When the list of this year’s Order of Canada recipients was posted last Wednesday, Harriet Stairs was one of them, appointed, as the announcement said, for improving women’s opportunities in business, and helping women and youth through inclusive policies, in both the corporate world and through community projects.
Although Stairs is listed as being from Toronto, she and her husband have a home in the Old Town they purchased 21 years ago, and have had “one foot in both places” ever since, she says.
Stairs, then 55, was retiring from a 32-year career with the Bank of Montreal. Her husband, Edward Mooney, was not yet ready to retire. A chartered accountant, his career was with major corporations as a financial advisor on real estate issues, before starting his own consulting business. His work, plus Stairs’ shift to working with the not-for-profit sector and various positions on boards and committees, has made it helpful to have a base in Toronto.
They also have four adult children between the two of them, all living in Toronto — Mooney has two sons, she has a son and a daughter, with a combined total of 10 grandchildren, ranging in age from 17 down to two years old. Keeping their city home allows for more occasions to gather with family, although, with the arrival of COVID, she and her husband are spending more time in Niagara than previously.
“Life is so much more simple in NOTL,” she says. “During COVID, Toronto has continued to be such a busy place. NOTL is beautiful, and we love our home here. We saw it, we liked it and we bought it, and we’ve fallen in love with the community.”
Stairs, like others who receive the Order of Canada and wear the iconic snowflake pin representing the honour, is considered to have “changed the nation’s measure of success, and helped build a better Canada,” the motto of the Order.
“I am honoured, and very thrilled,” she says, “but also surprised. It’s a great honour, one I never, ever dreamed of receiving.”
Stairs’ career with BMO began in 1967, after graduating from McGill University in Montreal. Her first job, she recalls, was as a host for the bank at Expo ’67, an exciting time to be a Montrealer. After a time in marketing, she moved to human resources, and began to work her way up. There were no women in front of her in senior management, making each move “a bit of a challenge,” as she broke through the glass ceiling “one slot at a time.”
After becoming a vice-president, she reached the position of executive vice-president of human resources, which came with a role in senior leadership.
One of Stairs’ many significant accomplishments with the BMO was creating a strategy for flexible benefits, which allowed employees some choice about what was better for them in their individual circumstances. Women made up 70 per cent of the bank’s workforce, at a time when benefits and pensions were created for men, and while the flexibility benefited both men and women, it was especially helpful for women, who were able to choose benefits to suit their needs, which were very different from men.
She went on to play key roles in training for young people, and the advancement of women in management roles.
Although she says she doesn’t have her fingers on that pulse any longer, “things have changed tremendously for the better. Women can and should aspire to senior jobs.” There is still more work to be done though, she adds, specifically mentioning there is not a female bank CEO, “although I don’t think it will be long before we see that. It’s been an effort to change that culture, but there has been great progress made.”
When she retired from the bank, she felt she had earned the right to take life a little easier, but also wanted to put her free time to good use. “The first part of my life was all about climbing the corporate ladder, creating new, more modern policies that were future-oriented,” and having learned a lot about management along the way felt she was young enough to use her skills “doing something worthwhile for others.”
Her next move was to Portage, a not-for-profit established in 1985, to help give youth struggling with drug addiction a fresh start. As chair, she was able to convince the provincial government to create more beds for young people. “If you’re ready to reach out for help, you don’t want to sit around waiting for a bed,” she says. “That was key.”
After about 15 years with that organization, she moved to work with the Psychology Foundation of Canada on a program called Kids Have Stress Too, helping to develop policies and plans as it grew to include families, adults and children dealing with stress and mental health issues.
She has also worked with Sheila’s Place, for people with eating disorders, and a program called Deaf Futures, through the Canadian Hearing Society, which devised educational programs to help young people who are deaf or hard of hearing, preparing them for success.
There have been other organizations and boards to which she has given her time, skills and fundraising efforts, but most recently, and continuing through to the present, Stairs has become involved in the Toronto Friends of the Visual Arts, a non-profit organization that promotes knowledge of the visual arts through education programs, and provides support and recognition for emerging artists and art organizations.
There are about 250 members, mostly women, who like her have been interested in art all their lives, and now want to give back.
At the age of 75, she says, “this one is me giving myself a treat. It gives me a lot of pleasure.”
She is now a McGill Emeritus Governor, after two terms on the board of governors, and her volunteerism with the university continues long-distance. She also spent two years on the board of Ryerson, as it transitioned from a polytechnic institute to a university.
When she and Mooney decided they were ready for a little slower lifestyle and a second home outside Toronto, “we thought NOTL was a lovely town, with all sorts of nice things to it. We love the theatre, and when we moved, I did two terms on the Shaw (Festival) board. I learned a lot about theatre, and about the community.”
They have met a large number of interesting people, and both love to golf, making the most of the great golf courses in the area. Mooney jokes in his Irish brogue (they share Irish roots, evidenced by an interview that featured Stairs on CHIN AM radio during last Sunday morning’s Irish show) that “now I’ll be expected to walk five paces behind her on the golf course.”
In addition to being a get-away, and a place for family to visit, their home on the corner of Dorchester and Johnson has an interesting history. It was built in 1820 on a lot at the southeast corner of Queen and Simcoe Streets, and was moved — for the first time — along Queen Street to Victoria Street, ironically, Stairs believes, to make room for the Bank of Montreal building. It was then moved again to its current location.
When family come to visit, they love to walk, play tennis, and in the summer visit the Virgil Sports Park, says Stairs. Pre-pandemic, they enjoyed the Shaw plays and events for young people.
Through her work with Portage, Stairs and her family developed a tradition of participating in an annual fundraising bike ride for the organization, and with it cancelled for two years, have created their own fundraiser, each family member riding a certain distance to raise funds (donated by Stairs) for Portage.
It’s important to her, she explained, for children to learn early in life to give back to their community. It’s a lesson she learned from her mother and mother’s family, who were very supportive of their Montreal community, from her father, a surgeon, and from the private school she attended, the Sacred Heart School, founded in 1800 in the wake of the French Revolution, and run by nuns.
“Their mandate was to teach women to be leaders,” she says. “They had a culture of doing things for people and being aware of and looking for social justice. The nuns were great people, and well ahead of their time.”
Her recent appointment to the Order of Canada, Stairs says, has given her an opportunity to talk about her career, after a lifetime of working quietly, without seeking or receiving much public attention.
These days, google anyone who has done as much in their career and for their community as she has, and you will learn all about them. But not Stairs — she has chosen to work behind the scenes, not looking for recognition.
When Mooney speaks of how incredibly proud he is of his wife, he describes her as “an elegant lady who has worked with quiet power and design in her various roles, with the BMO and the community-based organizations where she has served.”
Although there has been no decision on how the award will be delivered, Stairs says she is hoping it will be in person later this year, in Ottawa, handed to her by the governor general, Mary Simon.
As gratifying as the prestigious appointment is, Stairs says, what means as much if not more to her are the phone calls, emails and Facebook posts from many women in the corporate and not-for-profit sectors, “some I’ve known, and others I’ve only known about,” who have reached out to thank her for her support.
The milestones in her career didn’t come easily, but as she was reaching them, she was aware of her responsibility to ease the way for the women who would follow her. That she continues to hear from them, “from all times in my life,” telling her how much she helped them, is evidence of how successful she has been at building a better Canada, fulfilling the motto of the honour she has received.