They were out in force on Woman’s Day, making sure there was a place at the decision making table for the next generation.

By Pepper Parr

BURLINGTON, ON  March 6, 2012 It was an incredible mix of women.  The war horses were there; those women who have been fighting the good fight for decades along with the high school students who approached the event with the awkwardness and shyness that adolescents girls fall back on when they face situations new to them.  Most paused and looked about them,  not exactly sure where they were supposed to go, as they walked into the Halton Room at the Holiday Inn with backpacks hanging from their shoulders.

The event, the annual Women’s Day Breakfast has been sponsored by Paddy Torsney for 16 years. The attendance this year topped at 190 with more than 30% of the crowd there as high school students; there were 18 from M. M. Robinson high school.

Kathy Bardswick, President and CEO of Co-operators Insurance Group, a self-confessed math nerd and 15 year old army recruit, was the guest speaker.

Ann Swarbrick, former MPP in the Bob Rae government and now the executive Director of Habitat for Humanity listens attentively.

Anne Swarbrick was in the audience and had a question of the speaker on what could be done to rebuild the co-op housing programs in Canada.  Swarbrick pointed out that Burlington has 10% of its population living below the poverty line.  Bardswick agreed that co-op housing was not getting the attention it deserved.

Torsney talked of the level of female representation at the various political levels.   She pointed out that 76 of the 308 Members of Parliament are female but that at the Regional level, just four of the 21 are female, while some municipalities don’t have any female representation.

Torsney argues that the public gets better representation when there are woman at the table where the decisions are  made.  I think that it is a bit of a stretch to suggest that just because the person is female the decisions are better.  Gender is very important but there are just as many ill-suited men in this world as there are women.  One would hope that the women’s movement would strive to put their very best forward.

One of those very best is Kathy Bardswick.  She brought a really interesting message which she aimed directly at the high school students in the room.  “How many people like math”  the audience was asked.  Hardly a hand went up.  “How many of you like music´ – and every high school student shot their hand into the air.  Then they were told of a very significant link between mathematics and music.  Bardswick pointed out that minds that tune into music understand structure and tend to be better at problem solving which is basically what mathematics is all about.

“This is your time” said Bardswick Bar.  “You have the tools and you have the ability to make a difference”.

Bardswick went on to explain that women have a natural tendency to be more expansive; that women dialogue more before they make a decision and that with more dialogue the greater the understanding.  And with understanding people can move to meeting both their own needs and the needs of those they are working with. Has Bardswick sat in on a Burlington city council meeting and listened to some of the dialogues?   But I digress.

It is always interesting to watch successful woman speak to students, particularly female students.  There is earnestness; you can almost feel the successful female business person wanting to will these young women into the business world.

One of the students asked Bardswick  how she spent her early years and that brought a pause to the room.  Bardswick explained that she was a bit of a rebel when she was young.   She tended not to fit in all that well.  She did manage to get herself into the army at the age of 15 but was booted out when they learned of her age.

Isabelle Harmer, mother of Sarah Harmer, a popular singer and environmentalist, who was part of the community leading the drive to stop the expansion of an aggregate mine in North Burlington, discussing the guest speaker.

She was accepted at McMaster at the age of 16; thought she wanted to be a doctor but failing biology and chemistry suggested she should look at some other field of endeavour.  She was definitely not going to work in insurance but when a job at an insurance company came along – well there were student loans to be paid – so she worked for an insurance company. “I decided to work for the insurance company until I could get a real job”, she said.  Thirty years later she is still with insurance and today is the President and CEO of The Co-operators Group; an organization with $40 billion in assets under management and a corporate culture that focuses more on serving the community than it does on racking up the profits.

Guest speaker Kathy Bardswick, told more than 60 high school students to be be "absolutely fierce about achieving your goals”

What Bardswick didn’t do was explain in more detail just what a co-operative insurance company is about and how it is significantly different than those in place to earn profits for their shareholders.  In her talk, she mentioned that in her career in insurance she had never been asked or had to do something that was outside her ethical comfort zone. She explained that she believed the quality of one’s life is the most important concern and the chance to use skills and experience to make a difference in the quality of life for everyone is a noble endeavour. “It is not all about making a lot of money”, she added.

Bardswick made on very telling comment when she suggested to the students that they “find your passion, figure out what you really want to do with your lives and then be absolutely fierce about achieving your goals”.

“Your aptitudes are connected” she said.  “Listen to them and listen to your hearts.  There are huge problems to be solved in this world”.

Carole Ward, recipient of Burlington's 2010 Civic Recognition Award has been a community activist for as long as most people can remember.

Bardswick talked about sustainability and used her views on some of the things this world is doing that are not sustainable, to giving her views on the tar sands in western Canada.  “I am somewhat schizophrenic about the tar sands.  We shouldn’t be doing what we are doing to the earth.  We can’t just keep pulling stuff out of the ground – it’s just not sustainable but on the other hand we are so dependent on that oil and at this point in time we don’t have alternatives.

And that for Bardswick was what the breakfast was really all about – harnessing the energy and the enthusiasm of youth to find the alternatives and beginning to solve the multitude of problems we face – one of which for her is the  inclusion of women at the tables where decisions are made.  She is convinced that we will be a better world with more women involved and that the new day is coming.

As for her personal career – she mentioned being in the sunset of her  time as a CEO and looks forward to working with the co-op model at an international level.  “We are beginning to see some acceptance for the idea in China”  – and she wants to do more work on educating people about the co-op movement.

Debra Pickfield runs Thinkspot ! in Burlington, an organization that takes an innovative approach to problem solving.

Few Canadians know that Canada has played a leading role in the development of the cooperative movement..  Much of the philosophical thinking was done at St. Francis Xavier University at Antigonish N.S.  If you want to get a look at an approach that could make this world a better place and remove much of the greed that came close to ruining the world economy in 2008 – the cooperative movement is one you might want to take a look at.  It is an economic solution – not a political one.

Bardswick closed by telling her audience that the United Nations had made 2012 the Year of the Co-op and had established a web site to tell the world what the cooperative movement was all about..  That web site as at: www.canada2012.COOP



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