Meet 9 Canadian women changing the game
Meet nine Canadian women who are changing the way we talk about everything from art to technology to how we handle our money.
Melding, combining, dialoguing – these are all words that come up a lot in conversation with contemporary artist Kapwani Kiwanga. She’s a multidisciplinarian, for starters: an award-winning documentary filmmaker turned artist with a scholarly bent. Her personal geography – born in Canada, spent a few years in Scotland, now based in Paris – is certainly varied. And her work, of course, revolves around what the 38-year-old calls “trying to bring different worlds together at a meeting point where they dialogue and become something different.”
An excellent example of this is a project (which is still developing in her mind) based on a proposed bridge linking Africa and Europe: “My question isn’t really about migration, although that comes up; it’s about distinctions between land masses and how those have been seen as the beginning or the end of the world, as starting or end points.” (What will that artwork look like? She says she has no idea yet, but this is how they all start.)
In the years since she studied anthropology at McGill University, Kiwanga has turned that inquiring artist’s eye to subjects as diverse as Tanzanian history (the subject of her 2014 exhibition at the prestigious Jeu de Paume in Paris) and the United Nations’ collection of curios from around the world (a commission for this year’s Armory Show in New York City).
“Every project is different,” says Kiwanga of the installations she creates. “I believe people understand things in different ways – some spatially, others sensually, still others intellectually. I’m just trying to give different intelligences a way to latch onto a specific moment in time.” Kiwanga tries to “transmit [her] excitement about sometimes very geeky things” – depending on the exhibition you see, how she does that varies. It can be video, sculpture or sound – she lets the idea dictate the expression.
And while her work often deals with what she calls “stories and histories that have maybe fallen through the cracks, that are more marginal,” she is hesitant to call herself “an activist” artist. “That would be pompous!” she says, laughing. “There might be a political aspect because there are questions of power dynamics that are inherent, but it’s never meant to be frontal or convert anybody. I’m simply stating my position, and people can take it or leave it.” – Sarah Laing
Marie Saint Pierre, who was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2012, has been going her own way ever since she started her fashion business nearly 30 years ago. Moving to New York, Paris or Milan was not for her. Instead, she remained in Montreal, kept there by ties to family and her love for the city. “It hasn’t been easy because there is no natural path for a designer to follow in Canada,” says the 55-year-old. “But I’ve managed to make my way.”
Known for clothes made with natural fabrics, a simple colour palette and sculptural lines, Saint Pierre prefers to call her collections “timeless” rather than classic. A pair of emerald-green cigarette pants could have walked straight off the set of Mad Men, while a midnight-blue coat falls in an exaggerated loose curve over the hips, at once sensual and a statement. “Women aren’t static,” she says. “We don’t stand there like statues; we move. My brand is extremely personal, but it is informed by the world at large.”
Last November, Saint Pierre, who grew up surrounded by the artist friends of her parents, including Jean-Paul Riopelle, continued to forge her singular path by opening her first U.S. boutique in Miami, where she can tap into an international clientele. The American market is notoriously hard to break into, she says, and she wanted to do so on her own terms in a clean, spare space that she loves.
As for the future, she will continue to expand at her own pace, always with her family, customers and staff in mind. At the same time, she wishes that the industry itself would slow down. “Racing to produce a collection six months in advance of a Fashion Week or producing less-expensive lines to satisfy consumer demand takes its toll,” she says. “We have to think about what our values are and what a brand represents. We need to be smart about producing goods while creating a positive, energetic workplace. And we have to give back to our communities, to the environment and to people in need. That is the most important value of all.” – Lisa Fitterman
Eva Wong believes that big changes are coming to banking. “The whole tech revolution has changed so many industries,” says the co-founder and COO of Toronto-based online lender Borrowell Inc. “It has changed travel, transportation and retail. It hasn’t really hit financial services, but it’s just a matter of time.”
Welcome to the coming age of “fintech,” where lending start-ups, online mortgage providers and portfolio managers called “robo-advisers” are using algorithms, online questionnaires, automated services and apps to provide consumers with quick, low-cost alternatives to the big banks. “In Canada, banks are super-profitable, but they charge a lot of fees,” says Wong, a 39-year-old who studied business and development economics at Queen’s and Harvard. “There is room for a little disruption, to push them for better financial services.”
Borrowell made waves this summer by offering Canadians free, instant online access to their credit score. (It usually costs $23.95 through Equifax.) More than 10,000 people took them up on the offer in the first week. Wong says that when Borrowell first launched its online personal-lending service in 2015 – it offers three- to five-year unsecured loans that people often use to pay off credit cards at a lower interest rate – consumers didn’t believe it when they received their loan quote a split second after hitting “enter.” “We actually went back and added 10 seconds and a spinning wheel before displaying the result,” says Wong of the algorithm-based system. “It was so fast that people didn’t realize we were giving them a real quote.”
But with a variety of Canadian fintech companies like Wealthsimple, Nest Wealth, Mint, Mogo, Grow and the Bank of Montreal’s SmartFolio ramping up all kinds of financial offerings, it might not be long before consumers start expecting many more super-fast – and low-cost – options.
Wong is excited to be working in this new field: “My motivation to do it was a bit of fear of missing out. It didn’t feel like a risk to try something so new. You just have to jump in.” – Christina Reynolds
The name of the organization Melissa Sariffodeen runs is slightly misleading: Yes, it’s called Ladies Learning Code, but the dream goes way beyond that. “Our long-term goal is for all Canadians to learn to code – not just women,” says the 27-year-old. “There are lots of under-represented groups in technology: indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, new immigrants.”
In fact, the ultimate plan for this non-profit is to not exist – to get to a point where the idea that coding is for boys and not girls to be so totally passé that its services aren’t needed. But that particular problem – the way the gendering of technology can exclude women – is where Sariffodeen and her three co-founders are starting. They hold Canada-wide “beginner-friendly computer programming” workshops for women and youth, which can be anything from one day to learn basic HTML to a seven-week course where learners build an entire website or a game.
Participants range in age from six to 70, but the outcome is the same. “It’s about empowerment, exposure and demystifying,” she says. “We’re showing them what’s behind the screen and making it accessible.” Equally important is “normalizing” having women in tech environments, which is why there is one industry mentor for every four learners, and nearly half of these mentors are men who work in the field and volunteer through their companies.
Sariffodeen believes that having corporations on board with this agenda is huge: “We’re starting to see a shift. Organizations recognize the importance of engaging with women in this way, that they need to invest in women.” (She also applauds the federal government’s new “inclusive” innovation agenda.)
Ladies Learning Code is celebrating its fifth anniversary this year (and over 50,000 learners!), so it has plenty of “graduate” success stories to choose from. Sariffodeen mentions one 15-year-old whose week at a March-break camp a few years back sparked a love of technology and who is now planning to study computer science at university – after earning a top score on the Advanced Placement subject exam. She also mentions a restaurant owner who wanted to learn a few skills to manage her business’ online presence and fell so in love with it that she’s now doing development work on the side…for $$$.
Realistically, Sariffodeen knows that most participants won’t go on to code professionally, and that’s more than okay. “What keeps me excited about this is going into workshops and hearing a woman or young girl say ‘This isn’t as hard as I thought!’” – S.L.
Sometimes it can feel like you need a chemistry degree to understand skincare ingredients. Brittny Skylar Robins, the 28-year-old founder of Flawless by Friday, understands. “I would go into my mom’s bathroom and she’d be using a retinol product in the day, which makes you sensitive to the sun,” says Robins. “Then she’d be using vitamin C at night, when it can’t really protect you from free-radical damage. I’d take a Sharpie and draw on her products to tell her when to use them.”
It was a problem reiterated by the customers she encountered while working in the cosmetics industry. “People don’t really know how to use their skincare,” says Robins, whose line aims to take the guesswork out of when to use products and how to combine ingredients.
Take the Flawless by Friday Five-Day System: The clearly marked (Moisture Monday! Tone Tuesday!) sheet masks have a different active ingredient for each day, and the set is designed to work synergistically. The Toronto-based company worked with a Korean lab to develop the masks, which are made of hydro gel, a cooling material that Robins chose for its ability to hold a high concentration of product. “It contours better to your face, and it doesn’t tear as easily [as other types of masks],” she explains.
This month, a new line with gold (“It’s really effective for anti-aging,” she says) and honey (which “soothes and de-puffs”), called Flawless in Fifteen, will launch exclusively at Hudson’s Bay. To really “dummyproof” the skincare system, the company will also launch an a.m./p.m. serum kit labelled with a sun and moon, respectively, so there’s no mistaking when to use them. “The brand isn’t about being flawless like Gigi Hadid,” says Robins. “It’s about your personal version of flawless when you feel your best.” – Victoria Diplacido
In high school in Winnipeg, Lauren Hayward Sierens was drawn to all things scientific. While most girls didn’t become scientists, her teachers told her to dream hard and work harder to break barriers. Eventually, she honed in on a field that combines computer science and physics.
Now, about to get her doctorate from the world-renowned Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ont., she shares her passion for condensed matter with younger students at every opportunity in order to show that it’s possible for them to follow their dreams, no matter their gender.
“To be a woman in a male-dominated field is a unique opportunity to act as a role model,” says the 28-year-old. “I encourage students to push through the difficult times. Being part of a minority [in my field] has led to some challenges – people implying, for example, that I accomplished something because I am a woman – but becoming a physicist has mostly been a wonderful experience.”
Hayward Sierens can spend much of her day in front of a computer writing code to produce models for experiments in superconductivity, in which electricity uses no energy as it passes through matter. Right now, the phenomenon only occurs at extremely low temperatures. “But if you had a superconductor that could conduct electricity at room temperature with no resistance, that would mean having electricity with no energy loss,” she says. “We could use it in power lines or for our computers, cellphones, washers and dryers.”
Already published in the prestigious journal Science, Hayward Sierens was selected in April to meet Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a former teacher and self-described geek who visited the Perimeter Institute to announce federal funding for its fundamental science research. “I explained my research, and he asked insightful questions,” she says. “He knew what we were doing and what a superconductor is.”
Once she becomes “Dr.,” her next step will be to fashion a career that strikes a balance between her two passions: pure research and education. “Basically,” she says, “I want to inspire and encourage the next generation of students – men and women.” – L.F.
Flipping through Kate Beaton’s latest book of comics, Step Aside, Pops, is a bit like flipping through television channels (History! Politics! Current events! Film noir!)…if every channel were uniformly smart, funny and a bit weird in the best way. Beaton has built her reputation as a cartoonist of the unexpected and usually unobserved, drawing strips on subjects as diverse as “famous Alexanders,” Tennyson’s poetry and an imagined invasion of Canada by the Irish Americans. (And that’s just three randomly selected pages from one of her two volumes of collected works.)
When asked, the 33-year-old Nova Scotia native (who moved back to her home province recently after stints in NYC and Toronto) describes her work this way: “Honestly, it’s about whatever I’m thinking about at the moment, which is why it’s all over the place,” she says via email. She’s on deadline for one of the many projects she’s currently juggling, which range from writing sly, subversive books for kids (she has one coming out this fall called King Baby) to maintaining the Web comic that started it all, Hark! A Vagrant, which pulls in half a million views a month.
Since she began posting her cartoons online nine years ago, Beaton has seen her work acclaimed everywhere from The New Yorker to NPR to Rolling Stone, worked with Marvel comics and watched both volumes of her collected works make The New York Times bestseller list. Not bad for someone best known for drawing pictures with funny captions about Canadian history.
“I think I came in at a good time,” says Beaton of getting her start online in 2007. “It’s not the same world now. There is just so much noise on the Internet, so many content-aggregating sites and Facebook links and listicles and scrolling, scrolling, scrolling through endless content and posts. I think it’s harder to get your head above all that static.”
One thing that has changed for the better? “Bookstores have sections for [graphic novels and comics] now, unlike only a few years ago, so things are changing in a palpable way.” – S.L.
Leen Al Zaibak moved to Damascus in 2009, when she was 25, because her Syrian-Canadian parents encouraged their three children to maintain ties to their cultural homeland. But just two years later, Al Zaibak was forced back to Canada as Syria began its rapid implosion.
The civil war in Syria has now been grinding on for five years. Over 250,000 Syrians have been killed. Almost five million refugees have fanned out across the globe, creating one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises. So far, more than 29,000 Syrian refugees have settled in Canada.
Unable to return to Syria, Al Zaibak, now 32, ramped up her work with the non-profit Jusoor (“bridge” in Arabic), which she co-founded. Once the civil war started, the organization of diaspora Syrians decided to focus on aiding Syrian youth through scholarships, mentorship and career-development tools.
“When my parents came to Canada in 1988, so many people helped them and opened their hearts and homes,” she says. “This is my opportunity to pay it forward.” So far, Jusoor has provided more than $20 million in aid to Syrian students, raised from donors and corporate sponsors, including a new scholarship program for Syrian women looking to complete their education at Canadian or American institutions. Wilfrid Laurier became the first Canadian university to sign a formal agreement, offering scholarships for four Syrian women.
Farah Omran, 22, who left her parents behind in Damascus to finish her education in Canada, is one of the students the program has helped. “I’m definitely homesick, but they’ve really provided a sense of family,” says Omran, who will begin a master’s degree in economics at the University of Toronto in September. Jusoor also introduced Omran to other young Syrian women in Canada so they can encourage one another.
Al Zaibak says the students she has worked with have taught her about persistence and hardship. “Despite all of the challenges they’ve had, some have risked their lives for education. These students give me and the rest of the world hope for Syria’s future.”
Al Zaibak also sits on the board (along with her father, Mohammad Al Zaibak) of Lifeline Syria, an organization that fosters private group sponsorship of refugees. “The challenge is to keep the public aware of the need, that they should keep putting in their applications to sponsor refugee families,” she says. “I hope we can see these people less as refugees and more as future Canadians who are here to contribute and become leaders – just like Adrienne Clarkson and Michaëlle Jean, both former Governors General who arrived as refugees. We’re richer as a country for having them.” – Sarah Treleaven
Chippy Nonstop is going to make a change – whether you’re on her team or not. The Toronto-based DJ and rapper is the co-creator of inclusive sound initiative Intersessions, a.k.a. DJ school. Started this year in Vancouver by Chippy and her friends Shy Daughter and Rhi Blossom (who starred in the latest Calvin Klein ad campaign), Intersessions aims to fight inequality and sexism in the music industry by offering DJ seminars to women and LGBTQ individuals.
“We wanted to create a safe space for people to learn about DJing without feeling judged,” says the 24-year-old. Chippy feels the scene is oversaturated with male DJs because men dominate management positions, not because of a lack of female talent. “If I go to a show, people automatically assume I’m someone’s girlfriend; they think I’m a groupie,” she says. “They don’t assume that a woman could be a DJ too.”
Chippy broke into music when she was pursuing a rap career in L.A. and was approached by Diplo’s label Mad Decent. She has lived all over Canada and the United States and has built a strong network of friends in the industry. “There are so many talented people who are being ignored because they don’t conform to a specific niche,” she explains.
Since its Vancouver debut in March, Intersessions has caused a major splash on the DJ scene, running workshops in cities like Toronto, Montreal, NYC and L.A. At a workshop, you’ll learn the basics of DJing and try your hand at CDJing (music files stored on a USB stick), vinyl (old-school records) and Serato (on your laptop). “If we create more space for different types of people to become DJs, maybe it will change the perception of females and the LGBTQ community on a larger scale too.” – Maryjane Peters