Toronto’s annual International Women’s Day march last Saturday gathered almost 11,000 people despite the cold.
The march began at King’s College on the University of Toronto campus, travelled north to and then along Bloor Street West, and then down Yonge Street to Ryerson University near Dundas Avenue.
Started in 1978, the Toronto march occurs annually. It usually averages 3,000 to 6,000 participants, according to Andrea Calver, one of the organizers of International Women’s Day Toronto.
Calver credits the event’s popularity to “the times that we’re in.”
“We all know there’s a huge amount of anxiety out there. There’s so much racism, anti-Muslim sentiment, anti-black racism, and it’s not just south of the border. It’s here in Canada too,” said Calver.
“I think most people are appalled by that. And want to stand squarely against it, and are looking for opportunities to come out and say that that is not their vision of Canada, that’s not how they feel.”
Monique Arsenault, who works as a production assistant in Toronto, was one of the newcomers at the event. Saturday was the first time she had been to a march, but she came prepared with a sign that said, “Strong Women Scare Weak Men”.
It’s about, “minimizing the stereotypes that women face on a daily basis, that most men are completely unaware of, like the stigma of being labelled a bitch when you’re simply being assertive or labelled a whore because of a small flirtation,” said Arsenault.
“Then there is the wage gap, violence against women, and spreading the word on pro-equality organizations like HeForShe that need more attention. It was also great to experience being a part of a movement with a group of people who want nothing more but equality for so many others.”
Arsenault’s reasons for attending may have been echoed amongst other attendees, but the bright signs and placards showcased a whole array of diverse issues.
There were messages ranging from funny feminist pop culture references, to demanding access to childcare and fair wages, to calling out Islamophobia and white supremacy, to #blacklivesmatter and #translivesmatter.
Some signs were masterpieces of arts and crafts like the six papier maché Trump effigies, or cutesy flowers glued to signs saying “Love One Another”. Others were Sharpie scrawled on Bristol board, like the one that read, “Where’s my girldick hat?”, meant as a trans-inclusive criticism to the pink pussy hats and “Pussy Power” signs a number of people were sporting.
Along with specific issues, there was a variety of organizations as well, both international and local.
Calver said this is what makes the march a unique event. While most marches and protests are about a specific issue, at International Women’s Day, people get to bring their own.
“The power is that we’re all doing it together,” said Calver, “I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t get what this is all about,’ and that’s because it’s actually about everything.”
The procession followed a banner that read “IWD 2017 – Unity is Power – Stop the Hate,” while chanting protest classics like Who’s Streets? Our Streets!, and shouts of “No hate! No Fear! Refugees are welcome here!”
Prior to the march, a rally took place at an auditorium at the University of Toronto where speakers addressed a full house. People filled whatever space they could find, sitting in the aisle, standing at the back, and spilling out into the overcrowded hallway.
Along with speeches from advocates and activists, there were also spoken word poetry and traditional Indian dancing. American Sign Language interpreters were on hand to translate.
Viktoria Belle, co-founder of the Sexual Assault Action Coalition, gave a strongly worded speech on sexual assault and violence against women.
“There is a war against our bodies and our choices. A war waged by patriarchal oppression, injustice, inequity, racism and hate,” said Belle at the rally.
“The first time I was sexually assaulted I didn’t even know that I was sexually assaulted,” said Belle, “But the last time I did. And I fought back. Because I could. Because I was supported. Because my community stood behind me. Because I am loved. Because my sisters lifted me up.”
Catherine Brooks, an Anishinaabe elder, spoke of stereotypes and challenges facing indigenous women in Canada, as well as the importance of respecting others.
When she explained how the RCMP would imprison indigenous people for their spiritual practices, the crowd yelled, “Shame!”
“We’ve got to change this world and the only way we can change it is by changing people’s minds and actions,” Brooks told the crowd.
Others spoke on topics such as anti-black racism and Islamophobia.
Each year the International Women’s Day Toronto committee works out a theme that coincides with the speakers they invite.
“This year’s theme in a real nutshell was No to Hate, no to Islamophobia, no to sexual assault and yes to good jobs,” said Calver. “Islamophobia and sexual assault are issues that have been huge over the past year in our city, and the struggle for good jobs remains one of the biggest gaps for women to be able to provide for themselves and their families.”
Calver said she is proud and grateful that Toronto is one of the few cities in North America that still has an International Women’s Day March every year, and that people continue to come out by the thousands.
“We still have a lot more marches and rallies ahead of us,” said Arsenault.
Though Arsenault said there is work to be done, she’s inspired by the community.
“It’s clearly an issue that many people in the city are concerned about and are willing to take the time to come together for each other. It’s encouraging to see.”