.?
Carolyn Egan: It was depending on how many would be there, say 30-40 whatever, it was coming together in a circle and people would sort of choose, elect whatever I think a couple of chair-people – it may be one, I'm not quite sure, and decisions were made by the group as a whole.
You know, it didn't have a president, a vice-president, it didn't have any of that kind of structure in it – and I think decisions were made by voting and that was my memory of how it worked. There were committees, there were a whole range of different committees that would take on different tasks and report back and that's the structure. And I think that this year was as Judy said so incredibly important because racism just became the entirety of the discussion.
And I think it's important to note that, as Judy was saying, it was Women Working With Immigrant Women and the Latin American Women's Collective and the other groups that she had mentioned and IWDC – and IWDC was different from the March 8th Coalition. We often say that because the March 8th Coalition was at that time the name of the coalition that organized the International Women's Day.
IWDC was a socialist feminist group that had been primarily white, not entirely by a long shot but primarily white and had a separate existence outside the March 8th Coalition. So when Judy talked about WWIW and IWDC calling this meeting, it was those two groups which therefore obviously included women of colour and racialized women, as well as white women because that I don't think we made clear at the start.
Sue Colley: OK, so the March 8th Coalition then -?
Carolyn Egan: – Was the coalition that organized International Women's Day, which came together for – what would you say Judy – three months or something like that to do that work?
Judy Persad: Yes. January to March.
Sue Colley: OK. But it did include people from both Women Working With Immigrant Women and the IWDC committee?
Carolyn Egan: That's correct.
Judy Persad: Well like other movements the women's movement wasn't inclusive, the women of colour did not feel represented, did not feel included. The analysis that was put forward did not include our realities and this is what we're talking about with a change, right, and the change that started as we said when WWIW joined in 1981 and it continued because as we know it doesn't happen quickly.
So the challenge was put forward that the March 8th Coalition needed to deal with racism, needed to look at how internally it worked and how it would exclude – just by the way it worked – exclude women of colour. How the way decisions were made there wouldn't be a power balance I guess in the way decisions were made because if you had a small number of women of colour as opposed to white women and you're voting on an issue, well, the power imbalance is there.
And I think that's one of the reasons – and that happened in the 1986 coalition and that was one of the reasons that the Black Women and Women of Colour Caucus was called. And this was something we continued in the coalition – if an issue came up it was a way to balance the power. This caucus could be called; you discuss the issue, come back to the main meeting and put forward a position.
So this is my understanding as I think – maybe I was 24 or 25 at that time – this was one of the changes that women of colour pushed for. Carolyn mentioned the chairs. I remember another change that happened and that was that the minimum would be having a woman of colour as a chair. And that change may have happened in 1986 or maybe 1987, but again that was one of the ways to make the coalition accessible and inviting.
But I think the most important thing is the analysis that was put forward, right. In 1986 – also what started in 1986 was an anti-racism education committee and this was a committee just for white women on how to go about educating themselves and just – and there were no women of colour in that coalition – in that committee, sorry. So that was something else that started.
But I think what was important was through all this debate, we came to a common acceptance of what we were going to put forward as a coalition to the public on the day and we created the leaflet for the day and that leaflet was developed by women of colour and white women and it integrated an anti-racist perspective within that leaflet. And it's a little bit of a long quote but I want to read this because it is from the leaflet and this shows really the step forward that was being taken in 1986.
“We do not believe that racism is merely a misunderstanding among people, a question of interpersonal relations or an unchanging part of human nature; it is, like sexism, an integral part of the political and economic system under which we live. This system uses racism and sexism to divide us and to exploit our labour for super-profits. We are shaped by racism. It gives some of us privilege and we reproduce what it teaches us”.
“This has to be fought in our daily lives, but we cannot just educate racism away, even legal reforms are not enough. We must take racism to its material roots and change the economic and political structures which maintain it. Fighting racism is a feminist issue and white women must see it as a priority. Racism distorts all of our lives; it divides and weakens us giving power to our oppressors”.
“Fighting racism is a feminist issue to the extent that all women are not white, and the women's movement and the labour movement are strengthened by the participation and leadership of native, black, Chinese, South Asian and other women of colour. We are up against strong enemies; an anti-racist analysis makes our movement broader and more powerful. Women as a whole must say no to racism because if they come for some of us in the morning, they'll be coming for the rest of us at night”.
So that was on the front page of the leaflet for 1986 and that is the message and the statement that went out from the March 8th Coalition, it was a huge step. I don't know if Carolyn wants to add something.
Carolyn Egan: Well I just think it in itself is a powerful, powerful statement and I think as we were saying a process had begun with the recognition when in 1981 WWIW and the coalition came in and that process started to change. And through some of those years, at least looking back at the article that Judy and Linda Gardner and I wrote, about a third of the women were of colour or immigrant women or identified as such, but not the majority by a long shot and I think that the struggle that took place was hugely important.
And the thing is like other organizations like the National Action Committee and others where there was a white flight, if you might want to put it that way, that didn't happen in the March 8th Coalition, right. And I think people were learning and unlearning and there was a sense that we wanted to build a movement that could make real change for all women and if we were going to do it, then we had to do it in the most inclusive way possible.
And that's what informed us and that's why it didn't explode and do one March 8th in 1986 and then never come back again. That was not it, that was not it and I'm sure women always like in any movement some are going to stay, some are not but there was no huge exodus of white women at all.
It was a very positive and as Judy said sometimes very difficult struggle, but it was hugely important and I think it strengthened the social justice movement generally in this city and the understanding that we are much, much stronger if we have that inclusive movement and that is what we have to continue to build.
And if you look at who was involved in March 8th this year, of all the speakers, there was one white woman that I remember who was a working-class white woman from North Etobicoke in ACORN fighting against evictions with her fellow – you know, her neighbours. You know, and that change just kept on going and hugely, hugely important and big, big steps, making history in many senses.
Judy Persad: Yes. And after 1986 because as Carolyn mentioned women stayed and there was a commitment because through the summer of 1986 and the fall of 1986 there was a planning committee that came together to really look at what happened and to come up with a framework of restructuring the coalition. And, yes, there were differences, there always will be.
There were differences but there was a common vision, a shared vision and a shared commitment to building an anti-racist women's movement. WWIW, as part of this team, called a one-day meeting and at this meeting, the framework was presented and accepted and out of this meeting we would have the start of the 1987 March 8th Coalition. So there was acceptance of this new basis of unity where we're recognizing that there are differences, acceptance of a group caucus method of decision making – acceptance of who would chair meetings.
So we were moving forward and I think when the 1987 March 8th Coalition started, there were – about one-third of its members were women of colour and you had such organizations as the South Asian Women's Group, Lesbians of Colour, the Coalition of Visible Minority Women, Native Women's Association and of course Women Working With Immigrant Women and that was the year, in continuing to build, the theme was “Fighting Racism and Sexism Together”.
So the keynote speakers on that day – I'll just read a quote from the keynote speakers, “Last year on International Women's Day we said we were going to build a new women's movement in Toronto. A women's movement which does not represent and include all women cannot be called a true women's movement. An anti-racist women's movement has to include women of colour, Black women, Native women. It has to address issues which affect our lives”.
And that speech was given by two women of colour; a Black woman and myself, an Indo-Caribbean woman. So here we were speaking to the women's movement that the movement has to change, and we have to be included; it's a demand otherwise how could you be the women's movement and it was as simple as that.
And this building, this integration of anti-racism in the analysis, in the politic that went out, this linking of struggles and oppressions continued. So in 1989, the theme was women saying “No to Racism, Sexism and Economic Inequality”. So there again is the building.
I'll just give another example of a theme because it raised another struggle we had, and this was in 1991 where the theme was women say “Stop the Racist War from Oka to the Gulf” and this included issues of self-determination for Aboriginal peoples, Palestinians and Blacks in South Africa.
So an amazing theme, we worked again with quite a diverse group of women to develop this and to think that this is the politic and the statement and the view of the women's movement that is going out on the streets in that year. It was incredible. But I have to say a major women's organization in the city boycotted that year and I had the phone conversation with them so I know the reason. The reason was, “Well this is not a woman's issue and we will not be a part of a march or a rally that isn't talking about women's issues”.
Sue Colley: And can you tell us who it was?
Judy Persad: No, I don't think it's necessary. It's not necessary because I think what's more important is it shows that that feeling was still out there. That resistance to accept that issues that affect women are women's issues and that our lives, we are from multiple locations and we face issues and struggles in these locations but we experience it as women. So if we are a movement that is open to bring all women together, then the issues that we experience as women are to me women's issues.
So it just illustrated that the struggle continued but this was still the March 8th Coalition, feminism – the face of feminism on the streets in the city – was saying this and I think what was important here too was we had started to influence change within other movements too, right.
And I think that's one of the things that is understated for the March 8th Coalition because it did influence – the whole integration and the struggles to integrate anti-racism – did influence the politics of women's organizations in the city, of labour organizations in the city. So we kind of need to underline that at times, that it played a critical role. So I'll stop there.
Sue Colley: Can you tell us why you think it was different in Toronto in the sense that you were able to work through these issues, form a new basis of unity and a new approach and so on whereas other organizations, most notably NAC, were not able to do that?
Carolyn Egan: Well if I may take a stab at that, I think because most of the women were coming from an anti-capitalist perspective, if I may say that, and I think that made a huge difference. And even in the early days if people had, as I said earlier, an intellectual or theoretical understanding of fighting racism and certainly went to women strikes where immigrant women were being abused etc., it was an appreciation that we had to learn how to integrate it in a way.
Capitalism deforms all of us, we're all products of the system we grow up in and we want to tear the head off the system in many senses but you have your own lived experience and I think that is what you bring to any place you work, you organize, you live in.
But I think if you come to an understanding that you're fighting the worst of sexism and gender oppression, then you appreciate that we're fighting for a world that no longer has oppression and that gender oppression and racial oppression and oppression around sexuality and how you define yourself, non-binary, whatever, oppression related to people who have disabilities, all of that is encompassed in a system that we have to overturn.
So when you're trying to struggle for issues and then someone points out, “Well that doesn't really speak the way I experience that issue because I have an additional burden that is on my shoulders that you may not have felt, so it hasn't occurred to you to take that up in a way it should even though you may understand it theoretically”. And so I think that was part of it because people really – they weren't in it for themselves, there was no glory gained, there were no jobs to get, there was no wages paid on any of these things.
People came to this as volunteers, gave a tremendous amount of their time to have a strong movement that could actually fight and win change and if you're committed to a strong movement that will fight and bring change, then you have to build inclusivity and you have to allow the people who are most affected by the exploitation and the oppression to take the leadership role, to push forward and to knock over what has to be knocked over in the end result.
And so I think, that's my perspective anyway, of why. But I also think that change takes place through struggle. You know, if you're sisters in struggle, if you are comrades in arms, if you are fighting together against the exploitation or oppression, however it manifests itself, you appreciate that you have to fight for your sister as well as fighting for yourself and you learn through this.
And I think it's been a huge learning experience and extremely positive. I mean one can go on in that but I think personally that's the reason. People weren't attempting to make careers in this movement, people – and I can't speak for everyone, I mean who knows what's in anyone's head at any given time, but people really wanted to make lasting change and you learn how best to do it and you know who the people who are in it with you.
And like when Judy read that piece which was on the cover of the leaflet for March 8th, 1986, when it said and it ended, “They'll come for us in the morning but they'll come for you at night” well that says it all and if you're not willing to fight for those who are being abused in the morning then how are you ever going to win the world we want and I think that was the motivation for people. And does that mean everyone took it easily or everyone wasn't upset at one juncture. Well I mean obviously challenges create upsets sometimes.
But that is my thinking on why it's been able to maintain and it is the largest, most continuous march and rally in the streets in all of North America and that's a huge tradition and it's a tradition that was borne out of struggle and good debate and solid debate and differences now and again and they'll come as they come. But that's what makes it as strong as it is. If you go, and I'm sure you have to the marches in the street they're the most diverse marches in the city, I would say and that tradition is hugely important to maintain, yeah.
Judy Persad: Yeah, that was in 1991 and the March 8th Coalition continued organizing in 1992 and 1993. But in 1994, yeah, that was the year Women Working With Immigrant Women took over the organizing, yes. I know – Carolyn, do you want to speak to this, or do you want me to?
Carolyn Egan: No, go right ahead.
Judy Persad: OK. Well there wasn't – in 1994 there wasn't a group – for whatever reasons a group coming together for the March 8th Coalition and there was not going to be an IWD march and rally in the city and Women Working With Immigrant Women decided – because we were one of the continuing organizations in the coalition and we consulted, we had the support of the organizations that were left or that were involved to take over the organizing of IWD.
So in 1994, we pulled a group together of our allies within the women's movement, the labour movement, the student movement, immigrant movement, women of colour and decided to organize it because we thought the city cannot not have an IWD march and rally because again this is the face of the women's movement of the city.
This is feminism on the streets for Toronto and how could you not have this event, and it's not just a celebration – it is a celebration but it's also a resistance. It is women's resistance and women's voice and women's power, that's what is on the streets on that day and at the rally, so it had to continue. So we decided to pull the group together and that was the year the theme was “Reunite, Resist, Rise up”.
So that was the first year WWIW took it over and in doing that we also as an organization, WWIW, made a political decision that why are we going to take this over. Well, one, of course, is to continue having this on the streets, but it was to continue the work that had been started. It was to make sure that the feminism that is presented in IWD was an anti-racist feminism and to ensure that issues – there was a linking of issues and a linking of the analysis to make sure that the leadership was by women of colour and just I guess to ensure that it was grassroots women who were represented.
So we didn't have politicians speak though it was requested at different times, we did not have top leaders of organizations speak. We tried to have women who were experiencing the issues that we were talking about on stage on the day and then we made sure and did an outreach to immigrant women's organizations and women of colour organizations, anti-poverty organizations to make sure that on the streets was a representative group of who the women are of the city and who the movement is. So that was why we – and Carolyn can add to it, but that was my memory of why we took this on.
Carolyn Egan: Yeah. I think that that's absolutely correct. And interestingly I was also a member of WWIW from way back just so – to come clear on that because I was involved back in 1975 in helping to establish what became the Immigrant Women's Health Centre because of the lack of access to good health services for women who did not speak English etc. and therefore got involved with WWIW.
But I think the very fact that that organization was primarily – obviously – women of colour and immigrant women – I was one of the few people who were white – that that just speaks to more of the progression. It speaks to more of the progression that had been taking place through all that time and it was a step by step – you see, I've never seen it as one moment.
It's a process, not an event and that's what politics is and that is what the development of an anti-racist class perspective in the feminist movement has been all about. And I just really feel that WWIW has played such a significant role because it never came in, came out and said what it had to say and then left, it stayed and it worked so hard. And Salome, if she were still in the country, would be part of this interview because she played such a pivotal role and was a strong working-class fighter who fought racism; it was just part of her core values.
And I think that it was a huge, I'll say it again, important development that WWIW took on and it still plays a key role in the organizing of the event. And those core values in many of the people who come out today, and you get young women – the Coalition against the Marcos Dictatorship people like Carmencita Hernandez and Fely Villasin etc. were back in the early eighties and were perhaps involved before more as individuals.
But today you have young women who are in their twenties from that same community fighting the same issues and they did the – if you were at the most recent one, they did the video of a migrant worker from the Philippines speaking in Tagalog about her conditions working in a meatpacking factory.
And so the tradition it's just so, so important that it continues and young women, older women there's just really a commitment to maintain the politic that had been developed through those many years and we want that to be the face of the women's movement in the city because they're all competing.
In any fight for change there's all competing viewpoints and getting more women into boardrooms and more women who are getting advanced degrees and all that is of course very important but we always, as Judy said, we put the ordinary woman, the grassroots rank-and-file woman on the stage, the one who rarely ever gets a chance to speak.
That's always what we've done and that's what we're continuing to do and that's what we want to be the face of the movement in this city, and it's been a process that I think has created a very important politic, has respect and because it's so large. I mean mass organizing, getting people into the streets, if you can get thousands into the street, the media whether they like your message or they don't like your message they're going to have to pay attention to it and that's how you win change. I mean that's our view; we want to win change.
We don't do this for historical purposes, or whatever else, we want to win change on those specific issues, and we know that we can. That it is the collective power of people working together that can tip the balance.
You know, we're in a very difficult time with COVID right now – can tip the balance between winning and losing – and that's what we are committed and that's why we have such, I think, remarkable women whether they've been around for decades or whether they first joined this time to just work together to build that kind of significant movement for change with an anti-racist class perspective, that's what's going to win the women's movement in the end – that's my feeling anyway.
Sue Colley: So I mean it's been an incredible job because I mean it still keeps going, right.
Judy Persad: Yes.
Carolyn Egan: Yeah.
Sue Colley: And what do you see about – you know, what's your trajectory about the future?
Carolyn Egan: Judy?
Judy Persad: Of IWD?
Sue Colley: Yeah.
Judy Persad: Well I was thinking of what excited me about being in WWIW and the March 8th Coalition, and now organizing IWD, and it was this willingness to change and to grow and to listen to the perspectives of new communities of young women coming in. And so I see this grouping and I see WWIW continuing to organize IWD in Toronto, the IWD march and rally.
This does not mean there can't be other events, but we choose to organize this, and I see us continuing to do that and continuing to be as inclusive as possible and to learn more as we go along on how to be more inclusive, how to integrate issues more, how to be – you know, continue to be intersectional. Just really a continuation of what we've been doing and being open to change.
So I remember when a labour leader said to me, “This is the largest women's march in North America”. That has to continue and I think as an organization we take pride in that and I think that presence on the streets and that representation of women's politic and women's lives and the issues and challenges and the celebrations have to continue. So that's what I see.
Carolyn Egan: That's great.
Sue Colley: Certainly evidenced, I think, by the virtual International Women's Day event last Saturday, you know.
Carolyn Egan: It was very, very exciting. And just following up on what Judy was saying, I think it was two years ago the Sudanese community became involved. They brought 500 women and men out to IWD, they were in a major struggle in their home country, women were playing a leadership role there, they had a speaker at the rally. And I think communities in struggle around the world who have part of their communities who are refugees or left for whatever reason here in Toronto, they come to International Women's Day because they want their issues highlighted.
We had people from the Burmese community for example because of everything that's going on therewho want to be a part of this because they see it as a fighting movement and I think this is hugely important.
Some of the very strong women who were active and have been for the last four or five years are from the Kurdish community, a very tight-knit community involved in real struggle. Women fighters who fought ISIS, I mean some are here now and they're supportive of the struggles that are going on. These are the type of women as well as women who work in plants and work in other places in the day-to-day struggles of today.
So you get a real flavour of the international aspects and the fights and the struggles that are going on all around the world against racism, against imperialism, against war and this is the place that people feel they can come and discuss, talk and have their issues addressed. So I think I see no stop in the organizing for International Women's Day. I think the flavour of struggle, of being in the streets, and harkening back to 1908/1909 is there in a way.
And I think it also gives hope that working together we have the collective power to make real change and if you allow yourself to be inspired by that, by the marches in the streets then it gives you the confidence to take up the issues that are constantly, confronting us in whatever movements we're part of because we live under capitalism and it's a very difficult system for the ordinary working person wherever you find yourself.
And I think that the tradition we're trying to continue, the struggles that we've been through and we're not perfect by a long shot, but we try and bring that all forward and that anti-racist class perspective to a women's movement that's prepared to fight and that's important and I think that will be the future hopefully.
Sue Colley: Right, thank you. OK, have we missed anything? Are there other things that you would like to touch on?
Judy Persad: No, I think we've covered it [laughs].
Carolyn Egan: Yes, I think we're OK.
Sue Colley: I think we really did [laughs]; it was great.
Carolyn Egan: Yeah.
Sue Colley: It was really wonderful, thank you.
Carolyn Egan: And I think Judy and I would both like to say, and we said it earlier, that we would really dedicate this to Salome and the tremendous – role that she had played. And as we said, if she were not out of the country she'd be speaking here and bring her perspective but we salute her absolutely for the role she played over the many years.
Judy Persad: Definitely, yes.
Sue Colley: Yeah. Yeah, thank you. Well, this is fantastic. Thank you!