YWCA Hamilton is pleased to announce the winners of the 44th annual Women of Distinction Awards, which were held Thursday March 5, 2020 at the Hamilton Convention Centre by Carmen’s.
The Women of Distinction Awards celebrate women who empower other women, who are leaders in their respective fields, who work to make the Hamilton community a more equitable place in which to live. The awards also salute outstanding workplaces whose policies and practices promote women’s leadership and equal advancement opportunities. Because wage discrimination is real and limits choices for current and future generations of women. It creates barriers for securing child care and limits the potential for putting food on the table.
YWCA Hamilton also named Selbina Mwendwa as the 2020 Honourary Woman of Distinction for her self-empowerment as well as her determination to empower women across the globe. Selbina launched her business, Canadian African Gifts & Décor, after participating in a YWCA Hamilton entrepreneurial program, BizSmarts, back in 2013. Today her business supports more than 300 women in Kenya who hand-make fair trade soapstone crafts that she imports and sells in more than 70 stores across Canada.
The gala event hosted approximately 1,000 guests who celebrated the accomplishments of 76 women and businesses who are making tremendous contributions to the Hamilton community. The Women of Distinction Awards are held annually in alignment with International Women’s Day, which takes place on Sunday March 8, 2020. This year’s event raised $227,500+ to power critical services for women and children in Hamilton.
ARTS | CULTURE | DESIGN: Diana Weir
Diana Weir has been with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra since 2012 and became its Executive Director in 2017. During her time with the organization, the HPO enjoyed five straight years of budget surpluses, invested in an unprecedented volume of community outreach activities, and increased revenues by 30 per cent. Diana graduated from McMaster University with an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Music and Cultural Studies and has worked for several nonprofit arts organizations, including the Canadian Opera Company and the Hamilton Philharmonic Youth Orchestra. In March 2019, Diana received the Canada Council’s prestigious John Hobday Award for Arts Management. In December 2019, Diana was appointed to the newly created role of Vice President, Strategic Partnerships at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra.
BUSINESS LEADERSHIP | ENTREPRENEURSHIP: Emily O’Brien
Emily O’Brien is the founder of Comeback Snacks and star of the Digital Canaries series CRIMINALLY-ACCLAIMED™. An entrepreneur, social media influencer, and ex-convict, Emily founded Comeback Snacks in 2018, a boutique popcorn company inspired by the recipes used by inmates of the women’s prison where Emily served a brief term.
Emily’s mission at Comeback Snacks is to provide high quality, healthy, and tasty snacks for people to enjoy while also providing inspiration and training for ex-convicts looking to start fresh. She has advocated for prison reform and has sat with officials from city halls across Ontario to Parliament Hill in Ottawa. Emily holds an Honours Bachelor’s Degree in International Development from the University of Guelph, and has volunteered for organizations such as AIESEC and Habitat for Humanity. She has been featured in the Hamilton Spectator, on CHCH TV, and CBC Radio and TV.
COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP: Monique Lavallee
Monique Lavallee is a passionate advocate for Indigenous peoples and their right to self-determination. She believes that Indigenous people should have access to culturally relevant safe services in Hamilton. Through her leadership as the Executive Director of Niwasa Kendaaswin Teg, the organization has developed a cultural curriculum that guides their work; launched an Anishinaabemowin language app and created a land-based learning program rooted in Indigenous knowledge and skills. Monique works tirelessly to create opportunities for culture and language acquisition and revitalization in the community. She serves as President for the Coalition of Hamilton Indigenous Leadership and as the First Speaker for the Hamilton Urban Indigenous Strategy. Monique contributes to committees in the areas of equity, inclusion, and education.
EDUCATION | MENTORSHIP: Alfredine (Linda) Plourde
Alfredine (Linda) Plourde is a proud French Acadian Canadian. In 2007 she founded Protecting Canadian Children and has voluntarily devoted endless hours advocating for children exposed to physical, sexual and psychological abuse. Linda is a profound example of what it means to be a servant of humanity and a true model of what one person can achieve through selfless dedication to the welfare of all people. Linda’s work with Protecting Canadian Children has attracted support in Australia, England, Germany and the USA with her efforts supporting advocates for change in these countries with the same issues. In 2016, Alfredine received the Sovereign’s Medal for Volunteers. In 2014, she received the World Citizenship Award and the same year also received the Calgary White Hat Award. Hamilton is being recognized through Linda Plourde’s committed efforts. Her belief is that other loyal and courageous people will follow in protecting the children of Canada, our future.
HEALTH: Dr. Audrey Hicks
Dr. Audrey Hicks began her career at McMaster University in 1988, as a Professor in the Department of Kinesiology. While establishing her research expertise and excellence in the areas of neuromuscular physiology, Audrey focused particular attention on aging and exercise rehabilitation in neurological populations. Audrey is the founding director of the MacWheelers and MSFitt Exercise Rehabilitation Programs for individuals with spinal cord injury (SCI) and multiple sclerosis (MS), respectively. She has supervised numerous graduate students, authored over 100 peer reviewed papers and has been an invited speaker at many local, national and international meetings. Audrey is truly committed to making a difference in the world by translating the knowledge gained through research to help others achieve optimal health and wellness.
OUTSTANDING SMALL BUSINESS: Blueberry Therapy
Kristen Parise is the owner and inspiration behind Blueberry Therapy, a multidisciplinary clinic providing Pelvic Health and Pediatric therapy services. Over the course of two years, Blueberry Therapy has experienced a tenfold increase in client traffic because of the leadership of Kristen and her amazing staff of women. Kristen is an educator and leader and has been an Assistant Clinical Professor at McMaster University for over 10 years. In this role she teaches, mentors and supervises students. She also provides educational seminars on pelvic floor dysfunction within the community to seniors, postnatal women, and men’s support groups. Kristen has donated her time and services to a number of community initiatives including the Dundas Terry Fox run and physiotherapy services to underserviced women through Birthmark Doulas.
SCIENCE | TECHNOLOGY | TRADES: Dr. Heather Sheardown
Dr. Heather Sheardown is a Professor of Chemical Engineering at McMaster University. She is a highly accomplished researcher, engineer, teacher, mentor and entrepreneur. She has an esteemed international reputation for her research and holds a prestigious Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in Ophthalmic Biomaterials. As one of the first female engineering faculty at McMaster, Heather has been a trailblazer for women, fighting for equality and the promotion of women in science and technology. Leading by example, she has been an inspiration to the hundreds of students she has mentored and dozens more she has supervised. Heather genuinely cares about those she works with and has helped the next generation of innovators reach their goals and be successful in their careers.
YOUNG TRAILBLAZER: Chyler Sewell
Chyler Sewell, 17, is an Anishinaabekwe youth from Garden River First Nation. She is the eldest of five kids, and strives to consistently be someone that they can look up to.
As an Ambassador of Hope for We Matter, member of the Youth Action Council for the SPACE Youth Centre, co-president of a school club called Niiwin, published writer and a full time student, Chyler can get very busy. Amidst all of this, she recognizes the importance of self-care, and does her best to prioritize her own mental health in order to be a role model within her community. Chyler has a deep desire for a safe community built on hope, love and respect.
YOUNG WOMAN OF DISTINCTION: Kayonne Christy
Kayonne Christy is a third-generation Jamaican-Canadian woman who is fiercely committed to social justice. Prior to beginning her masters of sociology at the University of British Columbia, Kayonne co-founded the McMaster Womanists, the Black Aspiring Physicians of McMaster, and the Black Outreach Leadership Directive. During her time at McMaster, she was a vocal anti-carding activist, the convener of the Race, Racialization & Racism working group of McMaster’s President’s Advisory Committee on Building an Inclusive Community, a member of the Afro-Caribbean Canadian Association of Hamilton, and a board member of the Hamilton Urban Core Community Health Centre. She is a two-time John C. Holland Award winner, and currently holds a Canada Graduate Scholarship (Master’s) from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Presently, Kayonne is a research trainee with UBC’s Women’s Health Research Cluster, a member of the Canadian Jamaican Medical Assistance Society, and a mentor with Uof T’s Research Assistance Support Initiative, and UBC’s Sociology Mentorship program. Kayonne is passionate about using her research as a tool for social change.
LIFETIME ACHIEVEMENT: Lena Sutton
Lena Sutton is a feminist trailblazer and labour leader who has been advocating for fair hiring, pay equity, women’s leadership, and protection of Steelworkers widow’s pensions. For almost 50 years, she has transformed male-dominated labour organizations, raised thousands of dollars for local food banks, and helped thousands of local low-income people file their taxes and get out to vote. She educates and encourages the next generation of women to take leadership roles, still volunteers more than 30 hours a week as well as working part-time as an office cleaner. When her mother once wondered how she went wrong by raising such a union-activist, NDP-supporting daughter Lena replied, “What`s wrong with my brothers that they aren’t?”