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Governor General Award-winning student advances women’s rights in Quebec

Photo of: Emilie Nicolas

Emilie Nicolas receives a 2014 Governor General’s Award in Commemoration in the Person’s Case. Photo: MCpl Vincent Carbonneau, Rideau Hall, OSGG.

Emilie Nicolas is aware of issues that leave minorities feeling invisible or small. The linguistics anthropology PhD candidate who strives to make a difference for women’s rights was recently awarded one of the five 2014 Governor General’s Award in Commemoration in the Person’s Case. The awards honour people who have made outstanding contributions to the quality of life for women and girls in Canada and are presented each year during Women’s History Month.

Last year, Nicolas co-founded Quebec Inclusif, which challenged the proposed Quebec Charter of Values – a bill that included the prohibition of wearing religious symbols and limitation of face-covering clothing. Quebec Inclusif fought for the gender equality, especially for Muslim women, by bringing activists from many communities together to gather signatures, organize protests and participate in public consultations.

Nicolas – who is a junior fellow at Massey College – has also received the following awards for her research and achievements: a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council graduate scholarship, the Vanier Scholarship for academic excellence and the Harry Jerome Leadership Award for excellence in African Canadian achievement.

We spoke with Nicolas about her activism work.

Tell me about your work in women’s rights and Quebec Inclusif.

In both my work and volunteering experience, I have been made aware of how gender, race and other social divides impact a person’s ability to grow, speak up and succeed. As a PhD candidate in anthropology, I am also trained to develop an more perceptive eye on how systemic discriminations and inequalities operate in people’s daily life.

When the Quebec Government introduced its ‘Charter of Quebec Values’ last fall, many citizens like myself saw it was a clear assault on gender equality and, in particular, on women’s access to education, employment, government services, as well as freedom of conscience and religion. Yet beyond the actual measures put forward in the bill, I knew the media storm it created and the offensive opinions that were expressed to support the Charter would have an immediate impact on Quebec’s religious minorities – especially Muslim women, who soon became the main object of public debates. I heard from friends being refused a job interview, harassed on the street or defamed in social media. This had to stop.

With a group of fellow activists, we penned open letters and organized a protest in Montreal that gathered around 8,000 people thanks to the endorsement of Muslim, Jewish, Sikh and Christian communities leaders. The number of activists engaged in the debate would keep on growing each week. Together, we decided to found a non-profit organization, Quebec Inclusif, to band together academics, young professionals and citizens of all faiths, federalists and sovereigntists, from the right and the left, all opposed to the ‘Charter.’ The founding manifesto of the organization gathered close to 30,000 signatures online.

Over the course of the year, we participated actively in the public consultation and in the traditional and social media, and fostered important relationships with other civil society organizations. Nobody expected the movement’s ability to unite people who are in open political disagreement on many other matters. I believe the surprisingly broad collaboration played a key role in shaping the debate.

What have you been working on lately? Is anything else coming up?

I have just joined the board of the Couchiching Institute of Public Affairs, one of Canada’s oldest non-partisan forums on public affairs. I am also completing an Action Canada Fellowship, a one-year leadership program on public policy built around conferences across the country. Finally, I co-chair the Diversity Committee at Massey College, which has been working towards protecting and supporting inclusiveness in its community. But most importantly, I am working on my PhD!

How does this award impact your U of T experience?

I have received many words of congratulations from colleagues and mentors at the Department of Anthropology and at Massey College. If anything, the award highlights the support I have been given from people at this University, who help me grow as an academic and as a human being. The award also stresses the importance of connecting research with the greater social good. I will do all I can to keep living by this principle wherever life takes me.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I received the award not as a flattering laurel but as a responsibility. The responsibility to keep fighting for women’s rights and human rights, and to inspire others to do the same.