Be the change you want to see: a phrase that’s easy to say, but much harder to do. The following women have done just that, often overcoming cultural and gender barriers in pursuit of their dreams. Their journeys have been epic; their actions inspirational. But most importantly, they have beaten a path that makes it easier for other women to follow in their footsteps. This issue, Atlantic Business pays tribute to women who have boldly gone where few women have gone before.
SHEILA COPPS didn’t start out wanting to be Deputy Prime Minister of Canada, but her interest in social issues led her there.
“When I was getting ready to go to university, I wanted to go be an actress,” says Copps, 63. “My mother convinced me to go to university and said ‘if at the end of it you want to be an actress, you still have that in your back pocket.’”
After her degree, Copps decided against acting and eventually found herself working as a journalist at the Hamilton Spectator and Ottawa Citizen. “When I’d go to meetings, I’d say to myself, ‘that’s something I can do,’” she says. “I was interested in the issues and helping people.”
This, along with the fact that her father was once mayor of Hamilton, drew Copps to politics.
Copps first ran for office in 1977, but was unsuccessful. In 1981, she was voted in as the representative for Hamilton Centre. At the time. there was only a handful of women in office and Copps was the only one in her caucus.
“It was a culture shock, that’s for sure,” says Copps.
In 1985 she became the Member of Parliament for Hamilton East and was re-elected five times. From 1993 to 1997, she served as the first female Deputy Prime Minster of Canada.
“Men are never surprised to be asked to run for political office, whereas with women, when you first approach them their response is sort of ‘who me?’” she says, “I think we’re socialized to not take centre stage.”
But Copps says women shouldn’t let this fear and stigma stop them from doing what they want, especially if they want to be a politician.
“Figure out what issues turn your crank, what interests you, volunteer (and) get involved,” she says. “You’ll get a chance to see first-hand what it’s like, but you have to be tough; you’ll need a thick skin.”
ANN DIVINE is leading by example and empowering marginalized groups of women to take charge in the business world.
“I think there are only about 10 women of colour in leadership roles, 11 if you count me, in Nova Scotia,” she says. “My view is that there needs to be a lot more.”
Divine was born in Guyana, South America, raised in England and immigrated to Canada in 2004. She’s worked in several fields, such as probation and human rights. In 2014, she was honoured by Diana Whalen, Deputy Premier of Nova Scotia for “extraordinary leadership and determination in her efforts to empower black and immigrant women to have successful and fulfilling careers” and in 2011 was given a Correctional Services Employee Recognition Award for her work with Nova Scotia Correctional Services.
In 2011, she founded Ashanti Leadership and Professional Services, with the goal of helping all people, especially immigrants and women of colour, find success.
In the beginning, Divine struggled with Ashanti. While the business was registered in 2011, she didn’t start offering the service until 2014 because no one seemed interested. “I did cry on many occasions because I thought no one wanted to do business, but it wasn’t about me personally,” she says.
Divine realized she needed to provide more than advice; she needed to draw from her other experiences and show people how to empower and relate to each other. For example, she offers an Unconscious Bias Training program, where participants reflect inward and acknowledge how their own biases affect their decisions.
Divine finds that immigrants and women of colour need to put themselves at the forefront when seeking out opportunities because they aren’t often considered leaders.
“There is always someone in a class who feels they know more about me than I do and who tries to undermine my confidence,” she says. “I have to firmly believe in myself and be 10 times more prepared.”
For Divine, each challenge is a stepping stone to something greater.
“When someone says no, it doesn’t mean no; it means that there might be new opportunities for you to seek out,” she says. “You have to have people you can call on, you have to invest in yourself and your knowledge and have a good team around you.”
ALEXA MCDONOUGH first ran for the Nova Scotia NDP in the late 1970s. She faced more barriers than just being a woman in a male-dominated field.
“Because I was a New Democrat we weren’t getting elected in this area at all,” says McDonough, 72. “It was kind of new territory.”
While she ended up losing the first two times she ran for a federal seat in Nova Scotia, McDonough didn’t stop trying.
“There was a perception that if you wanted to have political influence you had to be a Liberal or a Conservative,” says McDonough. “For me, that was waving a red flag at a bull and I said ‘Do you wanna bet?’”
She credits the women who came before her as one of the reasons she saw this as a worthwhile decision.
“It coincided with the women’s movement, so I was influenced a lot by the women trailblazers in the party, (like) Grace MacInnis,” says McDonough. “She was really the trailblazer for feminist action and social democratic changes.”
In the early 1980s, McDonough switched government levels, running and winning the leadership bid for the Nova Scotia NDP. She became the first woman to lead a political party in Nova Scotia, serving as leader until 1994. From 1995 to 2003 she was the leader of the federal NDP party. After she resigned as leader, she remained Halifax’s Member of Parliament until 2008.
While she is now retired, McDonough remains politically active.
“Some people would rather play cards, but not me,” she says, adding that it’s important, especially now, for a wide range of voices in politics.
“I feel strongly about having voices and faces that represent the spectrum (of Canada) and traditionally women have been underrepresented,” she says. “We also need a wide range of racial and religious backgrounds.
LEANNE FITCH leveraged hard work and determination to become the first female police chief in Atlantic Canada, despite her feeling isolated early on her career.
When Fitch, 53, joined the Fredericton police in 1986, she was only one of five women to have served and, at the time, was also the youngest officer on the force.
“I would be in the locker room getting ready for a shift and you could hear the guys in their locker room and they’re joking and laughing to build comradery,” says Fitch. “Then when I’d make it down to briefing, it was like ‘what’s going on?’
This made her feel disconnected from her peers. She says that even though her colleagues were supportive, she still felt like an outsider every time she stepped into the police station.
Some community members seemed reluctant to accept her as an authority figure, even though she was qualified for the job. Previously, she had worked as a park patrol officer during the summer months and volunteer auxiliary officer until she graduated from the University of New Brunswick in 1985. After that she was accepted to the Ontario Police College.
“There were subtle comments made throughout my career,” she says. “I’d show up at a scene and they’d say ‘I want to talk to a real police officer.’”
Fitch ignored the naysayers; she didn’t let their comments affect her decision to be a police officer and kept working toward her personal and professional goals.
“I remember one inspector telling me the hardest barriers are the barriers we put in front of ourselves,” she says. “Sometimes our own self-doubt will not make us feel worthy of going into these positions or careers that women haven’t gone into.”
In 2013, that hard work paid off when Fitch was named chief of police. She had been the acting chief since 2012 and deputy chief for seven years. “Good hard honest work will always pay off,” she says. “You have to look for the doors that are opening and be strong and courageous and jump through them.”
CATHERINE CALLBECK was told she wouldn’t win if she ran in the 1974 Prince Edward Island provincial election. She ran anyway — and won.
“I had several people tell me that they would not vote for me because I was a woman or that politics was no place for a woman, but that did not deter me,” says Callbeck, 77, who was elected to the P.E.I. Legislative Assembly with that victory.
In 1988, she won the Malpeque riding in the federal election, and in 1993 she was elected Premier of P.E.I. — becoming the second woman to hold provincial leadership in Canada (the first was Rita Johnson, in B.C. with the Social Credit party in 1991).
In 1996 Callbeck resigned as Premier and in 1997 was appointed to the Senate, where she served until her retirement in 2014.
While she is accomplished, Callbeck doesn’t consider herself a trailblazer. She says she was “just doing the things she wanted to do.”
“After I came back to the Island to live in 1969, I became very active in my church and a number of community organizations and causes,” she says. “I thought being a member of the Legislature would be an extension of these activities.”
Callbeck says her career was rewarding in that it allowed her to help her home province in many different ways. During her time in office there were two surplus budgets, the Confederation Bridge was started and unemployment rates went down.
“Prince Edward Island is a very special place and I believe that I have made a contribution to its future,” she says.
As someone who made a life and a career out of following her interests and passions, she encourages other women to pursue whatever it is they love doing.
“My advice to women would be to find an area they feel passionate about, get all the education they can, work hard, develop self-confidence, find mentors, make their dreams come true and have fun doing it,” she says. “Never give up.”
YVONNE JONES, Member of Parliament for Labrador and Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada, wasn’t always a politician. When she was 23 years old, this young Inuit woman was more concerned with becoming an entrepreneur.
Jones got her start in marine shipping. In 1991, after moving back to Mary’s Harbour, she noticed that many communities needed a reliable shipping service. Partnering with a local sea captain, Jones founded Jones Charters and Tours Inc.
“He (the captain) had loved boats, had spent a lifetime on the water and was just as eager to make it a business,” says Jones about the company that was sold in 2016. “For me it was just seeing a need that was not being met.”
In the beginning, Jones admits she didn’t know exactly what she was getting herself into.
“I remember the excitement of the prospect that could only be met by the anxiety of incorporation, learning the legal obligations and meeting the demands of owning a corporation,” she says.
But it wasn’t just her personal anxiety that challenged Jones’ decision. Being a young woman in marine shipping was also something that seemed problematic.
“Going back nearly 25 years, the thinking was that women had no place in non-traditional … male-dominate professions,” she says. “Even though I was always one to push back, there was still a degree of intimidation that was felt.”
By not backing down, Jones managed to turn her idea into something worthwhile. Every few days, a 75-foot ship, with a crew of two to three people, would travel from St. Anthony and Cooks Harbour with shipments for coastal Labrador communities like Mary’s Harbour, St. Lewis and Black Tickle.
For women considering doing something a bit outside of the status quo, Jones says that they should do it, no matter how much resistance there is.
“I am always so proud when I see women leading innovation and business as we were marginalized in working society for many years, (so) let’s keep doing it,” she says. “Pick a field you love to work in, take your passion, your habit and your talent and turn it into a business and let your innovation soar.”