3 min

Lauding Debbie Douglas

Women's advocate honoured by YWCA

VISIONARY. Debbie Douglas, executive director at the Ontario Council For Agencies Serving Immigrants, has a long career history of working for women, queers and immigrants. Credit: Nicola Betts

Long-time women’s advocate and out lesbian Debbie Douglas will be in good company on Thu, May 20 when she receives a Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) Women Of Distinction award. Past winners include visual artist Joyce Wieland, author Margaret Atwood and film theorist Kay Armatage.

While all of the recipients are united by their commitment to women’s issues, Douglas’s focus has been the concerns of immigrant women as they struggle to integrate into the larger Canadian whole, and on framing those efforts in the context of sexual diversity.

“She’s clearly got a long career of commitment to the women’s community in a whole variety of ways,” says Amanda Dale, director of advocacy and communications for the YWCA Of Greater Toronto. “Her AIDS film [Douglas co-produced Another Love Story in 1990] was one of the first films to put together the issues of AIDS and lesbians, and particularly lesbians of colour.

“She also was among the first in opening a shelter geared specifically to immigrant women who were fleeing abuse [Shirley Samaroo House],” says Dale. “And she has more recently become a fixture in the lobbying efforts to really live up to the promise of diversity in Ontario through her work at OCASI [Ontario Council For Agencies Serving Immigrants].”

Since 1998, Douglas has held the executive director post at OCASI, an umbrella organization for more than 150 immigrant-serving groups in Ontario.

Douglas, who is receiving an award in the social action justice category, says she’s pleased that the YWCA is taking the time to recognize her body of work.

“It was a great surprise, I wasn’t expecting it,” says Douglas from the Eglinton Ave office of OCASI. “I am very grateful for my friends who appreciate the work that I’ve been doing. I think [the YWCA awards are] an important event to highlight the plight of women, particularly women from racialized communities here in Toronto, whether they be heterosexual or lesbian women.”

Douglas knows firsthand what it’s like to be part of a marginalized community. A black lesbian, she emigrated from Grenada in 1973. Hers is a unique perspective and it has compelled her to keep queer, women’s and immigrant concerns front and centre in her work.

“One my priorities at OCASI is to highlight issues of sexual orientation in the immigration system,” says Douglas. “That means that there is an expectation now within the immigrant-serving sector that service agencies need to be welcoming places. And that has entailed lots of training around anti-homophobia and anti-heterosexism.”

Many immigrants are coming to Canada from homophobic and sexist situations, says Douglas, and the system needs to be able to address their concerns earlier in the immigration process. One way to help, she says, is to start counting the number of queers who make it through the immigration system.

“It’s not a statistic that is kept,” says Douglas. “Hopefully, in the near future, Statistics Canada will begin to ask those questions. It will give us a truer picture of who is coming into Canada and whether or not there are issues within the system that are preventing [homosexuals] from doing so, or what the failure rate is.”

Her vision doesn’t stop there. Douglas is also encouraging government agencies to push the envelope of sexual diversity past international borders.

“The Canadian government can do a better job in terms of advertising the fact that persecution because of sexual orientation is grounds for refugee claims in Canada,” says Douglas. “And I think it can be a bit more pro-active in terms of the agencies that it is funding, and the expectation that those agencies be anti-discriminatory and that includes issues of homosexuality.”

Douglas is set to receive her award during a gala fundraiser hosted by CityTV’s Anne Mrocz-kowski at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre.

“It’s one of the most inspiring nights for women in Toronto that I’ve attended,” says Dale. “About 11,000 people gather to honour the women who have been chosen for that particular year and each recipient is given an opportunity to say a few words about what made their success possible.”

Six other women are also being honoured with Women Of Distinction Awards at this ceremony: Josephine Altilia, Sheela Basrur, Michelle Dagnino, Myrna Mather, Adeena Niazi and Alison Youngman.

* The YWCA Women Of Distinction gala will be Thu, May 20 at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre (255 Front St W). Tickets are $175; call (416) 961-8100 ext 344 or go to