The last two years have been a time of pain and progress for women’s equality. All too often, disturbing news events overshadow the real achievements women make at both the grassroots and international level.
While media continues to discuss the lack of gender equality, women far from the limelight are taking on leadership roles and lending their expertise to assist those in need.
Every year, St. Albert Baha’i celebrates International Women’s Day with a special salute to five role models, five unstoppable women whose passion and dedication inspire all who know them.
The 2020 women creating new pathways are educator Françoise Ruban, interfaith activist Karen Gall, victim services director Kristine McDonnell, optometrist Dr. Kim Bugera and visual artist Shairl Honey.
Each of these five women have demonstrated through their own example that women are strong leaders working to improve the conditions of others in myriad ways.
As part of International Women’s Day, the St. Albert Baha’i plan to honour them at St. Albert Inn on Saturday, March 7 at 7 p.m. There is no charge to attend, however, please call May at 780-459-4060 to reserve a seat.
A familiar face in St. Albert, Françoise Ruban has worked as an educator for 38 years in numerous capacities from primary school children to university level students. At one point, the soft-spoken educator was vice-principal at Paul Kane High.
One of the many mottos she lives by is a Gandhi quote: “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” In fact, while working at Campus Saint-Jean, she spearheaded a peace education project that mobilized 120 university students to serve in educational and humanitarian projects in China, Kenya, Tanzania and Togo.
For Ruban, the importance of education at home and in developing countries is paramount.
“It’s an absolute necessity. Without education, a person’s potential is diminished. We have a role to make sure education is available to everyone. However, we don’t want to impose our views. We have to learn and work collaboratively and women do it very well,” said Ruban.
Originally from Manitoba, her ambition was to travel the world as a photojournalist. However, after obtaining a degree in French education and marrying an engineer, she and her husband traveled to Alberta where she taught Grade 1.
It was the beginning of 13 moves, including a two-year stint with the Department of National Defence in Germany teaching children of military personnel.
“It opened me to other cultures and certainly an appreciation for what the military does for us.”
While passing on knowledge was important to Ruban, the catalyst that galvanized cross-culture learning with overseas countries was the Project Overseas Program in Ghana. The 2003 venture was a partnership with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.
“It was teachers reaching teachers. We would go there and ask, 'What are your needs and how can we help?' The women were remarkable – secretaries, teachers, heads of associations. Some would walk miles to get to our course. They were impeccably dressed and had a richness and spirituality. They didn’t have much in material terms. But they had so much love of life.”
Ruban has also jointly developed and delivered a national symposium for Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, an organization that promotes access to education and training for Afghani girls.
As for the International Women’s Day nomination, “I was surprised. You go through life doing things because you’re passionate about it. You do things because it’s the right thing to do.”
“I hate the word 'tolerance,' said Karen Gall, a peace-loving interfaith activist. “It sounds like you have to take cod liver oil and you’re told to swallow it. Instead of celebrating diverse cultures, it sounds as if you have to put up with them. When you know other cultures, you celebrate diversity and dispel stereotypes.”
A gentle woman hiding a backbone of steel, she was born and raised in Toronto. Gall grew up in a Jewish family where respect and compassion for all people was an imperative.
After receiving an arts degree and a teaching certificate, Gall and her husband Gerald, a constitutional lawyer, moved to Edmonton where he joined the University of Alberta's law faculty.
A passionate advocate of human rights, peace and multiculturalism, Gerald Gall co-founded the John Humphrey Centre for Peace and Human Rights along with Jack O’Neill and Gurcharan Bhatia. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of Canada for his life’s contributions.
Although Gall supported her husband in his endeavours to create peace, she also taught Kindergarten for the Edmonton Public School Board and expanded her influence to set up and run the teacherage, a resource centre for teachers.
The mother of three is a dedicated member of Temple Beth Ora, an inclusive Reform Jewish synagogue where she is a lay leader and cantorial soloist. She is also skilled at blowing the shofar, a biblical instrument made from a 28-inch ram’s horn traditionally blown on holy days.
“I’ve blown it at public events and it makes this wonderful sound in the pyramid at City Hall."
Currently, Gall is on the Board of Directors for the Edmonton Interfaith Centre for Education and Action (EICEA). It is her personal mission to achieve a broader understanding through organizing interfaith discussions, presentations, dialogues and prayer services.
One of her deepest religious beliefs is Tikkun (repair) Olam (world).
“The concept of repairing the world ties in with the commandments. If I believe God created the world, then His work is not yet done. We are partners in the process of creation and it’s up to us to make a better place. To do so, we need to reach out to other religions and break down the stereotypes.”
From EICEA, Gall shares her interfaith experience as a founding member of Interfaith Connections, a group of St. Albertans establishing a presence in the community.
“If we can highlight religious differences to create understanding rather than bigotry, that’s a good thing.”
Champion of victims' rights
It takes a special individual to work with victims of violence, especially the heart-wrenching abuse directed at young children.
Kristine McDonnell is part of a new breed of women nurturing society’s most vulnerable. As the executive director of Sturgeon Victim Services, she is a powerful voice and her leadership role allows her to strengthen goals and instil the same mission in her team.
Her biggest weapon against abuse and trauma is Hope, a three-year-old Labrador retriever who works alongside McDonnell as a facility court dog.
The four-footed partner comes from Dogs With Wings. She is specially selected and trained to provide a calming influence around victims of trauma or violence.
“She is always with me. I even take her home,” said McDonnell who also works closely with Zebra Child Protection Centre, an organization that intervenes and advocates for children under 12 in abusive or violent situations.
“Sometimes despite the skills an officer has, they cannot get a child to open up. They will leave the room and we bring Hope in and children open up to her.”
The child is unaware his/her conversation with their wet-nosed friend is being recorded and presents their version of events.
“By recording their conversation, the child doesn’t have to retell their story in court and once more undergo revictimization.”
McDonnell’s generous spirit and dedication to community service was fostered at an early age. Several generations of her family served in the Canadian Armed Forces. Her father was a military firefighter and her husband, formerly a security manager at the Canadian Consulate in New York, is now an RCMP officer.
“I always knew I wanted to be in a helping profession, but I wasn’t sure what direction I wanted to go. I have a wonderful team and an amazing dog that changes lives wherever we go.”
The mother of three laughs at what she dubs “a mid-life crisis” when she joined the military. After six months, McDonnell left, realizing it was not for her.
“At that time, there was a lot of conversation around mental health. There was not a lot of help and I thought I could contribute.”
She volunteered at the Edmonton Youth Emergency Shelter around Whyte Ave. advocating for addicted and homeless adolescents. McDonnell also volunteered on the board of Edmonton’s Victim Services for two years before moving to Sturgeon.
For many, her job would be an emotional challenge. For McDonnell, it is life-giving.
“To be part of a journey victims go through is a privilege. You are with the most vulnerable individuals and to build their trust is an honour.”
McDonnell operates victim services with a 22-person team that includes staff, volunteers and board members.
“Thank you for acknowledging the work we do and the change we try to create in our community. People need to know they are not alone. This award is so much more than recognition. This award ceremony is an opportunity to thank my team. I’m very grateful for them.”
Dr. Kim Bugera
Dr. Kim Bugera grew up on a farm near Elk Point, Alta. As a child, she needed glasses and the 30-minute drive to St. Paul for an eye exam seemed to take forever.
“We had mountain ash in our yard. I remember the experience of getting my first pair of prescription glasses and realizing that before I couldn’t see the berries on the mountain ash,” said Bugera.
Her mission in life is to provide affordable vision care for all, something she considers a basic human right.
Bugera graduated from the University of Waterloo in 1996 as a Doctor of Optometry. Today, she operates Capital Vision Care in Morinville beside her husband, also an optometrist. Grateful for the blessings in life, she frequently volunteers at Boyle McCauley Health Centre providing eye care for those at risk.
But it was Bugera’s first international excursion in 1998 to provide eye care to the impoverished in Dominica that changed the trajectory of her life.
“We wanted to travel, but we were right out of school and didn’t have much money. We went on a trip to Dominica. Everyone wants to give back and I think the best way to do it is to share a skill. I understand the impact on a person’s life when losing their vision – the isolation, the depression, the frustration. After that trip, if we did well, we would take a trip every year,” Bugera said.
In the past two decades, she has also provided eye care to the disadvantaged in the Philippines, Cambodia, Kenya, Peru, Ecuador and Tanzania. Many are remote locations such as a Maasai tribe in Kenya or the isolated Chloe Island in Tanzania where electricity is nonexistent and a diagnosis is made with basic tools.
One of her proudest achievements was not only providing free eye exams to hundreds in Malawi, but also teaching aspiring young doctors in the Mzuzu University Optometry program.
“It’s the only school in southern Africa and it graduates 50 people a year. Graduates can set up their own clinics and pass on the knowledge.”
At the moment, negotiations are underway to set up eye clinics in sea cans.
“You realize how lucky we are and it puts everything into perspective.”
A messenger of history, Shairl Honey would be the first person to tell you airports are ports of discovery.
Back in 2008, the St. Albert visual artist and fellow artist Susan Abma were waiting for a flight. They leafed through Hello magazine and saw a photospread of 158 Canadian soldiers who had died during the Afghanistan war.
Hit by the number of young lives lost, they decided to honour the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice by painting a portrait of each soldier. Recognizing the scale of the venture, they persuaded Governor General Award-winning artist Cindy Revell to join forces for Project Heroes.
“When we saw the photos of the 158, we thought we could get them painted and done in a couple of years. It took seven years. We didn’t realize it would take so long to find families, and we didn’t realize it would take so long to paint,” Honey said.
Since the Canadian Forces would not release names of next of kin due to privacy regulations, the visual artists plodded through social media to locate families. Most families were tracked down through Facebook.
Some were uninterested in the project, an enterprise that would unearth painful memories. Others granted interviews and provided family photos. In total, 80 families participated from across Canada.
The trio painted head and shoulder portraits that are roughly 14 inches high by 12 inches wide. Every soldier wears their branch uniform topped with either a helmet, beret or a Tilley type hat.
Once the portrait paintings were completed, the trio decided to paint an additional 13 wall murals and educational paintings to celebrate Canada’s 100 years of war from 1914 to 2014.
“We wanted to honour Canada in war and peacekeeping times. It also tells the story of what families go through.”
Through their tenacity and leadership, the trio also attracted an additional 25 writers and 13 French language translators to write panels for what would become a touring exhibit.
Honey said, “I’m very proud of the work we’ve done and I’m excited about International Women’s Day. It’s humbling to be nominated for something like this. I can’t believe it. It’s quite lovely and I feel very lucky to be a Canadian woman. This is the best country in the world to be a woman.”