Jane’s Walk: The Past and Present of Toronto Women’s Activism and Engagement

When WiTOpoli was offered the opportunity to lead a Jane’s Walk, we jumped at it. For those of you who’ve never heard of Jane’s Walks, we’ll borrow from their site:

Jane’s Walk celebrates the ideas and legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs by getting people out exploring their neighbourhoods and meeting their neighbours. Free walking tours held on the first weekend of May each year are led by locals who want to create a space for residents to talk about what matters to them in the places they live and work. Since its inception in Toronto in 2007, Jane’s Walk has expanded rapidly. In May of 2013, more than 600 walks were held in over 100 cities in 22 countries worldwide.

May 5, 2013 was a warm, sunny Spring day and we were very excited to see over forty people attend our first ever Jane’s Walk. For those of you who were unable to attend, here’s a rundown of the highlights with information about some of the people, places and organizations we talked about on the tour: including a link to the Jane’s Walk page for our walk (for as long as it’s active) and our route map.

Toronto Police Services HQ

We started at walk at Toronto Police Services HQ where Jessica told us about the history and impact of SlutWalk and the women who started it.

We started our inaugural Jane’s Walk at Toronto Police Services HQ where Jessica told us about the history and impact of SlutWalk and the women who started it.

We began our walk at Toronto Police Services HQ, the destination of the first SlutWalk, a protest led by Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis in reaction to comments made by TPS Constable Michael Sanguinetti at a January 24, 2011 safety briefing at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. Const. Sanguinetti suggested that in order to avoid being victimized, “women should avoid dressing like sluts.” Const. Sanguinetti’s comments, which many believe were honestly intended to be helpful, revealed a gross misunderstanding of the pathology of sexual assault and the problems associated with a crime response that stems from a root belief that a woman who is assaulted is somehow responsible for the crime committed against her. 

The SlutWalk website puts it perfectly:

“As the city’s major protective service, the Toronto Police have perpetuated the myth and stereotype of ‘the slut’, and in doing so have failed us. With sexual assault already a significantly under-reported crime, survivors have now been given even less of a reason to go to the Police, for fear that they could be blamed. Being assaulted isn’t about what you wear; it’s not even about sex; but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it’s okay to blame the victim.”

The walk, which took place on April 3, 2011, attracted over 3,000 participants. SlutWalks have occurred since all over the world, including in the United States, Australia, India, London and Jerusalem.

We took a moment to remember one of Toronto’s great sex worker advocates and former Osgoode Hall Law School student, Wendy Babcock. For a time before entering law school, Wendy was a sex worker and activist for both the rights and safety of sex workers in Toronto. She contributed to a number of initiatives, including the Bad Date Coalition, Regent Park Community Health Centre’s Safer Stroll Outreach Project and  Sex Workers Women’s Drop In, the Health Bus Sex Worker Stop and Wen-Do safety training for sex workers and was on the advisory group to the TPS Special Victims Unit. She participated in documentaries, wrote on sex worker issues and testified at the Bedford trial. In her short life, she went from being homeless to respected activist to pursuing a law degree at one of Canada’s most reputable and respected law schools.

Toronto Police Services HQ

Det. Suzanne Kernohan talks about being a woman police officer and the progress her unit has made in supporting sexual assault survivors.

We also had the privilege of hearing from Detective Suzanne Kernohan, Sexual Assault Coordinator of the TPS Sex Crimes Unit, on the progress that the Toronto police have made in the meantime. She told us about the implementation of the final four of sixty recommendations of the City Auditor report on sexual assault investigations, Sexual Assault Awareness Month and a current project that TPS recently launched in collaboration with Seneca College students (“Report/Support”). She also gave us a window into how much things have changed for women officers from the time she first became a police officer to today, and the hard work she has put into improving the support for survivors of sexual assault. TPS is fortunate enough to be supported by a number of Toronto support and advocacy organizations who participate in its Sexual Assault Advisory Committee.

From there, we made quick stops at the Native Child & Family Services of Toronto, the Ministry of the Attorney General, the Human Rights Tribunal and the Mature Women’s Health Centre. The latter is run out of Victoria General Hospital and is geared to older women’s needs, including sexual health, which is unique as older women tend to be treated as non-sexual beings by most health providers. They offer medical and counselling services to women dealing with hysterectomies, menopause, and osteoporosis, and provide research and resources about controversial topics like hormone therapy.


As early as the 1870s, YWCA Toronto has been a resource for women and girls, and an agitator for women’s safety, equity and dignity. While its inception was motivated by a desire to keep young women away from “immoral” activities like drinking, gambling, or going to the movies while finding financial independence, the YWCA has consistently been  an organization with strong values of inclusion, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism. Their service delivery is built on an understanding of intersectionality.

Since the 1870s, the YWCA has developed programs to support women exiting the prison system, settlement services for women immigrating to Toronto, skills training programs, affordable housing, emergency shelters, parenting, mental health, domestic violence, counselling, interest-free loans and many more.

YWCA Elm Centre

We hear from Steph about the Elm Centre and the amazing ways it’s supporting women in Toronto.

The YWCA has also been a strong advocate for women’s rights. In 1965, they began advocating for birth control and sex education programs, complemented by taking an officially pro-choice stance on the abortion debate in 1971. The ‘70s were a key period for the gay rights movement, and YWCA Toronto was on the frontlines as an advocate for lesbian rights beginning in 1973. Beginning in 1998, the YWCA has offered public support for the rights of trans people as well as being a voice in the successful bid to legalize same-sex marriage in Canada in 2005. They began working in support of gun control in 1997 – particularly long guns, which are regularly used in incidents of domestic violence.

YWCA Toronto has partnered with Wigwamen Incorporated, St. Michael’s Hospital, and the Jean Tweed Centre on their Elm Centre, which we stopped at on the walk. It is both the headquarters of YWCA Toronto and an affordable housing project, with 300 units, and is the largest one Toronto has seen constructed in at least a decade. The Elm Centre’s philosophy is a combination of affordable and supportive housing designed with an understanding of the many issues and oppressions that intersect with poverty and precarious housing. 

The Elm Centre is also home to Oasis Centre des Femmes, which is an interdisciplinary centre dedicated to Francophone women 16 and older, in the GTA. Oasis provides support and assistance to women affected by violence in all its forms, including sexual assault and domestic violence. Whether through housing support, counselling, job search or entrepreneurship, Oasis’ programs and services help empower women to gain their independence. 

On our way to the next stop, we passed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, whose Chief Commissioner is Barbara Hall, Toronto’s second female mayor, a community activist and well-respected leader.

Toronto City Hall

Toronto City Hall

We stopped to talk about Toronto’s first and second female mayors: June Rowlands and Barbara Hall.

From Nathan Phillips Square, you can see Old City Hall, where Toronto’s first female city councillor, Constance E. Hamilton, worked from 1920-21. There, we profiled Toronto’s first female mayor, June Rowlands. June was also Toronto’s first female budget chief, and first female TTC commission board member. Armed with some helpful information from June’s children, we heard about a woman who worked hard, who was extremely intelligent and never worried about being a woman in a “man’s world.” Before her political career, she was involved with the Women Electors Group, a non-partisan group of council observers, who produced and circulated very well-regarded reports on council activity and decisions. While June did not consider herself to be a feminist, she is certainly admired by women who do.What allowed June to forge ahead where other women didn’t? According to her daughter, she’s very strong-willed, determined, and highly intelligent, and always followed her own path regardless of what others thought.Toronto’s second female mayor, as mentioned before, was Barbara Hall. Barbara was the last mayor of the unamalgamated City of Toronto, a lawyer, and is now Chief Commissioner of the OHRC. In her pre-politics career, she worked with rural black families in Nova Scotia, created youth programs and started one of Toronto’s first alternative schools.During her time in office, Barbara consulted Jane Jacobs on urban planning decisions, one of the most successful being the “Two Kings” projects: King and Parliament and King west of Spadina, which in the 1990s were known for old empty warehouses. A 2012 study by the Altus Group estimated that 38,000 jobs and more than $7 billion in economic activity have been generated by the Two Kings. The re-use of existing buildings and new development projects increased total taxable assessments by about $400 million between 1998 and 2002 alone. What about Two Kings residents?  62% bike to work, walk or take transit. And 42% don’t even own cars. The best part? Changing zoning by-laws cost City Hall nothing.

Osgoode Hall

On our way to Osgoode Hall, we stopped at the Law Society of Upper Canada, Ontario’s lawyer and paralegal regulatory body and the organization that controls who enters the professions most often used to fight battles in equality. The Law Society is a strong promoter of women and recently approved a new law school at Lakehead University to promote Aboriginal law, issues and lawyers.

Originally opened in 1889 as Osgoode Hall Law School, one of Canada’s oldest, and now the home of the Ontario Court of Appeal, Osgoode Hall is the place where some of the most important cases for women have been argued and won.

Jane Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto (Municipality) Commissioners of Police

One of the most famous was that of Jane Doe. In 1986, Jane Doe was raped at knifepoint by a stranger who broke into her apartment from her balcony while she was sleeping. Little did she know that this was not an isolated incident, as four other women in her neighbourhood had reported very similar attacks in the seven months prior to Jane’s. The police did not dedicate a lot of resources to these assaults and did not immediately realize they were related. Once they did realize the connection, they chose not to warn other women who matched the characteristics of the other women who had been attacked.

Jane Doe brought a lawsuit against the Board of Commissioners for the Metropolitan Toronto Police flowing from the way the police handled the case. At the time, most legal commentators would have said that you could not sue the police for doing a bad job. Jane Doe, with the help of some creative lawyers, brought the action on three grounds: one, the police were negligent in failing to warn her; two, her right to equality was violated because the investigation was conducted on the basis of sexist stereotypes about women and rape myths stemming therefrom; three, her right to security of the person was violated because in deliberately withholding valuable information from her about the rapes, the police denied her the opportunity to take steps to protect herself.

Jane Doe was successful on all three claims after twelve years of litigation. She didn’t win a large settlement, but did receive formal apologies from Toronto City Council and the Toronto Police Services Board. The most concrete evidence that the City was paying attention to this case was the 1999 City Auditor Report on the investigation of sexual assault complaints. In total, the Auditor made over 60 recommendations. It’s taken some time, but all 60 of these recommendations have now been implemented.

Bedford v. Canada

Osgoode Hall

The Ontario Court of Appeal is where Terri Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott took on Canada’s prostitution laws last Spring – and won.

When three women, Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, took on the Criminal Code of Canada, they showed us that sex workers can be some of the most powerful women you’ll ever meet. As many people know, sex work, or prostitution, is not illegal in Canada. What is illegal, is everything else that comes with it, including: public communication for the purposes of prostitution, operating a “bawdy house” or living on the avails of prostitution. These laws have been challenged before, with little success. What was always lacking was a true appreciation of how sex workers are actually affected by sex work. The three argued that these laws, which purport to protect women, actually put them in harm’s way by depriving them of opportunities to take steps to protect themselves (sound familiar?). Preventing women from communicating with potential clients prevents them from screening them. Preventing women from using any place they have control over ( i.e. a “bawdy house”) prevents them from having a safe place to work – no security cameras, intercoms, locks, panic buttons, baseball bats. Preventing women from paying others from their earnings prevents them from hiring body guards. All of this means that women must work in secret and give up opportunities to seek help. In a very detailed decision, the Court of Appeal agreed to strike down the bawdy house provision. The Court also “read in” to the living on the avails provision a requirement that the circumstances be exploitative; in other words, body guards are fine, but pimps are not. The Court of Appeal did uphold the communication provision, though. The Attorney General of Canada has appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada and it is scheduled to be heard on June 13, 2013. The hearing will be webcasted.

Toronto Court House

Up the street from Osgoode hall is the Toronto Court House, which is one of the buildings comprising the Superior Court of Justice, and is where the Family Court sits. Here we talked about Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella. When she was appointed to the Ontario Family Court, she was Canada’s first female Jewish judge and the country’s youngest judge ever. She was also Canada’s first pregnant judge. On the Supreme Court, she has been an ardent supporter of women’s rights and is most famous for her contributions to the law on equality.

Equal Pay Coalition

Equal Pay Coalition

Leah tells us about that time when Frances Lankin and the Equal Pay Coalition sold sandwiches to women for $0.70 and men for $1.00 to highlight gender pay inequality.

The Equal Pay Coalition, located at 400 University Avenue, is the organization Frances Lankin was supporting when she infamously sold sandwiches to men for $1.00 and women for $0.70 in order to highlight systemic pay inequality. Frances Lankin is the former president and CEO of United Way Toronto, and a former Ontario MPP and cabinet minister. She currently co-chairs a government commission review of social assistance in Ontario. Frances was also one of the first women correctional officers to work at the Don Jail, an all-male institution.Frances’ brilliant stunt was several years ago – and not much has changed. In 2010, Canadian women made $0.68 cents for every $1.00 men made (Statistics Canada).  That means women need to work an extra 15 years to make the same as men. The gap is greatest among people with less than a high school education, where women only make 52% of what men make and lowest among people with some post-secondary education (73%). 70% of part-time workers are women. The stats get more dismal when you add on layers of intersectionality: race, religion, sexuality, gender identity and expression.The wage gap is even more harsh when you consider gender-based pricing. Ever wonder why it costs three times as much to dry clean a woman’s shirt than a man’s or to cut a woman’s hair? Scarborough MPP Lorenzo Berardinatti’s 2005 private member’s bill against gender-based pricing did: after his marriage (to current city councillor Michelle Berardinetti) made him aware of the steep disparities in price for the goods and services many consider important to project a professional appearance, and have a professional career, he proposed a bill that would give consumers the right to take cases of purely gender-based price differences to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, with fines of $2,000 imposed for the first offence and $5,000 for a subsequent offence.  The bill passed second reading and was referred to the Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs at the Ontario Legislature, but has never been called for examination there, and has not moved forward in the eight years since.

Art Gallery of Ontario, Mary Ann Shadd and Heritage Plaques

The AGO holds art from some of Canada’s pioneer female artists, including Emily Carr. For the art enthusiasts, the AGO offers private guided tours centred on women in art. While taking a minute to rest in the shade, we discussed Timeraiser, an annual auction where art lovers can bid hours of volunteer time instead of money for works of art – and which is one of the newer sources of eager volunteers for a multitude of women’s organizations in Toronto.

From the AGO to our next stop at Dundas and Spadina, there are a number of heritage plaques. We discussed the importance of these plaques and HerStories Cafe, which holds monthly lectures around the city on women’s roles in Toronto history, and their May talk on the history of Toronto’s women in commemorative plaques.

George Brown is known for being one of Toronto’s preeminent newspapermen, but fewer people know about Mary Ann Shadd. There are a number of heritage plaques dedicated to Shadd in Toronto. Shadd was a free black woman who came up from the United States following the passage of some particularly egregious legislation. After arriving in Toronto, she started the Provincial Freeman, an anti-slavery newspaper which advocated equality, integration and self-education for black people, and known for its excellent writing. Not only was Shadd the first woman newspaper publisher in North America, she was exceptionally articulate and literate considering the levels of education of women, particularly black women, in the 1850s. Shadd is also responsible for the founding of racially integrated schools. After her husband died, she moved back to the US and became one of North America’s first female lawyers and continued her activism.

Emma Goldman’s Apartment

Emma Goldman has been called the most dangerous woman in America.

We stopped at Emma’s original apartment in Toronto, on busy Spadina Avenue, just north of Dundas. Emma was an anarchist known for her political activism, writing, and incendiary speeches. She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, and was a writer and renowned lecturer on anarchist philosophy, women’s rights, and social issues, attracting crowds of thousands. She was imprisoned several times for “inciting to riot” and illegally distributing information about birth control. In 1906, Goldman founded the anarchist journal Mother Earth and is the arguable founder of anarcha-feminism, which challenges patriarchy as a hierarchy to be resisted alongside state power and class divisions. In 1897, she wrote:

“I demand the independence of woman, her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases. I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood.”

Emma was also an outspoken supporter of equality for gay men and lesbians, which was a belief almost unheard of in her day. 

Former Labour Lyceum

The Bright Pearl Seafood Restaurant  is the location of the former Labour Lyceum. It is rumoured to be haunted and once housed the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. On April 14, 1937, Emma Goldman gave a talk here called “The Youth in Revolt” on the role of youth in politics. Here we discussed how young women are impacting politics today, from the Toronto Youth Cabinet to Gashanti Unity and Rathika Sitsabaiesan, Canada’s first Tamil MP, who was elected at age 29.

The Labour Lyceum was the centre of labour activity for Jewish garment workers for over four decades and served as a cultural centre for various Jewish societies and fraternal organizations. It hosted a range of activities from lectures and rallies to dances, plays, and concerts.

Toronto Women’s Bookstore

Toronto's Women's Bookstore

Did you know that this Kensington hangout used to be the first stand-alone home of the TWB? We miss it too 😥

Now home to quintessential Kensington Market hangout The Last Temptation, this was the first proper, stand-alone home of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore.  Founded by Patti Kirk and Marie Prins as a shelf in The Women’s Place on Dupont Street, the bookstore settled into Kensington for a handful of years, where it provided space for literary and non-fiction discussions of women’s stories, women’s ideas, and women’s conversation. It later moved up to its last home at Spadina and Harbord, where it was  neighbour to the Morgentaler Clinic, and mistakenly firebombed in 1983 – in one of the many pro-life attacks the clinic has endured over the years.Here we talked about CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), a new organization that is carrying on TWB’s work of supporting and amplifying women’s voices in print. CWILA raises public awareness about issues of gender, race, and sexuality in Canadian literary culture by collecting data on Canadian authors and publishers, keeping track of book reviews by gender, and establishing a Poet-In-Residence position for a woman poet – all in less than a year!  Looking ahead, they will be conducting an analysis of systemic inequities in reviewing practices on the basis of race and sexuality.

Take Back the Block

Our own Steph Guthrie came along to tell us about the Take Back the Block parties last fall. Over the summer, there was a steady increase in the number of tweets about public sexual assaults in Toronto – links to police reports and news stories, plus women venting their fears and frustrations about these assaults. Some of those assaults happened right around the outskirts of Kensington, one at College and Spadina. The annual march against sexual assault, Take Back the Night, was something many of us said we looked forward to, as it would give us all a sense that we had a constructive place to channel our anger and hurt. But we were also vocally wishing there was something happening in the specific neighbourhoods these assaults were taking place (they were clustered in a handful of specific areas, including this Kensington, Christie Pits, and Ryerson).Steph mused in a tweet “I wonder if block parties in the neighbourhoods affected would work. Like Take Back the Night after-parties.” A single tweet morphed into an idea for a thing that simply must happen. The idea resonated with women (and men), many of whom stepped forward to help, including a leader for each of the two parties we were planning. Neither of these women had taken on leadership roles in an activist context before and both were a tad apprehensive, but were also energized by the challenge. And both of them rose to it beautifully. We held two parties: one at the Pitman Hall Quad at Ryerson, and one in Kensington’s Bellevue Square Park with the support of councillors Vaughan, Wong-Tam and Layton, MP Olivia Chow, and nearby taco purveyor Seven Lives.

While the parties were about staying safe, we placed the emphasis on safety being a community responsibility rather than the responsibility of individual women. The parties’ philosophy explicitly drew on Jane Jacobs’ theory of “eyes on the street”: the idea that a well-used public space is more likely to be safe than a deserted one. If we make active use of our public spaces and keep our eyes on them, especially at night when we feel safe to do so (for example, sitting out on our porches at night or in a park with a group of friends), it will be more challenging for people to inflict violence on others.

Kensington Cornerstone

After our 4km journey into Toronto Women’s History, we were delighted to be fed FREE COFFEE, thanks to David and the excellent folks at the Kensington Cornerstone, where we had an opportunity to sit down face to face, chat about what we had learned, and get to know each other. We want to give a big thank you to the folks at Kensington Cornerstone for giving us a room to ourselves – and lots of cold water too!

Of course, this was only our first walk!  Due to the nature of a Jane’s Walk (it has to be walkable!) and the sheer amount of amazing women’s history – and women’s advocacy – all over Toronto, our 4km journey barely scratched the surface.

The only solution: next year!

We’re already looking forward to leading a walk in another area of Toronto next time out, and highlighting a different set of amazing contributions to and by Toronto women.  If you know an amazing person or story that should be told to everyone, please let us know, and see you on the sidewalks!

Jessica Spence (@jmspence), Leah Bobet (@leahbobet) and Steph Guthrie (@amirightfolks). All photography in this post © Philippe McNally, 2013 and many thanks to him for the photos!

1 thought on “Jane’s Walk: The Past and Present of Toronto Women’s Activism and Engagement

  1. Pingback: Dining & Entertainment | Berkshire Conference on the History of Women

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