International Women’s Day: Immigration stories throughout Canada

Julia Hornstein
Published: March 8, 2023

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a day that celebrates the achievements of women around the world.

Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has a page dedicated to covering inspiring stories from immigrants across Canada. Many of the stories are about immigrant women who have worked to enrich Canadian communities and make a real difference in Canadians’ lives.

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Dr. Michelle Barton-Forbes

Dr. Michelle Barton Forbes is a Jamaican-born pediatric infectious disease specialist. During the COVID-19 pandemic, she initiated multiple studies to learn about risk factors for children and laid the groundwork for more research.

Dr. Barton-Forbes arrived from Jamaica in 2004 along with her three young daughters, all between the ages of 5 and 10. At the time, her husband was not able to join her in Canada, so she was essentially a single parent working full-time at a research fellowship while also completing her master’s degree in clinical epidemiology.

She is now chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the Children’s Hospital at London Health Sciences Centre. While treating children and overseeing their care, Dr. Barton-Forbes is also advancing ground-breaking research and mentoring medical residents as an associate professor at Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry.

Not only did she explore how COVID-19 affected children and the risk factors associated with developing serious complications, but she also explored how the medical community could better meet the demands of the Black population, who seemed disproportionally affected by the pandemic.

“My desire to give those special angels the very best care gives me the energy to work extra hours,” says Dr. Barton-Forbes. “I am always looking for answers to unsolved problems and seeking the best possible outcomes for my little patients.”

Zita Somakoko

Zita Somakoko is from the Central African Republic, where she married her high school sweetheart. After their relationship unravelled and became abusive, she fled to Canada at age 34 and eventually her children were able to join her.

Zita now owns her own human resources consulting company. She is also the founder and first president of the Black-Manitobans Chamber of Commerce and the second woman in Canada to have founded a chamber of commerce. Her company also helps to fund an advocacy and awareness organization that she started called Breaking the Silence on Domestic Violence.

Her advocacy work stems from her own experiences with abuse and the effects the abuse had on her children. Her research on domestic violence in Manitoba showed that a lack of awareness is a big part of the program. Breaking the Silence now uses various communication forms like art exhibitions, conferences, and workshops to generate awareness about domestic violence and to hold both perpetrators and bystanders accountable.

Zita says that she has finally found respite in Canada from the terrors of abuse and the hardships of being a refugee, as she’s found purpose in contributing to her community. “I was a bird flying from one nest to the other until the day I landed here”.

Toos Giesen-Stefiuk

Toos Giesen-Stefiuk and her family moved to Canada from the Netherlands in 1981, settling in Gravelbourg, Saskatchewan. Gravelbourg is a small Prairie town that has grown and flourished for more than a century thanks in part to its diversity and openness.

Toos was part of a group that led the Summer Solstice Festival, which is an important economic driver for the Gravelbourg community. According to the mayor of Gravelbourg, without Toos, the annual event may well have been cancelled.

Over the many years she has been in Canada, Toos and her family have created many jobs and have boosted local tourism in Gravelbourg. Toos currently runs a bed and breakfast called La Maison 315. Her family also owned and operated a construction company, building the Gravelbourg Inn and opened the landmark Café Paris, which has become a gathering place for the community.

In addition to her business endeavours, Toos has been part of town council and actively engaged in the economic and cultural development of her community, by being involved in preserving Gravelbourg’s heritage buildings and organizing an annual international food festival.

Toos story shows that immigration matters especially in smaller communities. “In the past 37 years I’ve been in Canada, my family has always worked to create jobs and give back to Gravelbourg because we felt so fortunate to live here. In Canada, you can really make a difference”.

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