Not everyone would pause her retirement to serve her community—but for University of Toronto alumna Ceta Ramkhalawansingh (who completed undergraduate studies at New College and graduate studies at the Institute of Child Study and OISE), that’s business as usual.
From co-founding Women’s Studies at U of T in 1971, to a 30-year career at Toronto City Hall, where she most recently managed the city’s access, equity and human rights programs, to serving on several community boards—including committees at Innis and New Colleges and U of T’s College of Electors—activism is Ramkhalawansingh’s life’s work.
This summer, Toronto city councillors tapped her to continue that work as interim councillor of Ward 20 (Trinity-Spadina). That’s the ward in which U of T’s St. George Campus is found, and it is also the ward in which Ramkhalawansingh has lived, and for which she has advocated, for over 40 years.
With just a few weeks left in her council term, we met with Ramkhalawansingh to learn why she returned to City Hall and her thoughts on Toronto’s future.
What motivated you to apply for the interim councillor position when former Ward 20 Councillor Adam Vaughan resigned to pursue federal office?
I received emails from a couple of the ward’s residents’ associations saying, “We need somebody to replace the irreplaceable Adam Vaughan. And we think it should be you.” That, and a signed letter from over 100 residents, business leaders, former U of T presidents, and academics.
People wanted continuity. They wanted somebody who understood development pressures; who could work with residents’ groups. I’ve lived in Trinity-Spadina since 1971, when I was an undergraduate at U of T, and I have a long-term connection with most of the residents’ associations in the area.
What accomplishments are you most proud of? What are you still hoping to achieve during your term?
Ward 20 is probably the most complex ward in the city. You have the Rogers Centre, an airport, two television stations, two universities, 80,000 residents, 70,000 to 80,000 post-secondary students plus museums, galleries, theatres, a huge music scene, and all of the new developments. In July and August, we approved 500 million square metres of development. That’s what makes it an interesting ward, but it also brings problems: traffic, illegal rooming houses, all of those pressures of living downtown—and you’ve got to balance everybody’s interests.
A lot of my role was to make sure the section 37 contributions [through which developers contribute funding for community spaces] were nailed down, a good chunk of them to social housing. I also had to complete the negotiations on several large development projects and negotiate additional funds for the John Street cultural corridor.
I wanted to find a way to commemorate the Toronto Book Awards’ 40th anniversary. There will be a new Toronto Book Garden established at the Harbourfront Centre. The funds are secured and we hope to have a design in place and make an announcement by the end of the month.
What do you make of this election’s surge in voter turnout?
During the advance polls, when you saw the phenomenal turnout, people were saying, “We are reclaiming our city. We are taking it back. We want stable government.” People were fed up, and they wanted a real change, and they wanted the city’s reputation restored.
If mayor-elect John Tory does a good job, I don’t know whether you can expect the same turnout in 2018. But if there are any major screw-ups by him or council, I think we could well see that same level of turnout.
What do you see as the most important challenge facing Toronto over the next four years?
Money. The city needs new sources of revenue. Toronto is the fourth largest city in North America, and larger than most of the provinces in Canada, and it cannot predict its budget and has very limited sources of revenue.
The extent to which the province offloaded the cost of transit and housing onto the cities, and the lack of a national housing program or urban agenda—that’s a challenge for Toronto.
At your last council meeting, you put forth a motion to change the English lyrics of our national anthem to be more gender inclusive—“all of us command” instead of “all thy sons command”. Why was this important to you?
Every council meeting begins with a performance of O Canada. For years, if I’m singing the national anthem, I sing gender-neutral words. So for me, it was just a continuation of what I’ve always done.
You received a lot of hate mail after introducing this motion. Why do you think people were so resistant to this idea of gender equality?
I don’t know. My staff and I were having a discussion…if it were a white male who proposed it, would it have had the same response as somebody with my name, colour and racial background? There was no doubt in my mind the reaction had a heavy dose of racism and sexism.
And people aren’t always aware of the history of the country or where we’ve come from. I tell them, “the French words are gender neutral” or “ the anthem was changed five times”, and they’re unaware. I guess a lot of people are uncomfortable with change, so their responses are emotional rather than logical.
How did your experiences at U of T influence your career as a civil servant?
In every way. [At the time], physical education was compulsory for women but not for men, and Hart House was not open to women. The introduction of those gender issues was formative for me.
I was on the Students’ Administrative Council [the predecessor to UTSU] in 1969, when there was a lot of lobbying to change from a bicameral system of government to the unicameral system. That was the context in which I entered U of T.
I came to understand that it was possible to change big institutions, and you had to engage in processes to make it happen. Sometimes you have to protest and sometimes you have to stand on committees—you have to find ways of demonstrating your support.
You have to become involved where you live, where you go to school and where you work. You can’t complain; you have to take action.
This interview has been edited and condensed.