Niagara-on-the-Lake wove itself more deeply into the planet’s tapestry this weekend with the first local Women’s March Global event, joining the Women’s Wave.
All over the world people met and marched and discussed progressive topics such as gender and racial equality, pay parity, and issues minorities of all kinds face. NOTL was no different.
About 30 brave and committed souls met at the bandshell in Simcoe Park. Shaw actor Jacqueline Thair handed out a single page of chants to anyone who wanted to fill their lungs with bitterly cold air and let it out warmed up with a powerful phrase or two. As one of the event’s organizers, Thair then led the march through the park and across Queen Street — where security guards at the Icewine Village looked on with curiosity as she put an enormous black bullhorn to her mouth and led the battlecry, “What do we want?” “Full equality,” the parade replied. “When do we want it?” “Now.”
No battle in the cry, really: The march made its way quite peacefully up King Street, those gathered ranging in age from 10 years to fully senior, and a variety in between. A young woman held a handmade placard that read, “Take your feet off our necks. RBG,” referencing a quote from famed American Supreme Court Justice and feminist Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Another sign read, “Respect my existence or expect resistance.”
The march continued along Johnson Street to Regent, with chants of “Tell me what a feminist looks like.” “This is what a feminist looks like,” Thair leading the way with her near-comical bullhorn matched in size by her passion. They looped onto Regent Street, generating more puzzled looks from security at the other end of the Village, and then along Prideaux Street where they were greeted warmly and dramatically by Maya Nority, a drag queen who later performed in the bandshell.
As the small but dedicated crowd encircled the stage, Thair thanked everyone for their participation and began her introductions. The first speaker was Mel Thivierge, an employee at the Shaw Festival. Thivierge is a transgender person who spoke with humour and courage about the complexity of choosing which public washroom to use. (Thivierge prefers the pronoun “they.”) Although they were born female, they identify as male. They told of a time when a woman tried to block their way from entering a women’s washroom, and how they had to explain the situation to her patiently and respectfully. They said they’re not so sure they would find a similar understanding in a men’s washroom, and yet they do feel they are male.
“That’s what it’s like going to the bathroom sometimes when you have gender dysphoria, or identify as transgender. It’s really freakin’ stressful,” they said. “And the thing that most people tell me is ‘I don’t care if you’re in there,’ but you still worry, you worry someone is going to get upset and say something.”
They went on to explain gender dysphoria as feeling emotionally and physically the opposite of one’s gender, and directed the audience to “the genderbread person,” an online resource and teaching tool they said is updated frequently.
They also spoke about asking their doctor about gender reassignment surgery. Apparently the doctor was perplexed when he learned that Thivierge would still be staying with their male partner of almost 20 years, because, “Why would you want to turn into a man, if not to date women?” Laughter and gasps from the audience.
Thivierge also pointed out stress is created by the harassment and social stigma surrounding it, not by gender dysphoria.
Following Thivierge’s moving presentation was Elizabeth Zimmerman, executive director of the YWCA Niagara Region, who discussed economic security for women, relaying stories from her experience with women and single mothers who are forced to resort to shelters and food banks. Zimmerman said when women win, “everyone wins.”
Lord Mayor Betty Disero also participated in the march, and spoke next in the blowing snow inside the bandshell.
“Chloe Coolie’s screams through the night caused our government to come forward with the first legislation towards the abolition of slavery, not just here,” she said, “but in all of British North America.” Disero went on to say how wonderful it is this started here in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and suggested we “use her strength and determination to open up and take away the barriers that we face today.”
The lord mayor also referred to Laura Secord’s strength and determination, and honoured some more contemporary heroines. “Some more modern pioneers who have come and worked very hard. Margherita Howe, Gracia Janes, Austin Kirkby helped develop the town the way it is today. And if they didn’t work so hard, our farming community wouldn’t be as strong as it is today. We would have high-rises along our waterfront, and our town would not be as quaint, welcoming and wonderful as it is today,” she said. She also mentioned local recipients of Orders of Canada in addition to Howe, Donna Scott and Bluma Appel, “who have done so much to promote equality.”
Disero went on to say she had good news and bad news. “The good news is that NOTL has a female lord mayor, and a female deputy lord mayor and CAO.” The bad news, she said, is that other positions are still dominated by men — although she pointed out with pride that NOTL has harmonized equal pay for equal work. More bad news: “At regional council one of the mayors gets up and says, ‘I think what the province wants is to expedite the process and get a guy who knows what he’s doing to come in, because it used to be handled by secretaries, which took days.’ I looked across the room and could see almost every councillor cringe,” said Disero. “This is not what our leaders should be saying. So I took him aside and explained it, and he’s not quite there yet. The good news is that I refuse to give up. I will continue to correct him whenever he is wrong.”
A musical performance followed with siblings Ange Nethersole and drag queen persona Maya Nority, “the fancy backup singer.”
Actor Natasha Mumba then read a moving piece thanking her parents for their dedication to their ancestry as well as their courage to help her immigrate from Zambia to Canada and have a career in the arts here.
To close the event, Maya Nority — “a gay man in my day-to-day life and a woman on the weekends” — sang Andra Day’s inspirational song Rise Up:
And I’ll rise up
I’ll rise like the day
I’ll rise up
I’ll rise unafraid
I’ll rise up
And I’ll do it a thousand times again.
Thair and the local chapter of Women’s March Global are planning more uprisings. To find out more or to join the lively and motivated group, visit womensmarchglobal.org.