Forming Her Activism


Disaffected with the prevalence of inequitable treatment of African Nova Scotians and her own social invisibility as a young African Nova Scotian woman, Yvonne decided in 1960 to leave for Toronto for five years. At the age of 17 and looking for a better life, Yvonne found her first work in a plastic flower factory where immigrant women workers were paid for every flower they turned out. There was no time provided for adequate lunch breaks, and no facilities for sitting down while eating. But Yvonne did sit down for lunch her first day, and on the second day, two of her co-workers joined her; on the third day, the male supervisor fired her, claiming Yvonne was not producing enough flowers. Having experienced a sweatshop firsthand and seeing the injustice of working from 8 to 5 without a break, Yvonne learned the lesson that higher education was needed if she was to sidestep such demeaning exploitation:

You had to have information or you had to learn things in order to know your rights. How come these women don't know that in Canada—and I'm 17 years old—you don't do that! And how come nobody tells them? That developed my social activist psyche around equality.

So Yvonne returned to college and went on to university. She took numerous courses, but marriage, raising three children, coping with divorce, and increasing job demands took over her life and she did not get her degree. Yvonne's five years expanded into 24 intensive years in Toronto. During this time, she worked at the Mt. Sinai Hospital for 20 years, where she was promoted through the ranks until she became coordinator of patient services with a staff of 35 and responsibility for the hospital's kosher kitchen. It was in this capacity that she experienced discrimination and a lack of respect toward her own staff as well as the members of the Ontario Food Supervisors' Association. Neither the medical association nor the dietetic association saw supervisors as professionals, and "as food supervisors, we were in between, we did the dirty work, we had to manage the finances of food purchasing, we ran nursing homes and kitchens in the hospital, doing work with managerial staff while dietitians arrived monthly to see how you were doing".

Yvonne helped her Association members create a charter to formally recognize the mostly-women workers as professionals in food services and nutrition. She worked hard to achieve salary raises for her severely underpaid group, as well as recognition that more formal training was needed for positions to push them into the realm of semi-professional. By the time Yvonne left to return to Halifax, some significant successes had been won, and her women colleagues had developed a sense of their own self-worth as people who held demanding, responsible jobs.