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Glenda Simms in 1991.The Canadian Press

When Glenda Simms first stepped into an Anglican church, she was dazzled by the shiny pews at the front. She sat down in one and her great-grandmother immediately scolded her: “No baby, you can’t sit in it. This is for the white people.” It was the 1940s in the Jamaican parish of Saint Elizabeth and the girl’s education in racial injustice was already underway.

Her family had been enslaved on a plantation in the mountains and even after generations of legal emancipation, she saw metaphorical enslavement of women and girls all around her: in the church, in school, at home. She saw boys in her neighbourhood free to play outside, to enjoy nature, while girls the same age were already expected to stay in the house and take care of domestic chores – “to become slaves to everyone, including parents, husbands, whoever,” she said in an interview last year with Afroglobal Television.

And so for two weeks she claimed a seat in those forbidden pews and that act of childhood defiance charted the course of the rest of her life. “I believe the shiny pews is the process of going where you want to be,” she said. “I must always be in the shiny pew.”

Dr. Simms, a Black feminist advocate and educator in both Canada and Jamaica, died in Ottawa on Dec. 31 from complications owing to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). She was 82.

She was often the only Black woman in the Canadian delegation when she travelled to international meetings on women’s rights. As the first Black president of the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women, she emphasized the importance of intersectionality – the idea that overlapping identities must be considered to truly understand discrimination and how to overcome it – decades before it had entered mainstream discourse.

“She was a strong believer that feminism should include women of colour, Aboriginal women, poor women, women who have been abused – everybody,” said Merle Walters, Dr. Simms’s speechwriter for many years and a close friend.

For Adaoma Patterson, hearing Dr. Simms say at an event in 1991 that even domestic workers such as her mother could be included in conversations about feminism was so paradigm-shifting that she held onto Dr. Simms’s speaking notes for three decades. At the event, hosted by the Afro-Caribbean Association of Manitoba in Winnipeg, a teenaged Ms. Patterson was in awe watching her – a strong, Black woman – cast her spell on the room, but also make some of the community leaders, who were men, uncomfortable with her brutal honesty.

Ms. Patterson, now the president of the Jamaican Canadian Association, says a whole generation of Black activists took inspiration from Dr. Simms, who often said in her speeches to young people, “I expect one of you to be prime minister one day.”

“She had a legacy of community, of organizing on a bigger scale,” Ms. Patterson said. “She opened doors for many of us indirectly and directly.”

Glenda Simms was born Jan. 25, 1939 – the eldest of nine children – and grew up in Stanmore, a rural community in the mountains of Saint Elizabeth parish in Jamaica. She attended teachers college in Jamaica and left her family in 1966 to immigrate to Canada, first settling in Northern Alberta in Fort Chipewyan to work as a teacher.

The children she taught, many of whom had never seen a Black woman before, wouldn’t stop playing with her hair so Dr. Simms soon cut it all off – a look she maintained for the rest of her life. She was moved by how well the Indigenous women she met in her time in Alberta treated her – teaching her how to dress for the winter, what shoes to wear. Her time in that community was a major inspiration for her advocacy for Indigenous women in the decades that followed.

After earning her master’s degree at the University of Alberta, her PhD in educational psychology at the University of Lethbridge and teaching for a spell, Dr. Simms settled in Ottawa for the second chapter of her career, in women’s activism.

While helping prepare for Canada’s attendance at the 1985 UN conference on the status of women in Nairobi, Dr. Simms pointed out that all those heading there from Canada were white. She insisted her country could not send a delegation that didn’t reflect Canada’s population and convinced organizers to let her attend, too.

At that meeting, Dr. Simms pushed for the inclusion of NGOs in talks – pointing out that what government representatives were reporting didn’t align with what working-class women were experiencing.

“She showed boldness,” remembers Jean Augustine, Canada’s first Black female member of Parliament, who worked alongside Dr. Simms in the Congress of Black Women. “What Glenda was trying to do was [to say] the women on the ground who are on the front lines know better than the people who are in bureaucracies.”

Dr. Simms had always thought of herself as Jamaican but on that trip to Nairobi, when the plane began its descent and she saw people who looked like her walking alongside animals on the red soil, she suddenly felt a new and profound connection to her African ancestry. The officer at immigration who checked passports waved her fellow white Canadian delegates through but when he saw Dr. Simms, he said, “Welcome home, my sister, welcome home.” Returning to Canada, she felt a renewed urgency to advocate for all Black women.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, many audiences weren’t used to hearing what Dr. Simms had to say, or particularly receptive to it. She quickly earned a reputation for calling out powerful figures, including in 1987, when Barbara McDougall, the federal minister responsible for the status of women, sent a letter to women’s organizations listing “visible minority and immigrant women” as an “issue” to be addressed.

“I want to get on record in saying that we are not an issue. We are people,” Dr. Simms told The Globe and Mail at the time. “The issue is not that we are minorities. The issue is that this is a racist society in Canada.”

In 1990, then prime minister Brian Mulroney appointed her to head the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

In that role, she challenged the way women’s issues had always been framed on Parliament Hill, says Ewart Walters, a long-time friend of Dr. Simms. “When she came, she made feminism much more inclusive than just white Canadian women,” he said.

Inclusion wasn’t just about policy for Dr. Simms, she made sure the council appointed Indigenous and racialized women, and she emphasized how crucial it was to have male staff in her office. “Communication with men is crucial to their change of attitudes toward women’s concerns,” she said.

After Dr. Simms’s tenure leading the advisory council came to an end, she moved back to Jamaica in 1996 to be close to her mother. Dr. Simms had three adult children of her own and became a grandmother.

Back in her home country, she headed Jamaica’s Bureau of Women’s Affairs and worked closely with friend Portia Simpson-Miller, who later became prime minister. Dr. Simms had a hand in several pieces of legislation that removed systemic barriers for women and girls in the country, earning her the country’s Order of Distinction in 2014.

Even though her work as a women’s advocate exposed her to much anguish and adversity, she often found humour in the middle of it all, once famously saying, “Feminism is when you can differentiate between yourself and a doormat.”

At a conference on women and the law in 1991, Dr. Simms railed against the poor educational offerings for Black and Indigenous women in Canada’s corrections system. Women who went through them, she explained, often ended up in dead-end jobs such as telephone solicitation.

And then, she quipped drily, “I can think of other forms of solicitation that offer much more in the way of economic rewards.”

Dr. Simms had moved back to Canada in 2019 and lived with her daughter and a grandson. She leaves her children, Michelle, Emil and Shaun, along with eight grandchildren.