Egale Canada Executive Director Helen Kennedy – Recipient of the 2015 CTF Public Education and Advocacy Award

Helen Kennedy

By Kate Hawkins

As the Executive Director of Egale Canada, a charity that defends the human rights of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans youth, Helen Kennedy is a very busy woman.

Kennedy said that it’s the seemingly small changes her organisation makes in young people’s lives that inspire her to push forward despite her heavy workload.

In mid-May, she explained, Egale hosted a weekend event in Winnipeg called ‘Outshine’ for members of gay-straight alliances to come together to network and celebrate.

“It is the most empowering, fantastic, affirming event that we could even be exposed to. I mean it’s incredible,” she said.

“And to have that space and to be able to provide that space to young people and their allies who, for the first time in their lives, feel okay potentially about who they are… that’s very inspiring. So it’s not always the big knock-out punch, you know, it’s these little stories, when you can have a conversation with someone and just feel their sense of belonging that is really inspiring.”

Founded in 1986, Egale is the only national organisation in Canada that fights for the equality of LGBTQ people. Its programs and projects are extremely diverse, ranging from research on LGBTQ youth homelessness and teen suicide, to hosting awareness campaigns about social inclusion.

“We’re training Olympic athletic ambassadors to go into schools, to talk about their journey… We’re doing another suicide prevention summit next year, we’re doing a big event next week in Toronto and Calgary and other jurisdictions across the country… So it’s a very exciting time to be doing this work,” she said.

Kennedy, who worked with Toronto city councillor Olivia Chow and later was elected as a city councillor in her own right, spent most of her career working at the Ontario legislative assembly before becoming involved with Egale in 2007.

She was attracted to the job because of her passion for equality rights.

“I felt that there was a tremendous need to work in our education system… towards a cultural shift, to try and keep pace with the legislative changes that were occurring in Canada. It was a really good fit for me to take the position,” she said.

“I wanted to address the whole issue of educational systemic change… to have a more accepting environment for LGBTQ people to live in Canada.”

Egale works extensively in partnership with schools, from offering free lesson plans about LGBTQ inclusion and identity, to giving workshops for teachers, principals and guidance counsellors. They also have a crisis counselling centre in Toronto, where LGBTQ youth are referred through their school social workers and counsellors.

“Anything to do with LGBTQ, we try to respond do it,” Kennedy said.

“For example, we did a study of homelessness across the country, LGBTQ homelessness specifically and our statistics showed us that 23 per cent of the youth in Toronto who are homeless identify as LGBTQ.”

According to Kennedy, it’s important to keep in mind equality has still not been achieved in Canada and Egale’s fight is ongoing.

“I hear so many stories and you put the phone down and you shake your head and you say ‘Oh my goodness. How do I help this person?’ And you think there couldn’t be anything any worse and then a week later, you get another call to help someone in an even worse situation,” she said.

“We have very good legalisation in Canada… so there’s a certain sense, amongst not only the LGBTQ population but amongst the Canadian population generally, that it’s a battle that’s been fought. But we know from our work that is not the case,” she said.

Egale is working to expand its work in the school system, where Kennedy said discriminatory behaviour can be addressed on a larger scale. For more information, visit Egale’s site.  

(Kate Hawkins is a journalism student who has worked as a communications officer with the Canadian Teachers’ Federation during the summer of 2015)