Ceta Ramkhalawansingh: City Builder, Activist and Visionary

By Teenaz Javat

Whether it’s preserving community housing in the neighbourhoods of Toronto, retaining affordable city-run daycare spaces, battling the fire department to include women and people of colour in their workforces, or making sure Toronto businesses are equal opportunity employers, Ceta Ramkhalawansingh had something to do with it. She changed the way the city works – forever, and for the better.

A woman ahead of her time, Ramkhalawansingh, whom Toronto Star columnist Royson James calls ‘Ms Diversity’, started dabbling in human rights and racial equality before it was fashionable to do so. When she immigrated to Canada from Trinidad and Tobago in 1967, less than 20% of the population of Toronto was non-white. 44 years later, 47% of Toronto’s population belong to a visible minority. As these statistics have changed, so have the city and the policies that make it work. And Ramkhalawansingh played a large part in making that happen.

A lot of the policy framework around equity, accessibility, and gender and race issues can be traced back to when Ramkhalawansingh was the diversity czar at Toronto City Hall. As Corporate Diversity and Human Rights Manager, she credits the success of her endeavours to far-sighted civic leaders and their willingness to champion the cause of diversity.

The people who live and work in Toronto have changed over the past 40 years, and Ramkhalawansingh was quick to realize that City Hall should reflect the city if it was to remain relevant.

Ramkhalawansingh began work at Toronto City Hall in 1981 to prepare the Employment Utilization Study, which expanded the equal opportunity program for everyone from women and those with disabilities to racial and ethnic minorities and Aboriginal people. This employment equity work force study was the first of its kind in Canada.

After amalgamation (when several other cities became part of Toronto), Ramkhalawansingh served as Interim Manager, Access and Equity prior to her appointment as Manager, Diversity Management and Community Engagement in 2001.

“Our mandate was to keep up with the changes. Today, the very fact that Toronto is proud of its diversity is in itself a reflection of our efforts at City Hall. It did not happen overnight, and the work to preserve this diversity continues today. I could not have accomplished this alone. Our board members took pride in their communities and wanted them to move forward,” she says. “Toronto has come a long way, as now I see many private institutions take pride in a diverse workforce,” adds Ramkhalawansingh.

An activist to the core

By the time Ramkhalawansingh took up her position at City Hall in 1981 she had already spent a career as a part-time teacher and community organizer. She was a researcher and policy analyst at the Toronto Board of Education where she helped frame school policy on multiculturalism, equity, race relations and heritage languages.

Her work at City Hall was an extension of what she was already doing but under a different mandate. Ramkhalawansingh and the team she headed have produced ground-breaking work designing and developing the framework of equity programs around immigration and race relations issues. “I feel now, as I felt then, that it’ s important for us to have a continuous dialogue,” she says. “In a city in which almost half the residents are immigrants, that’s necessary.”

A trail blazer, Ramkhalawansingh challenged the recruitment policy of the powerful Toronto Police Service (TPS). The police force argued that its members need to be tough, tall and hefty to combat crime. By that definition, the policy was excluding Asians and women who were capable and interested in joining the police. She challenged this policy at City Hall, and 30 years later, 20% of the workforce at TPS is non-white.

Student activism

What was it that made this new immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago who had graduated with science and math from high school take up the cause of gender and race equity at a time when there were so few non-Caucasians in Toronto?

Bored with the science curriculum in her first year of university, Ramkhalawansingh switched to social sciences at the University of Toronto’s New College. It was there that she started on her long voyage of student activism that she continues with vigour today.

Even as a student Ramkhalawansingh would never shy away from challenging institutional practices. She was one of the first women of colour on the University of Toronto student council.

“I started attending New College in 1968. At that time the female student body was not allowed entry into Hart House (gathering place for University of Toronto students). Undergraduate content in academic programs did not reference gender issues; our reading lists did not contain anything about the contribution of women in our society. We were challenging policies that had been in place for generations.”

That did not come without a fight. The student body at the University of Toronto was changing as girls were enrolling alongside boys. However, the faculty and courses taught at the university were not. It was within this context that the demand for women’s studies arose.

After much debate both with the student body and faculty, by 1971 one course (FSW 200: Women in the Twentieth Century) on women’s studies was grudgingly offered at the University of Toronto. The syllabus was built around themes of women’s images, health and sexuality, the family, the economy and the sexual revolution.

What started as one course in one department at one university is now a full-fledged program awarding undergraduate and Masters degrees. Soon it will be expanded to offer students the opportunity to pursue a doctorate. It didn’t stop at that. Women’s Studies is now offered in educational institutions across Canada and it is due to the dogged persistence of Ramkhalawansingh and other women like her who made this happen.

Retirement from her position as City Hall’s diversity manager has in no way stopped her in her tracks. In fact, it has unleashed her power to say and do what she thinks a city as diverse and as multicultural as Toronto needs in going forward. “I can now say what I want, as it is my own position. I am no longer speaking on behalf of the government and that makes me incredibly free.”