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Friday March 31, 2017

Feminist campaigned for women's rights

A co-founder of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, she played a key role in fight for social change in Canada

Special to The Globe and Mail

In 1984, when "the women's vote" and "women's issues" had not yet become key concerns during political campaigns, a glamorous former schoolteacher shot to national attention when she asked a cheeky question of the leaders of Canada's three major parties at the conclusion of a pre-election television debate.

On Aug. 15 of that year, a panel of four women, two from Quebec and two representing English Canada, had been grilling Liberal Leader John Turner, NDP Leader Ed Broadbent and Leader of the Progressive Conservative Party Brian Mulroney for two hours.

They asked where the three politicians stood on daycare, abortion, world peace, employment equity for women, affirmative action and the denial of bank loans to female entrepreneurs.

The party leaders promised action.

Then Kay Sigurjonsson, director of the Federation of Women Teachers' Associations of Ontario posed the final question: "I ask you in all sincerity, given the dismal record, why should we trust you now?" It electrified the packed, mostly female audience at the Royal York Hotel in Toronto, which Ms. Sigurjonsson had booked for the event.

The debate was carried on all TV networks in Canada in both official languages and public interest was high. More than 2,000 people queued outside the Royal York to get into the live event, the first - and last - time that an election debate focused on women's concerns. The women's debate crystallized a number of trends, including the increased participation of women in the labour force and increased voting and political participation by women that marked the era.

It was set up by the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) with the co-operation of the three political parties, with Chaviva Hosek, then NAC president, introducing the participants. A decade earlier, Kay Sigurjonsson herself had been one of NAC's founders.

The chair of the 1984 debate, Prof. Caroline Andrew, who was head of the political-science department at the University of Otttawa, recalled in an interview that the debate was planned very quickly. "Kay was very calm, unlike the rest of us. She had done this before and was not at all nervous about confronting possible prime ministers. It wasn't clear if the media would take the women's debate seriously or what [advocacy group] REAL Women would do - they were demonstrating outside."

Ms. Sigurjonsson, who played a major role in the struggle for women's rights in Canada, died at the age of 83 on Nov. 30 at Toronto Western Hospital. She had been suffering from chronic lung disease and had for several years been in and out of hospital.

Andrea Kathleen Sigurjonsson, always known as Kay, was born July 10, 1933, in Brandon, Man., a descendant of hardy Icelanders who had settled on the shores of Lake Winnipeg in the 19th century. She was the eldest of five children of J.E. (Eddie) Sigurjonsson, a teacher and later highschool principal, and his wife Clara Sigurjonsson (born Stevenson, of Irish parentage), who was a nurse. Kay grew up in various small Manitoba towns, since her father's changing assignments meant frequent moves for the family.

In the early fifties, she attended United College in Winnipeg on scholarship (the institution became the University of Winnipeg in 1967). She received an honours BA in English literature and another in pedagogy from the University of Manitoba, which, at that time, awarded the degrees earned at United College, since United could not grant degrees. She was the gold medalist in both programs.

At her memorial service in December, her college friend Lois Reimer recalled that their classmate, historian Ramsay Cook, humorously dubbed them the Icelandic-Mennonite Mafia of Manitoba, the IMMM, "a designation we were quite comfortable with."

She taught in Manitoba, Alberta and British Columbia, but according to Ms. Reimer (also a teacher, and later a university administrator), her most fondly remembered teaching experience was in Quebec City, where the two young women roomed with a French-speaking family: "Kay fell in love with Quebec City."

She returned to Winnipeg to teach at United College, but resigned on a matter of principle after a colleague - a historian named Harry Crowe - was dismissed on the basis of a private letter he had written. "About a dozen teachers resigned in protest," Ms. Reimer recalled. "The Crowe case was famous at the time."

In 1960, she took up a graduate fellowship at the University of Toronto, studying under Northrop Frye, while sharing an apartment with her sister Tanis. Her friends assumed she was heading for an academic career, but instead she went to work for the University of Toronto Press, and then for the Federation of Women Teachers' Association of Ontario (FWTAO), where she found her true home. She became associate executive director of the organization, sharing the leadership with Florence Henderson and Shirley Stokes.

This triumvirate helped strengthen the FW's (as it was usually called) staff resources, increase its strike fund and raise its profile. Ms. Sigurjonsson edited its publications, supervised collective bargaining, political action and public relations.

Since all female teachers in the province were required to be members, it became the largest and best-funded women's union in the country and, with feminism resurgent in the 1960s and 70s, an unexpected engine for social change.

"There were countless conferences, fledgling feminist organizations, legal battles, institutes, marches, women's services, journals, and organizing drives that were quietly funded by FW, and I know that Kay was a decision maker in guiding this crucial support for feminism," said Michele Landsberg, author and former Toronto Star columnist at a memorial event held at the Art Gallery of Ontario after her death.

Ms. Sigurjonsson joined with other women activists in 1972 to create NAC to push for implementation of the recommendations of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women. It received government funding until that was cut off under prime minister Mulroney.

She persuaded FW's board, in 1985, to fund the startup of LEAF, the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund. LEAF, whose first office was FW's tea room, intervenes in Supreme Court cases in defence of women's rights.

Another part of her legacy is the Canadian Women's Foundation, a charity to help women move out of poverty and into jobs. She was one of eight founders of that organization in 1991.

For three seasons, she was cohost of CBC-TV public affairs show Weekend and she later served on the Ontario Judicial Appointments Advisory Committee and on the board of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. The University of Western Ontario awarded her an honorary degree and the YWCA named her a woman of distinction.

In 1998, after repeated court challenges, the smaller and weaker Ontario Public School Men Teachers' Federation compelled the FW to merge into a unisex federation and FW was no more.

"Kay was smart as hell - one of the brainiest people I know - but she never vaunted it," recalled Ethel Teitelbaum, a former Immigration and Refugee Board member and close friend, with whom Ms. Sigurjonsson attended scores of concerts, films, plays and art exhibitions after she retired. "She was also a very stylish woman and liked good clothes.

"She never wanted to marry - she had a couple of serious relationships with men but she never wanted children. We were different in that."

"She was very attractive," Ms. Reimer recalled. "She had a number of relationships along the way. She was very popular, but never to my knowledge even came close to marriage. I think she liked her independence too much and remained close to her family."

"Kay chose the time to die," Ms. Teitelbaum said. "She was intubated - she could not breathe without tubes - and she asked the doctors that they be removed."

Kay Sigurjonsson leaves two sisters, Enid Robinson and Pat Rogers, and was predeceased by her brother, John, and sister Tanis.

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Associated Graphic

Kay Sigurjonsson, seen attending an awards ceremony in 2007, was an instrumental member of the feminist movement in the 1960s and 70s, when she helped lead the largest women's union in Canada.


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