Twenty-three years ago St. Albert Baha’i initiated the United Nations International Women’s Day Awards. For some, the award’s ceremony showcasing the accomplishments of women was a head-scratcher. Why pay tribute to women working at something they’ve chosen as part of their life?
From the get-go, the St. Albert Baha’i simply wanted to take the first steps in a long road to gender equality. And judging by the feminist movement sweeping the globe in the 21st century, it turns out they were trendsetters.
This year, the Baha’i will host their annual awards ceremony on Saturday, March 9, at St. Albert Community Hall, shining a spotlight on five motivated and inspiring go-getters.
“They’re all super. They’re very involved in the life of their community. They work at a very high level and they’re very connected. We are very excited to honour them,” said St. Albert Baha’i committee member Mitra Taef.
Throughout their lives, these five powerhouses have displayed leadership, advocacy and compassion for the most vulnerable, and in doing so enriched our lives.
The five special women are Judge Cheryl Arcand-Kootenay, Felicia Blades, Carol Dickson, Helen Arnott and Cheryl Dumont.
The Saturday celebrations start at 7:30 p.m. There is no charge to attend, however please reserve a seat at 780-459-4060 or email [email protected].
Every year the Baha’i choose a special charity in support of International Women’s Day. This year it is One! International Poverty Relief, a registered Canadian charity in Mumbai, India, that provides education to street children and supports an orphanage.
Judge Cheryl Arcand-Kootenay
Justice and Indigenous Initiatives
Judge Cheryl Arcand-Kootenay has spent the last 25 years practising law in an effort to dismantle barriers and encourage the marginalized to find a more healing path.
This is particularly true of women and the Indigenous community who are most vulnerable to mistreatment under the law.
Although a St. Albert resident for the past 23 years, Arcand-Kootenay was originally from Alexander Reserve, about 20 kilometres west of Morinville. Her family moved to Edmonton for greater educational opportunities and she graduated from the University of Alberta becoming a member of the bar in 1993.
While a career as a lawyer sounded glamorous to a Grade 10 student, she also felt a genuine underlying concern for others.
“It was always a sense of helping people, a sense of making a difference, of being there for people. It was about people knowing somebody is here to listen and help make good choices in the darkest hours,” said Arcand-Kootenay.
She spent the first seven years in general practice before moving full-time into Indigenous focused child welfare and family law.
In October 2018, she was appointed as Provincial Court Judge hearing cases everywhere from Lloydminster to Fort McMurray to Leduc.
As a provincial judge, Arcand-Kootenay handles about 40 pages of cases on docket days. This is roughly 10 to 12 welfare files, 15 to 16 family law cases and a couple of civil files.
“As a judge, you need to be a good listener and hear all the perspectives. You need to have a good knowledge of the law, and you need to interpret and apply the law before you.
I’d like to think I’ll make a good judge and help people sort through their problems and leave the courtroom with a little peace.”
Multicultural and Unsung Heroine
Volunteering for the good of humankind was always in Helen Arnott’s DNA. Born in Madhya Pradesh, India, the eldest of three, her father was a chaplain for the British Indian Army.
Her parents had moved to India under the auspices of the United Church of Canada, and the entire family pitched in trying to provide health care, medical supplies and food to malnourished inhabitants.
Arnott’s aya (nanny) taught her to speak Hindi and when Arnott went to an exclusive boarding school in the Himalayan Mountains, she also learned the Queen’s English, French and Latin.
During the summer holidays from November to March, her parents, who were connected to the United Nations and the United Church of Northern India, travelled to Rajestan to try to improve the life of villagers. The United Nations supplied an X-ray trailer and Arnott’s parents tested villagers for tuberculosis.
“I was a lively little kid and I got roped into registering people for X-rays,” said Arnott.
She was also tasked with mixing powdered milk with water and making sure villagers drank it.
“If I didn’t watch them carefully, they would take it gave it to their animals. They wanted to make sure their animals were healthy and well. As for the villagers, I would pour the milk in cups. It was fun. At that age, it wasn’t a matter of doing good,” Arnott said.
Growing up as a visible minority in a foreign country as well as first-hand experience with deep-seated poverty fired up a desire to assist immigrants coming to Canada. A champion of the disadvantaged, Arnott recognizes that Canada is made stronger through diversity and the presence of immigrants.
Since 1979, she has sponsored refugee families from Vietnam, Eritrea, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Somalia and recently Syria. And in 2015, she founded the Community Refugee Committee.
“I read the papers. I listened to the news and I could not turn away. If you have a passion, you don’t look back. You help.”
Despite the numbers she assisted over the years, Arnott does not see herself as a saviour of the universe.
“It’s the ripple effect that is so important. I’m just a little pebble. All we can do is stave off the darkness with whatever we can do. It doesn’t have to be a big thing.”
Unsung Heroine for Victim Services
Felicia Blades is similar to a superheroine: when tragedy strikes she is there. She’s not about holding up a collapsing bridge or hurling about-to-detonate bombs into space.
No. Her work is as gentle and soothing as her voice. Blades is a volunteer at St. Albert RCMP’s Victim Services. She answers crisis calls and counsels individuals during tragic situations such as suicide, sexual assault, domestic violence, theft or fraud. To the victims Blades supports, the stepmom of three is a lifeline.
“One of the toughest call-outs I had to make was with the RCMP. I had to tell a mother her only son had overdosed on drugs and died. To hear her emotions – it’s very hard. You never forget those sad calls. And when you go home, you can’t fall asleep right away,” said Blades.
Answering a crisis call is more detailed than just being a first responder. It means opening a file, answering followup calls and helping victims navigate through a complex legal or social service bureaucracy.
“When you refer people to counselling, it can take up to six weeks to get an appointment. But people need to talk now. There’s definite holes in the system and I’d like to help close the gap.”
It’s a lot to take on and dealing with emotionally and psychologically stressful situations is not for everyone.
“But knowing you make a difference, even if you don’t feel like you are, it’s such a pleasure knowing we were there for them.”
Raised in Nova Scotia, Blades first earned a bachelor of arts degree followed by a double degree in criminology and psychology from St. Mary’s University.
“I took psychology because I was really interested in why people think the way they do and why they do what they do. As for criminology, I had a dream to be a police officer.”
After moving to Alberta, Blades first volunteered with Red Deer Victim Services before moving to St. Albert and offering her services to St. Albert Victim Services in 2016.
“On average, I have 35 files going on. Over half are domestic.”
A full-time employee for Services Canada, Blades has also volunteered for Cure for the Cancer, Run for the Cure, the Edmonton Humane Society, Stollery Children’s Hospital Foundation and Central Alberta Women’s Shelter.
“Just to be nominated is a huge accomplishment. I’m honoured to be recommended, especially for International Women’s Day. It’s something I’ll always remember for the rest of my life.”
Senior, Community Care
Carol Dickson has a knack for finding little anecdotes and parables to define her volunteerism with St. Albert Bereavement Fellowship.
One in particular stands out. It goes something like this. “A little blind boy always carried a flashlight. When asked ‘why are you carrying a flashlight, he responded: I know I cannot see because I am blind, but if I am ever really lost, I hope somebody might notice my light and come to lead me out of the darkness.’”
She is a woman who helps people heal, one survivor at a time.
Dickson started volunteering with the bereavement society a decade ago and eventually took steps to become a grief counsellor. Prior to volunteering, Dickson had sat at the bedside of her mother, father and sister when they passed away.
“My sister had MS and it was particularly difficult. I had taken courses in psychology and it seemed I had to put my sorrow in a place that had meaning,” said Dickson.
She had also spent some time living in Whitecourt, High Level and Saudi Arabia with her husband, Rob, an oilfield worker. One of her daughters was even born in the Arabic country.
Living in Alberta’s small towns, with their shortage of services, as well as living in Saudi Arabia, a country where certain classes of individuals suffered much hardship, opened Dickson’s eyes to the need for volunteerism.
At St. Albert Bereavement Fellowship, she saw people suffering desperately inside.
“If you deny or ignore grief, there are serious repercussions: mental illness, addiction, problems learning. There are so many unresolved issues.”
But people often equate tears of emotion with weakness. And Dickson works to make the environment safe and welcoming.
“We want people to vent as much as they need and to cry as much as they want to without an apology or loss of dignity,” said the gracious woman.
“And there’s such awe and magic in seeing a person get back to their life and recreate their own life with little support.”
Investing and educating the next generation is top-of-mind for Cheryl Dumont, executive director for St. Albert Further Education.
Also serving her third term as a Public School Board Trustee, Dumont believes that a good education will open up unseen opportunities.
“I love children and young people. To me it’s important to prepare kids to be good citizens and to prepare them for jobs of the future,” said Dumont.
And one of her top priorities is to make sure vulnerable children and youth have the chance to thrive. This includes special needs, Indigenous and LGBTQ youth.
Prior to a career in education, Dumont was employed in the insurance industry for 42 years and took early retirement. She had always volunteered at her daughters’ schools and decided to offer her services as a St. Albert Further Education board member.
When the director stepped down, Dumont effortlessly stepped into the position. She not only produces the biannual St. Albert Further Education course calendar that arrives free of charge in our mailboxes.
One of her proudest achievements has been to work towards a memorandum of agreement with Nechi Institute. The agreement will provide Indigenous clients with literacy, numeracy and financial planning skills to move on with their lives.
“This is about helping young people who did not finish high school and I’m very excited about what we will be able to do.”
Dumont also keeps active as vice-chair of St. Albert Housing Society. It provides affordable housing for young adults, AISH recipients, seniors and single parents.
“In my adult life, I’ve been very fortunate. As a child it was not easy. But when others help you in your young life, and in your adult life you are fortunate, it’s important to give back. And I have that kind of passion.