By Neil Armstrong
Ryerson University has honoured six Black Canadian women for their extraordinary achievements at the institution and in the community at its 11th annual Viola Desmond Awards ceremony. Each received an award bearing the name of a prominent Black Canadian leader.
Among the recipients are Dr. Karline Wilson-Mitchell, director, School of Midwifery who received the Dr. Dorothy Wills Ryerson Faculty Award; and Christina (T.NA) Smith, a 4th year student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts, Professional Communications, who received the Dr. Sylvia D. Hamilton Ryerson Student Award and a $500 bursary.
The others were: Brianna Glanville-Forrest, Vaughan Secondary School, recipient of the Viola Desmond High School Award; Stephanie Croisiere, Master’s Degree in Public Policy and Administration copped Dr. Beverly Mascoll Ryerson Alumni Award; and Amanda (Amiga) Taylor Wheatle, student health & well-being navigator, Faculty of Communication and Design received the Violet King Henry Ryerson Staff Award.
Anny-Aysel Ineza, a 4th year student pursuing financial mathematics, received
the Viola Desmond Bursary which offers financial support for a Ryerson student who exemplifies success and involvement at the university and in the local community.
“It gives me the motivation to continue working hard to advocate for my students and doing the research that has to do with equity being infused into our education,” says Dr. Wilson-Mitchell about being the recipient of the award named after Dr. Wills who was born in Dominica and emigrated from there to Canada eventually becoming the first black female dean in the country.
Having practiced midwifery since 1992, Dr. Wilson-Mitchell said she fell in love with maternal newborn healthcare at the first birth she saw as a nursing student.
“I really was inspired by the nurse who was doing the rotation and supervising me who happened to have been trained as a midwife in Scotland. She was a Jamaican immigrant, British-trained in Scotland and she seemed to be able to second-guess everybody. She was intuitive, she knew her stuff; she was very intelligent.”
That nurse was Maisie Terolong who worked at East General Hospital (now Michael Garron Hospital) and has long retired.
Wilson-Mitchell realized that there was a way of advocating for women’s health and for all the concerns she had about social justice and culturally sensitive care through midwifery.
At the time being young and a change agent she did not want a sedentary job; she wanted one in which she was active and very athletic. Now, thirty years later, she laughingly asks herself what was she thinking.
Wilson-Mitchell was born in Linstead, St. Catherine in Jamaica to a mother who was a nurse and a father who was an accountant. Her late father’s family was from Claremont, St. Ann and her mother’s family from St. Mary.
Her mother, who came to Canada with a 3-year-and-6-month-old Karline, is now retired and lives in St. Mary.
The director has been on the Midwifery Education Program faculty at Ryerson University since 2008 and supports and mentors in the Chang School’s International Midwifery Preregistration Program.
|Photo credit: Clifton Li Dr. Karline Wilson-Mitchell, recipient of the Dr. Dorothy Wills Ryerson Faculty Award, and Dr. Annette Bailey at the 11th annual Viola Desmond Awards ceremony at Ryerson University|
She previously taught in the Nursing Program at Florida International University, Miami and preceptored for the Midwifery Program at the University of Miami. She has practiced in Florida, North Carolina, Georgia and Ontario both in large hospital-run midwifery practices and private clinic -based practices.
Wilson-Mitchell did her masters at the University of Miami which was a culture shock for her going to a new country on the heels of Liberty City riots in Miami in 1980.
She said she realized how fortunate she was to have been brought up in Canada and to have lived in a place where education and healthcare are considered a right, not a luxury or a privilege.
She partnered with the University of the West Indies and the Victoria Jubilee Hospital where Dr. Rudolph Stevens, the chief of obstetrics, had set up an innovative adolescents-centred clinic where antenatal and postpartum care was in a separate room.
He made connections and networks with nutrition companies so that they would have a nutritional drink because these young women were waiting for hours for an appointment.
They would have individualized instruction from nutritionists, from those who were trying to teach parenting skills and various things to try to meet their needs as new mothers.
“And contrary to popular belief and some of the stigma that they go through and just the mess and stereotype we found that one-fifth of the girls that we studied as we were doing the research at both Spanish Town Hospital and at Jubilee, one-fifth of them had been the victim of forced sexual contact, violence and child abuse.”
She said they are not choosing to become mothers and there is a lack of knowledge and ignorance about physiology and how one gets pregnant. Many of them are homeless and couchsurfing.
“These are the vicarious homeless who are often used as shuttles of labour in their homes from relatives and who have many times no power, no say.”
The director said before the latest policy to allow them to return to their schools they were expelled from school and were not able to go back.
The research project ended in 2014 and they published the results around that time and then she went on to do some other work with respect to maternity care among midwives in Jamaica.
“That really was a tipping point for me, hearing the stories that they were essentially the brunt of some of the job dissatisfaction and some of the cultural norms.
Dr. Joanna Bennett of the UWI School of Nursing was her co-investigator in the study of the psychosocial distress with the adolescents.
Wilson-Mitchell was successful in applying for an International Research and Development grant for them to do the study which was focused on building capacity in Jamaica.
Any equipment that she procured for the research she left in Jamaica for the UWI – this was her gift to the university.
“This is a pilot and it can’t be generalized but it does support the risk and resilience studies done in 2008 and 2005 in Jamaica on 10-15 year olds and another one was done on 13-18 year olds.”
Wilson-Mitchell said part of the reason why she is doing a lot of research now in new immigrant settlement and integration, and refugees, is because she felt the lack of a sense of belonging.
She said she did not integrate well and in the 1960s they could go for weeks and would be the only black family that they would see.
“Many of my class pictures you see I’m the only black child and the things that that does to your self-image, your self-esteem, your hopes, your dreams. I’m very fortunate that my parents really, as many Jamaican parents do, push education. They were both college-educated, they wanted me to be educated and my brother and sister and that really drives you. But in terms of them understanding some of the barriers we had at school and the Jamaican culture was very much part of our family – children must be seen and not heard – you wouldn’t dear explain to your mother that you had a terrible day at school that people beat you up or call you chocolate face, you just didn’t talk about those things.”
She focuses on the capacity of her students to be resilient, a sense of belonging and a sense of importance and value “and letting them know what a great idea it was for them to decide to be part of this profession and to diversify our midwifery workforce.”
She said the number of people graduating from the midwifery program is increasing every year.
To overcome challenges of integration, she had a few people in her life who sat down to have downtime with her and encourage her and be support systems for her.
Wilson-Mitchell tells her students that they need to have five good friends in their lives, something she gleaned from the research of people who survived a fire in New York.
The five should be: “one friend who is the coach that keeps them going, cheerleading; one that is authoritative saying remember to do this, remember to do that, wouldn’t give them any slack; the other person loves them unconditionally, they can do no wrong, always encouraging, always loving; another person would take them to the movies or bring them an ice cream so you have different friends for different functions in your life but you need at least five of them to help strengthen you and give you that resilience and feel connection and when you’re ready to go out the deep end they rescue you.”
She had some really good friends during her midwifery training who share the same faith and she prayed a lot believing in forgiveness and in “what we see here is not the full picture.” Because so much grace was extended to her she was able to extend it to other people and that still works.
“My students I find that if I listen to them I learn a lot from them and I really believe in an intellectual partnership. In fact, we’ve published on that fact that the model and framework we like to use is that we learn with, from and about out students. I learn from them and hopefully they learn a lot from me, particularly since these are millennial students and it’s a different generation. Thirty years language changes and I have to keep current with the issues that are concerning.”
This is why she understood that equitable care is much more effective and much more respectful than equal care “because equal care doesn't necessarily give you what you need; it doesn’t even the playing field.”
Wilson-Mitchell listened to her students and has launched a mentorship program and she hopes to decrease the attrition rate and improve the retention rate giving more satisfaction and quality experiences.
At their request she has launched a Midwife of Colour History Project that is student-driven and will be launched in the summer.
She wants to see more midwives of colour in Canada noting that it is a great profession and one of the few that after students finish their degree they can immediately get launched into a career.
|Photo credit: Clifton Li Dr. Sylvia D. Hamilton and Christina (T.NA) Smith, recipient of the Dr. Sylvia D. Hamilton Ryerson Student Award, at the 11th annual Viola Desmond Awards ceremony at Ryerson University|
Smith, 21, said being at the ceremony around so many women who had accomplished so much was really humbling for her.
A classical vocalist, she says she is looking to use her experience in professional communications to further her career in classical music by branding and managing herself.
She says there are many opportunities to perform in the Black community where people are looking for persons who defy stereotypes but in mainstream classical music there is still a lot of uncertainty when there is a black woman singing.
“You don’t fit a certain stereotype, you don’t fit what they expect black women to do in music and so I find that I have to prove myself a little bit more in mainstream classical music.”
Smith says Jessye Norman, the renowned American opera singer and recitalist who was recently honoured in Toronto, is one of her idols and one of the few black women that have made it in the classical music field.
Smith noted that it is a similar situation in Canada and she hopes to be one of the country’s foremost classical vocalists.
She said Dr. Sylvia Hamilton was researching Canadian operatic contralto Portia White and her story that was about seventy years ago.
“I want to be the face of black women that are doing these things and doing the same things as Portia White and aren’t getting that recognition.”
Smith, who is the president of the Caribbean Students’ Association, said she joined it in her second year in 2016 because she “was looking for home away from home.”
She said she was fortunate to have lived in Jamaica for two years which helped to develop her identity as a Caribbean Canadian and what she wanted was to find a community that really honoured that heritage.
Smith completed grades 5 and 6 at St. Andrews Preparatory and while there competed in the Jamaica Cultural Development Commission competition and won the first place, classical soloist, for the parish final.
“It was actually at Andrews that I kind of realized through one of my musical teachers, Andrea White, that my voice was more suited to classical music,” says Smith.
A stronger believer in the saying that ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ she says her excellence is not her own but an accumulation of excellence in her community – her teachers, family, and the networks that support her.
“I am excellent because they radiate excellence,” says Smith who is a graduate of Wexford Collegiate School for the Arts in Scarborough.
The annual Viola Desmond Award Ceremony showcases talent from students, staff, faculty, alumna, and the larger community, while raising awareness of the diverse stories and contributions of past and present women of African descent in the building of Canada.
The event is named for Viola Desmond in recognition of her efforts in achieving human rights and desegregating public spaces for Black people in Canada.
Her arrest occurred in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia on November 8, 1946—nine years before the incident in the United States involving civil rights activist Rosa Parks.
[A shorter version of this story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, March 14-20, 2019.]