Celebrating our Collective Connection

Photo credit: Brock University. Deena Ladd (centre) is pictured with Dr. Simon Black (left) and Dr. Larry Savage (right).

Deena Ladd, founding member and Executive Director of the Toronto Workers’ Action Centre, has received  an honorary doctorate from Brock University, in celebration of her commitment to championing workers’ rights.

For the past 29 years, Deena has organized alongside workers for decent work in sectors and workplaces with low-wage, unstable employment. She has worked to support and develop grassroots training, education and organizing with groups including the Justice for Workers campaign (formerly the Fight for $15 and Fairness), Decent Work and Health Network, and the Migrant Workers’ Alliance for Change. 

Join us in celebrating this achievement by watching or reading Deena’s commencement speech below.

I would like to thank the Senate of Brock University for this incredible honour. It was a wonderful surprise and a lovely recognition for the collective work I have been a part of in fighting against systemic discrimination, and pushing for decent wages and working conditions in this country.

Well, don’t you all look fabulous!  How amazing is it that we can be celebrating in person and be together to recognize this incredible achievement that you all have worked so hard for!

So I first want to say congratulations to you for getting to this point. I know it’s not been easy, especially with the pandemic! My eldest kid started university in 2020 and has spent the first 2 years of their university experience online. It’s not been easy at all.

So amazing work despite the worries, despite the pandemic and despite all the obstacles that you have overcome to get here.

And my bet is that you have probably not gotten to this point alone. There have been parents, guardians, teachers, TAs, classmates, good friends, university admin staff, siblings, family members, did I say really really good friends who have helped you to get to this point.

And look around this room – there are all the workers who have put this room together, cleaned the room, got the chairs out, made the food and drinks, registered you, and all the invisible work that goes behind this event. 

It’s a collective community celebration of you. And I think this is really critical for us all to think about.   

So much of what we are told is that we are all individuals. That it is all on us to make our way, elbow others out, compete against each other, be better than another and show how me, myself and I can outshine everyone else to make the most money, be the most popular, speak the best, be the best and well, who cares about the other – well they must have done something wrong to be where they are. 

I want to challenge this thinking – I mean of course it is important we do what we need to do but I think it’s important to come in with a different framework for how we understand this and how we get to where we are in life. 

I think there is no better example than the pandemic that we have all been through. We have realized that if all of us in our communities cannot take care of our health then we all suffer. 

That if the grocery store worker who bags our groceries has to come to work even though they are sick – impacts us. That if our loved ones are receiving much needed love and care by personal support workers who can only get precarious part-time work with no benefits, no paid sick days with low pay – that is a major problem and has resulted in thousands of seniors dying. That if the migrant workers who are growing strawberries, grapes and peaches in these surrounding fields are dying from COVID on farms because of horrific housing conditions, lack of status and access to healthcare – that is a serious issue; that we are all connected to if not affected by.   

It matters. Our collective connection to each other matters. If we don’t understand this then we are missing a huge opportunity to make the best of these lives that we are given. 

Me standing here with this honorary degree would not have happened without my community – my community of dear and fabulous friends, my deeply committed comrades who I work with everyday who makes sure we have each other’s backs, my family who are very supportive of the organizing that I do – shout out to my dad  – Morarbhai – who is here and my mum – Deviben – watching online from the the UK, my 2 kids – Savi and Kira who keep me honest and grounded all the time and my biggest supporter every day and always – Mary – my life partner.  

My standing here would not have happened without the hundreds of people that I have worked with over the last 30 years that have challenged labour laws, challenged bad bosses, taken risks to speak out and organize against the odds stacked against them.  Black workers, immigrant workers, newcomers, migrants, racialized workers, women of colour who despite everything they are facing at work, in life, in struggle, fundamentally  believe that we need to build a strong movement to fight for justice and fairness.  And when we talk about what this means many of the workers I work with are passionate about doing this organizing for all of us. For all of us even though they don’t know you or your families. Even though they have so little. Think about that.  

So what does this mean for you? Well, it means standing up, being present and being aware of the people around you. It means changing the individualism that surrounds us that says – it’s not my issue, I am fine, I can pay my bills, I am not affected by things like poverty.

It’s not my problem.

It means giving a damn if we have a minimum wage that people can’t survive on, or knowing that it is important that everyone has paid sick days so they don’t have to make the decision about whether to put food on the table or paying the rent this month. It means when someone at work is being discriminated against that you support them and be brave. It means sometimes you will have to take a risk, it will be hard but it will be important to speak out against unfairness.

It means questioning why is it okay that corporate leaders can make billions of profit during a worldwide pandemic but if the average person wants at least a $20 minimum wage that apparently they are greedy, they should just be grateful to have a job and this demand is going to cause the economy to collapse.

It means questioning why did we have the lowest Ontario voter turnout in our history on June 2.

It means caring about the answer and why there is such a gap between the wealthy and the rest of us. 

Collective responsibility matters. It is critical in building a better school, a better workplace, a better family, a community.  

We can’t do this alone and that our connections to each other be only based on our individual desires. How can that possibly build a better world?

Because that is what I am leaving you with today. If we can take that responsibility to build collectively a better workplace, community, world then that my friends is a fantastic legacy. Better than money, assets, stocks, houses. 

If you can leave this world stronger because of your role and collective responsibility in it, then what an amazing way to exit!

That is our challenge – it’s a tough path but I have no doubt that we together can collectively raise everyone up and not leave anyone behind. 

Thank you!

Deena Ladd

June  14, 2022