Did you know that curly hair could keep you warmer than straight hair? That’s what Marcie Ponte’s mom had heard when she was immigrating to Canada from the Azores with her family back in 1963. So, she had her two young daughters get a perm before embarking for their chilly new home. Marcie laughs when she tells this story but it is with deep affection for her mother and her family’s experience in moving to a new country.
Now the Executive Director of Working Women Community Centre, a thriving Toronto non-profit that provides a range of services to immigrant women, Marcie has come a long way from those anxious and uncertain days. She recalls, “We were four kids in the family and the move from our small village in São Miguel [the largest island in the Azores] to Canada was hard. My father had worked for Mobil Oil on Santa Maria Island and he had an opportunity to come to Canada for a job helping to build the railways out west. I was seven years old and, like the rest of the family, didn’t speak English.”
They settled in Vancouver then Kingston where three more children were born. Tragically, Marcie’s dad suffered a heart attack a few years later and died at the young age of 45. Left alone in a new country with seven children, Marcie’s mom was devastated. “Somehow we survived,” says Marcie. “We lived in a rough part of Kingston where some of our neighbours were members of the Satan’s Choice motorcycle gang. The older siblings worked and we got by on social assistance.”
By the time that Marcie was in high school in the 1970s, her older brother had moved to Toronto with his wife and bought a large home in Leaside, an affluent community in the city. He invited the rest of the family to move in with him so they left Kingston and settled in a big house in a mostly Anglo Saxon neighbourhood. “I didn’t fit in,” says Marcie. “I went to Leaside High School where I was only one of two Portuguese students. During the ‘multicultural’ day at the school we set up a table featuring Portuguese culture. It was the first time I had ever participated in anything like that.” She lasted one year at the school and decided to finish high school by taking evening classes.
Then it was off to Centennial College in Scarborough where she studied community development. She took a class in politics with Mary Sewell, an instructor who encouraged young Marcie to find her passion – she had a desire to help people by empowering them through information, skills, education. Her enthusiasm for this type of work was galvanized when she did a field placement at St. Stephen’s Community House, a social service organization in downtown Toronto. She smiles remembering, “For the first time, I felt this is where I belong.” Through her work at St. Stephen’s Marcie became acquainted with Working Women Community Centre as a Board member when she was 18 years old. In a recent publication, Making the City: Women Who Made a Difference, Marcie describes this formative experience:
I recall going door to door with Heather [McGregor, now the CEO of the YWCA of Toronto] showing residents designs for a seniors’ building for the Chinese community. We were deliverers of information and gatherers of support for the development. We organized the first Kensington Festival. It was exciting because it was one of the first events that brought the community together. I still own the original poster promoting the event.
She was still living at home with her family in Leaside but the beckoning diversity of downtown, her work and her eagerness to start her new life meant she was ready to move out. “My mother was completely against it,” Marcie says. “It was just not something that young 19-year old Portuguese women did.” She had mentioned her predicament to some of her co-workers who just happened to be Catholic nuns. “You’d never know they were nuns, though,” Marcie explains. “They dressed like everyone else and were very socially and politically conscious. The sisters – Sidney, Mary Ellen and Brenda – offered to come to the house and talk to my mother on my behalf. We invited them to dinner – of course my mother was very happy to have nuns over – and when they showed up they brought a priest with them!” By the end of the dinner Marcie’s mother was convinced that her daughter was in good hands. The parting words of the delegation, “She’ll be fine, we’ll take of her,” sealed the deal. Her mother’s acceptance of the next chapter of the young woman’s life was complete when on moving day she gave her daughter a cast iron pan, a bread knife and a spatula. Marcie understood, “That was her way of telling me that she was giving me tools for my new life.”
Next came work with St. Christopher House (now West Neighbourhood House) and one of its projects, Cleaners Action. In Making the City: Women Who Made a Difference, Marcie elaborates:
Our focus was the cleaners in the downtown office towers. We connected the cleaners to unions that could represent them and improve their working conditions. We also worked with women who were represented by unions, but who felt that these unions were not sensitive to their needs. We gave women the tools and skills to advocate for themselves.
Her involvement with this group of immigrant women inspired her to pursue further work along the same lines so she moved on to Women Working With Immigrant Women. This was a coalition of service organizations and Marcie’s job was to coordinate the work of the various groups with the focus on helping immigrant women find jobs that paid a living wage.
Along her professional trajectory Marcie also worked for political campaigns, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Labour Education Centre. Eventually she made her way to Working Women Community Centre (WWCC) where her heart truly belongs. She has been the Executive Director of the organization for 17 years and over this time, the organization has made great strides under her leadership. It has grown from a staff of 12 to 135 and from one downtown location to four locations across the city. WWCC has become a multi-service organization that provides programs in 25 languages and is known for its work in settlement services, English language instruction, tutoring for children and youth and instruction for parents and their preschool children. WWCC is also one of the many agencies that helped in this past year to resettle hundreds of Syrian refugees in Canada.
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The organization has been recognized nationally and internationally and Marcie herself has won a number of awards including the Queen’s Jubilee Award for her work in advancing women’s causes throughout Toronto and the Constance E. Hamilton award for her significant contribution to the equitable treatment of women in Toronto.
She is still enthusiastic about her work though like many other social service agency leaders she is constantly dealing with the financial and fundraising challenges that are always looming. In spite of these ongoing complexities, she looks back at what she has been able to accomplish professionally and personally and feels gratified. The dovetailing of her work with her private life is unmistakable; one could say deliberate. Marcie says, “I met my husband Rob working on a political campaign in the same building that has been home to WWCC for the past 40 years. My daughter Natalie is a child and youth worker and my daughter Angela will be working in public relations, which, in some ways, is a related field.” The support of her family and their involvement in similar work has been important. Recalling her own difficult beginnings in Canada, she is pleased that she has been able to do good work while valuing her culture and immigrant background.
Marcie sees herself retiring in a few years but is always moving forward and looking for further opportunities to reach out to more women who come to this country in much the same way as she and her family did so many years ago.
– Miria Ioannou
Photos courtesy Marcie Ponte
Knew Marcie when she got out of university. First jobs at St Stephen’s for both of us. She was amazing then, amazing now.
Senator Ratna Omidvar, Toronto
Thank you so much for your contribution to society! We need more Marcie Pontes in the world!
Keisa Campbell, United Way Toronto and York region