Meseret Haileyesus, Executive Director, Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment

Black Ottawa Scene in conversation with Meseret Haileyesus, Executive Director, Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment

by Godwin Ifedi, Editor

Sunday 9 June 2024

Could you tell me about your childhood? Where were you born? Is there anything about your childhood that stands out for you? Helped form who you are today? Your parents, friends, school?

I was born in the beautiful country of Ethiopia, known for its diverse landscapes, rich cultural heritage, and beautiful traditions. Growing up, I witnessed my parents’ dedication to improving our community. Both were teachers who instilled in me a love for education. My mom, in particular, was a strong role model, embodying resilience, grace, and unconditional love, shaping the person I am today.

Toddler Meseret

From an early age, Ethiopia’s beauty and resilience influenced my worldview. As a child, I was optimistic and passionate, waking up each day with excitement. Growing up in a home filled with books and opportunities for academic discussions, I developed a strong sense of responsibility towards my community and a deep appreciation for education, which greatly impacted my upbringing.

Toddler Mesert, left, with parents and sibling

I started my career as a Midwife, grateful for the opportunity to serve rural communities despite the challenges of inadequate water, electricity, and transportation. I also worked with various international organizations, leading projects including  Ethiopia’s first workplace HIV prevention initiative in 55 factories, and addressing issues like nutrition, reproductive health, women’s economic and health rights, and harm reduction programs in different countries as a humanitarian, even after I moved to Canada. 

Through my journey, I witnessed how injustice and lack of resources affect women at any level. These experiences also inspired me to see the world as a place of opportunity to assist women. All this experience led me to found three organizations.I witnessed the stories of countless barve immigrant women who, like me, faced adversity but refused to be defined by it.  Their resilience became the catalyst for my advocacy; a flame ignited within me to amplify the voices of the unheard and champion the rights of women. I draw strength from the stories of those who paved the way before me and those who walk alongside me. Each triumph is a collective victory, and every challenge is an opportunity to shape me. 

Working on HIV prevention strategy

When did you come to Canada, what made you decide on Canada, Ottawa?

I moved to Canada in 2011 with my family through the Federal Skilled Workers program. We first settled in Edmonton but later moved to Ottawa for better opportunities. I chose Canada for its promising prospects for our future.

What is your educational background?

My background is in health science and midwifery, and I have also studied economics, nursing, public health, and policy. I have worked in various sectors, including social, health, and policy, directly supporting national and international policies and programs. Recently, I have been increasingly involved in innovative financing schemes, digital health, machine learning, and artificial intelligence to address social, economic, and health inequalities.

Can you describe the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment? How was the Centre founded and who are its supporters?

The Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment (CCWE) stands as the foremost organization dedicated to addressing women’s economic justice through policy, research, and financial empowerment initiatives in Canada. Founded with the mission of confronting economic inequality and injustice, the Centre is committed to dismantling structural barriers hindering socio-economic progress. Through collaboration with consumer lawyers, fintech firms, financial institutions, private companies, telecommunications, energy companies, and the federal government, CCWE actively shapes policies and fosters financial inclusion to advance economic security. Supported by banks, Municipal, and Federal government, CCWE has presented various policy recommendations to influential committees, advocating for women’s economic security and legislative changes in areas such as economic recovery, banking regulation, and women entrepreneurship. The organization focuses on generating evidence, data, and legislative changes to empower women living in poverty and prevent employment and economic sabotage. In addition, CCWE produces tools and resources, including mobile apps for social service providers and bank employees, to  raise awareness, facilitate access to justice and financial services. Its awareness policy influencing efforts extend globally, raising consciousness on economic harm in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Israel.

Has the establishment of the centre made any difference to the lives of Canadian women, especially women of colour?

The establishment of the Canadian Centre for Women’s Empowerment (CCWE) has indeed made a significant difference in the lives of racialized women. We launched the first Canadian support group, providing assistance to women struggling with coerced debt and violence-induced mental health issues. Additionally, we introduced a financial empowerment program specifically tailored for visible minority communities. Our research efforts have shed light on the complexities of women of color issues, informing the development of the 10-year National Action Plan on Gender-Based Violence and the National Financial Literacy Strategy 2021-2026 to support women of colour. These initiatives have contributed to creating a more inclusive and equitable society for all women. In 2024, we would be launching new program for newcomers and refugees to support n access to justice, banking and financial empowerment.  However, there is still much work to be done, and we remain committed to leading efforts to address systemic inequalities and empower all Canadian women.

You are also founder of Maternity Today. What is the mission of this organization?

Maternity Today is established to advance maternal and newborn health in the Global South, focusing on improving healthcare access and outcomes for mothers and infants in regions facing significant challenges. Our aim is to implement sustainable solutions and foster partnerships to support the well-being of mothers and newborns to wards UN Sustainable Development Goal. The Canadian Institute for Research on Economic Justice (CIREJ) is dedicated to advancing economic justice in Canada through the comprehensive, inclusive, and aggregated collection of data. Our mission involves generating data-driven insights and leading initiatives to deepen understanding, bridge data gaps, and influence policy development to create a more equitable economic landscape for all Canadians.

Providing Emergency Obstetric Care training for Midwives Tutor in Kenya – 2009

You are also a founding member of the Canadian Institute for Research and Economic Justice. What is the mission of this organization? How have Canadians of African descent benefited from this organization? 

Canadians of African descent will benefit from the Canadian Institute for Research and Economic Justice (CIREJ). It will aim to generate research and racially disaggregated data that accurately represent their experiences, shedding light on economic disparities and systemic barriers they face, including housing, anti-racism, and healthcare. As many organizations struggle to collect race-based data to inform programs, this data will offer crucial insights for policymakers, enabling them to develop targeted interventions that address the specific needs of Black communities. Additionally, CIREJ will advocate for policies promoting economic equity and addressing systemic racism, influencing policy development across different government levels. Lastly, CIREJ will actively engage with communities of African descent, empowering them to advocate for change and shape their economic future. Through these efforts, I firmly believe that CIREJ will play a pivotal role in advancing economic justice and empowering Canadians of African descent to thrive economically through evidence-based approaches.

You are involved in many community-based social advocacy initiatives. What motivates you and how do you find the time to fit it all that into your daily and weekly schedules?

My involvement in community-based social initiatives is deeply motivated by a desire to make a positive impact and contribute to meaningful change in society, particularly for young people. I am driven by a passion for social justice, health equality, technology, and empowerment, and I believe that everyone deserves the opportunity to thrive and live fulfilling lives. As an immigrant, woman, and mother of a teen, I witness the challenges faced by youth and marginalized communities, such as racism and discrimination, on a daily basis. Recognizing the potential for collective action to address these issues fuels my commitment to advocacy work.

In terms of managing my time, I prioritize my involvement in community initiatives by setting clear goals and establishing a balance between my personal and professional responsibilities. I allocate specific time slots in my daily and weekly schedules for advocacy activities, ensuring that I dedicate sufficient time and energy to each initiative. Additionally, I leverage organizational skills, effective time management techniques, and the support of like-minded individuals to maximize productivity and efficiency.

Do you subscribe to the view in some quarters that Canadians of African descent face more barriers than indigenous and other racialized groups? If so, what are these barriers and how do we overcome them?

Indeed, Canadians of African descent face lots of challenges, often influenced by factors like race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. These barriers are deeply entrenched within our society and manifest in various forms. Systemic racism, for instance, permeates our institutions and perpetuates inequalities across multiple domains. Discrimination in employment and education further compounds these challenges, limiting opportunities for advancement and hindering socioeconomic mobility. Additionally, unequal access to essential services such as healthcare and housing exacerbates disparities in health outcomes and living standards. Overrepresentation in the criminal justice system underscores the systemic marginalization faced by these communities, reflecting biases that can lead to disproportionate policing and incarceration rates. Even the limited political representation impedes the ability of Canadians of African descent to advocate effectively for their rights and interests within the political arena.

Absolutely, all these barriers  show the urgent need for comprehensive strategies and practical policies aimed at addressing systemic inequalities and promoting equity for Canadians of African descent. It’s essential to involve active participation from the Black community to ensure that their voices, experiences, and needs are central to the development and implementation of effective solutions.

The Black Lives Movement (BLM) seems to have galvanized Black communities worldwide. Do you view the impact of BLM on Canada’s Black community as a positive one? 

I firmly believe that the impact of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement on Canada’s Black community has been overwhelmingly positive. The movement has been instrumental in raising crucial awareness about the systemic racism, police brutality, and social injustice faced by Black Canadians. By providing a platform for Black voices to be amplified, BLM has empowered community members to advocate for change and mobilize collective action against systemic inequalities. Moreover, BLM has served as a catalyst for change, igniting vital conversations about racial justice and equity in Canadian society. Through dialogue, advocacy, and action, the movement has inspired individuals and communities to work towards a more just and equitable future. Despite encountering challenges and resistance, the BLM movement has undeniably played a pivotal role in advancing social justice and promoting equity for Canada’s Black community.

There are more than 30 Black community groups in the Ottawa region. Do you see them as effective in advocating on behalf of the Black community?

I believe the presence of over 30 Black community groups in the Ottawa region reflects a profound dedication to advocacy and empowerment within the Black community. These organizations serve as vital advocates for the needs and concerns of Black individuals, tackling systemic issues like racism, discrimination, and social inequality. However, the effectiveness of these groups can vary due to factors such as resources, capacity, and community engagement levels. While some excel through grassroots organizing, extensive outreach, and impactful advocacy, others may face obstacles due to limited resources or institutional barriers. Nevertheless, collectively, these Black community groups play a crucial role in fostering a more inclusive and equitable society. Their collaborative efforts drive positive change and promote the rights and well-being of the Black community in Ottawa and beyond.

Two years ago, following the illegal occupation of the city of Ottawa by protesting truckers and their unruly allies, the first and only Black Chief of Police in Ottawa, Peter Sloy resigned. Yet only three of the Black community groups in the city spoke up in protest at his involuntary departure. How would you explain the resounding silence from most of these organizations? 

I would offer several potential explanations for the resounding silence from most Black community groups in Ottawa regarding the resignation of Chief Peter Sloly. It’s important to acknowledge that community organizations operate independently and may have diverse priorities, focuses, and strategies for advocacy. Some groups may have chosen not to comment on Chief Sloly’s resignation due to concerns about potential backlash or political repercussions, while others may have preferred to allocate their resources and energy to other pressing issues affecting the Black community. Additionally, there may have been internal discussions within these organizations about the most effective way to respond to the situation, leading to differing opinions on whether to publicly voice support or dissent. Furthermore, the complexity of the circumstances surrounding Chief Sloly’s resignation, including the broader context of the trucker protests and their impact on public safety and governance, may have influenced the decision-making process for these organizations. The silence from most Black community groups does not necessarily indicate indifference or lack of concern, but rather reflects a nuanced approach to advocacy, and a strategic consideration of the most impactful ways to address systemic issues and advance the interests of the Black community.

Looking at Ottawa’s black community, what do you see as our biggest challenges? Crime, unemployment, school dropouts, other?  How do we overcome them? 

When I look at Ottawa’s Black community, I see systemic racism, socioeconomic disparities, and educational barriers as our most pressing challenges. These issues are deeply interconnected and have been exacerbated by the pandemic, making it even harder for people to access basic necessities like housing, mental health services and food. As someone deeply involved in community building, I’ve witnessed firsthand the discrimination and racial bullying faced by young people in our community. Currently, I’m serving as a member of the governance committee for Ottawa’s Community Self Well-being Plan, and I’m genuinely excited about its potential. This plan, developed by the city, aims to address a wide range of issues, including poverty, unemployment, inadequate housing, mental well-being, gender-based violence, systemic discrimination, racism, and marginalization. By focusing on these areas, we can work towards creating safer and healthier communities for everyone. To overcome these challenges, we need comprehensive solutions that address their root causes. This involves implementing anti-racism policies, creating economic development programs, investing in education and mentorship initiatives, and empowering the community through grassroots advocacy efforts. I’m hopeful that this initiative will prioritize equity, inclusion, and social justice, ultimately leading to a more equitable and prosperous future for all members of the Black community in Ottawa.

In the years since you have been in Canada, have you seen the situation of Blacks as changed for the better: more access to jobs, social inclusion etc.

I have seen some positive changes in the situation of Blacks, but there is still much work to be done. There have been efforts to increase access to jobs and promote social inclusion, but systemic barriers and discrimination persist. While there are more discussions about diversity and inclusion in various sectors, meaningful change takes time and concerted effort. Initiatives such as employment equity programs and diversity training have been implemented in some organizations, which is a step in the right direction. However, disparities in employment, education, healthcare, and other areas continue to exist. It’s essential to continue advocating for systemic changes, addressing racial biases, and fostering environments of true inclusion to ensure that all members of the Black community have equal opportunities to thrive in Canadian society.

Finally, do you have a message for readers of Black Ottawa Scene?

To the readers of Black Ottawa Scene, I want to emphasize the importance of your voices, experiences, and contributions to our community. In the face of challenges and injustices, it’s crucial to remain resilient, united, and empowered. Together, we have the power to enact positive change, promote inclusivity, and shape a brighter future for everyone. Let’s continue to uplift and support one another, especially celebrating the achievements of Black women and young leaders. It’s vital that we advocate for justice and equality, while also providing support and opportunities for Black youth to succeed. By creating platforms for empowerment and amplifying our voices, we can build a more equitable and inclusive society for generations to come. Thank you for your ongoing commitment to making a difference in our community.