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Egale gets new ED

Toronto's Helen Kennedy to take on the troubled lobby group

Feminism Equals activism. Trans rights are the next big battle, says new Egale ED Helen Kennedy. Credit: Nicola Betts

The leadership at national queer lobby group Egale Canada will be getting a kickstart when local activist Helen Kennedy takes over as executive director on Mon, Apr 30.

“It’s a permanent position,” says Kennedy. “I’m the first woman [to hold the top position at Egale], which is also very exciting. It’s a great opportunity.

“I want to advocate. I am an activist and a lifelong feminist. I believe all equal rights issues are feminist and all true feminists are activists for equal rights.”

With 22 years of experience in politics and a reputation for getting things done, Kennedy could be just what the beleagured lobby group needs to get it back on its feet. Kennedy began as a city councillor in East York from 1988 to ’91. She didn’t seek reelection, but instead went to work for the NDP at Queen’s Park during premier Bob Rae’s majority government.

In 1999 she went to work for Toronto city councillor Olivia Chow. She made news last year when she ran for Chow’s vacated seat in Trinity Spadina; she lost to former CityTV reporter Adam Vaughan.

Egale has been without an executive director since Gilles Marchildon departed in November 2006; Winnipeg’s Kaj Hasselriis held down the fort over the winter as interim executive director.

Kennedy joins Egale after a year of turmoil for the organization, including multiple (and largely unexplained) departures by staff and board members, and complaints of financial mismanagement. Membership and donations are down and between 2005 and 2006 Egale went from having a surplus of almost $30,000 to a deficit of $13,000.

Is it worth putting in the work to pull Egale back from the brink when the issue that it based its momentum on is over and done? “There is a question out there about what is our next fight is going to be now that equal marriage has been won,” says Kennedy. “Our rights are at risk every day despite the Charter, which is so evident recently with the reopening of the marriage debate. (The federal Conservative’s bid to reopen the issue failed last December.) So for me I think we have to be vigilant and can’t let our guard down.

“Our next battle, but by no means the only one, is the rights of trans [people]…. I’m sure one of the issues will be SRS [sex reassignment surgery] and we have to develop a plan on how we’re going to approach the provincial government and our friend [openly gay Ontario Minister Of Health George] Smitherman. I’ve already connected with his office and hopefully we’ll get a meeting with George in the next little while.”

Although she hasn’t officially taken over the job yet, Kennedy is already planning to meet with Egale’s trans committee to learn what its vision is for the organization. She is also planning to meet with Cheri Dinovo, NDP MPP who recently introduced a private member’s bill at Queen’s Park to change the Ontario Human Rights Act to explicitly protect the rights of trans people.

But will advocating on issues affecting Canada’s trans population be enough to win back former members and attract new ones?

“We have plenty of work to do, not just on the trans issue,” says Kennedy. “We have queer kids being bullied in school as well as kids of queer parents being bullied. We need educators who are responsive and who know how to deal with these issues and how to handle the kids of queer parents and the diverse makeup of our society.”

Known for its work in the courts and lobbying elected officials, Kennedy would like to see Egale expand its modus operandi.

“I believe Egale can take a leadership role, not just as litigators but as a resource for the school system [and] corporations,” says Kennedy. “Egale can be the ‘go to’ agency. What do you do when somebody is transitioning at work? We have the information and we need to get it out there. We have a wealth of information and resources and people committed to equality. We have to find a mechanism to get it out there, especially in rural communities. We’re a national organization and we can’t forget our membership who live in smaller towns who face different types of bigotry every day. Living in Toronto we tend to forget people in smaller communities.”

Kennedy says she won’t be relocating to Ottawa for her new job so keep an eye out for her cruising around town on her 1,100cc Yamaha Virago.

“I’m a member of the Amazons MC [motorcycle club]. That’s how I relax when I’m not working.”