Diverse women of the North (Originally Published with Amöi Magazine)

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Yellowknife is a well-kept Canadian secret.

Kate Wilson who is the Director of Family Housing for the YWCA in Yellowknife is from Ghana. She is a teacher by profession, trained in Ghana. Wilson did adult education at Aurora College in Yellowknife, as well as taking career development and life skills coaching through the YWCA. She’s been living in the city for 12 years with her husband, who is an electrical engineer, and their four children. Wilson currently finds housing for people who are temporarily homeless.

“It’s a very enjoyable job and very rewarding,” she says. “You’re working with people and with families so I have the opportunity to be with children and their parents and to be in their lives. I have a wonderful staff and we all work with the clients that come here and you see their lives going from A to B to C. It’s good to see the humankind going in a very positive way. There’s a joy in giving, it’s a selfish reason too. When you give, it comes back to you. I really enjoy the work I do here. Working with people from all walks of life. Not many people get the opportunity to do that. It’s a beautiful thing.”
Wilson calls Yellowknife the United Nations of Canada.

“You find everybody from everywhere,” she says. “It used to be that there weren’t too many black people, now you find people from all over.”

Wilson describes Yellowknife as a small town with a small-town way of living.
“The air is so clean, we don’t get smog and all those things,” she says. “It’s actually nice to breathe up here. There’s work here, with all the economic boom. We find quite a few black people coming here. If you want work, you’ll get work. For a black person living here, colour is not really a barrier. When I first came here I worked for the Native Women’s Association. Colour is not a barrier, not as far as my life has been in Yellowknife. From my view, I’m very well accepted.”

Yellowknife is such a close-knit community that when the Ambassador to Ghana came to the city, Wilson was able to entertain the Ambassador in her home.

“I brought her to my home,” she says. “Could you do that in a big city? We all gathered together in my home. That’s the beauty of Yellowknife, it’s easy to access. Theresa Handley with the Status of Women and her husband is the Premier of the North West Territories. Joe had lived in Ghana before…we’ve had a beautiful relationship since then – it’s easy to access. When you go to Toronto and you see all those people hovering around with degrees and they don’t have jobs. They should come up north. Canadians haven’t really taken the time to know Canada’s north. If you want a relaxing, restful life – Yellowknife is where to live.”

Sandy Lee agrees with Wilson. Lee was elected to the 14th Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories in 1999. She was re-elected to the 15th Legislative Assembly in 2003. For both elections, she was one of two women elected and she is the highest-ranking Korean-Canadian elected official in Canada and the world.

“It’s a surprise to me because I never would have imagined I would be in politics growing up in Korea,” says Lee. “I was 14 years old when I left Korea. We came to Yellowknife. Nobody ever talked about politics, but when I got here, I thought of Canada as a land of opportunity, somewhere where I could go to as much schooling as possible. It’s very expensive to go to schooling in Korea. All I wanted to do here is get schooling, I didn’t care about the degree.”

Lee started a business degree in Calgary but eventually graduated in political science from Carleton University in Ottawa with the encouragement of a friend.

“I absolutely fell in love with politics,” she says. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I came from such an underprivileged background, especially studying politics I felt so empowered. I was practicing law away from politics and someone asked me to run a campaign.”

It was right after Nunavut and there were positions coming up. Lee figured if she didn’t get in, she would get back into law. It turned out she beat out four guys.

“When I went door-to-door, I realized all these people were people I grew up with,” Lee says. “Every second door I knew them, or they knew someone I knew or my family. I didn’t have a political profile, but I had a good reputation.”

Lee gives talks to the Korean community and other ethnic minorities in Canada.

“Everyone looks for economic power first,” she says. “People know how to do that. But I think we need to know that we need to be involved in the political process. More minorities getting elected and the composition of our political institutions should reflect our diverse backgrounds.”

Lee notes that there are 160 countries represented in Yellowknife.

“I went to the citizenship swearing-in ceremony last winter and there were 200 people sworn in, and they were from every country you can imagine living in the north,” Lee says. “The diamond industry has brought a lot of new people. We have six or seven families from Mauritius. We have people from Nigeria, Somalia, Uganda, Thailand. When I was growing up 30 years ago, we had Chinese business people here. We have a huge Filipino population here compared to other places. The colour of our city has changed over the years. A lot of diamond producers here are from Australia, South Africa. Hardly any Koreans here. I’m just a Yellowknife girl.”


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