Uzma Shakir: Building a Just Society for All

By Teenaz Javat

It was January 20, 2009, and on that cold winter night Uzma Shakir was sitting glued to her TV in her mother’s house in Karachi, Pakistan. Her extended family, which had gathered around her, was excited about a black man who was getting ready to occupy the White House.

Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration was unfolding. Shakir’s living room exploded with chants – “Racism is finally dead. Long live equality”. “Now what,” they jeered Shakir, who was on a break from her Atkinson Foundation’s Economic Justice Award, “are you going to fight for in Canada?”

Known for her off-the-cuff remarks tempered with a sense of humour, Shakir, who is a fierce advocate of social justice and equity, assured them that she will have to work all the more tirelessly so that people in her adopted country of Canada do not get lackadaisical about inequality and racial discrimination.

But the free world has elected a black man to the highest office ever. Is there anything left to fight for, they persisted.

“We will have to be even more vigilant, as just because Barack Obama is now the President of the United States does not in any way mean that racism is dead,” she remarks while relating the incident at The 519 Public Servants' Reception to mark International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia at the Toronto LGBT centre earlier this year.

Born in Karachi, Pakistan, Shakir aspired and trained to become a diplomat. With a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations from Sussex University, and a Master's Degree from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (an international training school for career diplomats), she had all the tools to do just that.

However, life had other plans. Marriage to Toronto lawyer Arif Raza brought Shakir to Canada and for almost a decade Shakir turned into a stay-at-home-mum for her two children. It was over the years when she stayed home that she witnessed first-hand just how marginalized and isolated many immigrant women became when they came to Canada. Lack of affordable day care and non-recognition of foreign qualifications were just some of the barriers immigrant women faced in finding work in Canada comm ensurate with their qualifications.

Her own experience at being isolated in society was reinforced the night she received a phone call from an immigrant woman desperate for legal advice from her lawyer husband. It was then she realized how so many newcomers were feeling left out from participating in society. “We have a collective responsibility and obligation to each and every citizen of Toronto, and I suddenly realized that we as immigrants must get involved in creating a society that is inclusive for all. Merely criticizing from the sidelines will not change anything.”

Shakir started her community involvement in Canada as a new immigrant and young mother, serving on the board of directors of the Riverdale Immigrant Women’s Centre. As her kids became more independent – so did Shakir – and soon she took on more challenging roles.

She is credited with being one of the pioneers involved in the creation of the Council of Agencies Servicing South Asians (CASSA). As well, Shakir was successful in fulfilling a mandate to turn the South Asian Legal Clinic of Ontario from a project-based non profit into a permanent Legal Clinic in the province.

Soon Shakir was creating informal partnerships within the different ethno-racial communities that make up the cultural framework of Toronto. “Individuals don’t change societies. For change to be effective we must find a collective platform,” which she did while working for CASSA.

At CASSA, Shakir formed an alternate planning group that comprised of members of the south Asian, Hispanic, Chinese and African communities.

This informal collaboration turned into a powerful advocacy group which, over the years, has been able to influence the city of Toronto’s planning agenda to some extent.

As recently appointed Director of Equity, Diversity, Human Resources at the City of Toronto, Shakir’s mandate is to make the city accessible and equitable for all its diverse citizens.

“I may be sitting in a new office, but the focus of my work is not new. We have to re-imagine a Toronto through the equity lens. I ask myself this question every day – 'What is the equity implication of this policy?' It’s pretty similar to questioning the financial implication of a policy,” she explains.

“Our goal is to make sure Toronto is 100% accessible for all its citizens by 2021. And for that to happen, equity, accessibility and diversity must be embedded into all our corporate initiatives,” she adds.

A firm believer that society is measured by the well-being of its most vulnerable, her commitment to issues of equity, diversity, inclusion and human rights has been recognized in the form of numerous awards, most notably, the J. S. Woodsworth Award in 2010 and the Jane Jacobs Award in 2003.

On being named the Atkinson Foundation’s Economic Justice Fellow in 2007, Shakir, in an interview with the Toronto Star, aptly sums up why she does what she does:

“A stronger, more inclusive Canada is a dream that is worth fighting for. But for it to become a reality, today's immigrants and refugees must be among the architects that help shape the Canada of tomorrow.”