Ramona’s work in progress

Ramona’s work in progress
Photo by Dean Casavechia

Mount Saint Vincent University recently celebrated years of fundraising, construction and female accomplishment with the grand opening of its first new building in 40 years. So why is their president and vice-chancellor saying their work is far from finished? The atrium of the Margaret Norrie McCain Centre for Teaching, Learning and Research was jammed with people on May 29 as Mount Saint Vincent University officially opened its newest building.

Mount Saint Vincent officials boast that the $18-million, four-floor structure is the first Canadian university building specifically dedicated to the accomplishments and advancement of women.

The atrium of the McCain Centre, which received $2.5 million from Margaret McCain (the widow of French fry and meat baron, Wallace McCain), contains the photographs and biographies of 18 “inspiring women”. Outside, a Women’s Wall of Honour contains the names of more than 400 women, each put forward by a donor willing to put up $1,200.

The McCain Centre is the first academic building constructed at the Halifax university in 40 years. Yet the project almost crumbled for lack of funding. In fact, its focus as a centre for the advancement of women was suggested, adopted, and pitched to potential contributors only after donations for the building slowed and it was clear a new approach was required.

Female empowerment brought the money rolling in.

The Mount, as the university is commonly called, has always been associated with the advancement and education of women. The Sisters of Charity established the Mount in 1873, and the school’s faculty was composed entirely of nuns until 1951. For a time, the Mount was one of the only institutions of higher education for women in Canada. Today, 70 per cent of its students and faculty are women.

“The (McCain Centre) is a visible showcase of this still important part of the Mount’s mission,” says the school’s president and vice-chancellor, Ramona Lumpkin. “We’ve been co-ed now since the late eighties but we still have a very strong focus on the education of women and the advancement of women.”

Lumpkin took over the president’s post in October 2010. At that time there was a fundraising effort underway to construct a new academic building.

“The campaign was tired, it was old,” she recalls. “We were at a stage where the school had raised a bit of the money but not enough, and we were going to have to give the money back or raise the rest of it.”

Lumpkin hired a consulting firm, which developed the idea of using the new building to honour women. She also had to shrink the original proposal. Costs had ballooned for the planned 76,000 square-foot building, so an analysis was done to determine the core needs.

A new plan for a roughly 50,000 square-foot building was presented to the university’s board in January 2011. Lumpkin also proposed a fundraising campaign called Project TWENTY12. The goal was to raise $12 million in 20 months. It marked the initiative’s biggest challenge.

“I had to go at it pretty hard for those 20 months. I was thinking about it all the time: ‘Who has the money?’ ‘Who wants to honour a woman?’” Lumpkin says before laughing. “I was selling both the building and the idea of honouring women, but almost every donor from that point on really responded to honouring women.”

The building’s lead donor, Margaret McCain, says she put up more than $2.5 million (the university’s largestever donation) without being asked. Impressed by Lumpkin’s “vision”, she rerouted money from her family’s substantial philanthropic fund, which was amassed by her late husband. (“I have to give him the credit because he made it.”)

McCain, a former social worker and past Lieutenant-Governor of New Brunswick, has doled out millions of dollars for projects spanning from women’s health and education to family violence research. “Fifty million dollars went into society after (Wallace) died and there will be double that after I die,” she says during an interview in the building that carries her name.

Clutching a pair of green-framed glasses in her lap, McCain says her mother, Margaret Fawcett Norrie, Nova Scotia’s first woman senator, inspired her interest in women’s issues and early childhood education. (Fawcett Norrie is one of the Centre’s 18 “inspiring women”).

As a nine-year-old, McCain complained to her mother about not receiving a reward at the end of the school year, as many of the other kids received from their parents. “Darling, your education is your reward,” her mother responded. “I never forgot those words,” McCain says. “The Mount has a long tradition of educating women, long before it was the norm. This university understood that in educating a woman you educate a family.”

She added: “How women are educated — how mothers are educated — is the biggest influence on how children will be educated and how they will turn out. We play a hell of a big role and we’ve been undervalued for too long.”

The $12-million fundraising goal was eventually exceeded by $500,000 and construction started in April 2013. (Elizabeth and Fred Fountain’s $750,000 contribution secured naming rights for the building’s atrium. The Mount’s student body also put up $750,000.)

Sitting at a meeting table in her office, a few weeks before the official opening, Lumpkin says the finished building is “beyond my wildest dreams.”

Earlier in the day she walked through the building to check the placement of signs. Some faculty members were moving into their new offices. “It was just glorious. They were like, ‘Thank-you! Thank-you!’ They were buzzing,” she says.

In addition to classrooms and meeting space, the building will house the Dr. Rosemarie Sampson Centre on Aging, the Centre for Women in Business, the Co- Operative Education Centre, as well as academic departments: Women’s Studies, Communication Studies (including Public Relations), Business Administration, and Tourism and Hospitality Management, which had been in a “temporary” annex for more than 30 years. “They’ve been patient,” Lumpkin says smiling.

The building, constructed by rcs, also includes a pedway that helps link the upper and lower areas of the Mount’s notoriously hilly campus. (It’s said the hill helps some students fight the “freshman 15”).

Meredith Ralston, chair of the Mount’s Department of Women’s Studies, says cynics might look at a building dedicated to women and ask: “Why do we need it?”

“I think it’s an important symbol of both how far women have come and also how far we have to go,” she says.

Ralston argues that much of the “overt” discrimination against women has been dealt with. The presence of women has greatly improved in areas spanning from law and medicine to the military. And more and more women are the breadwinners in their homes.

“All of these things were much, much worse 150, 50, and 10 years ago,” Ralston says. “There’s been so much progress. And that also gives me hope that we’ll continue to evolve as a society.”

But true equality still does not exist, meaning women must continue to advance. Ralston points to violence against women (particularly sexualized violence), female poverty, the lack of pay equity, and the shortage of women in the fields of science, tech, engineering, and math.

There’s even work to be done among the bright spots: women might be graduating in large numbers from law schools, but Ralston says fewer women end up securing partner positions, partly because they still carry the majority of household responsibilities. “There is still lots that has to be done,” she says. “It’s not over yet.”

Looking back on the last 50 years of progress, Ralston says she is struck by the courage of the women who first ventured into male-dominated arenas. “You had to be pretty brave to be one of those women in a group of all men,” she says. “You stand out and it can be a hostile environment.”

On the day of the McCain Centre’s opening, Alexa McDonough — a trailblazer in Canadian politics — agrees to an interview, moving into a quiet second-floor meeting room next to the Centre’s new Alexa McDonough Institute for Women, Gender and Social Justice.

McDonough’s connection to the Mount goes back to her youth. Then an avid dancer, she recalls performing a number of times for the nuns. “They would clap and cheer,” she says, noting their particular fondness for Spanish and Hungarian dances.

From 2009 to 2010 McDonough served as the university’s interim president. That stint followed her departure from politics.

In the Nova Scotia legislature, McDonough held what she calls “double minority status”. “I was the only woman and the only New Democrat,” she recalls. “I was an easy target for all that male chauvinism.”

Some of her fellow members hurled taunts from the backbenches: “Don’t you think you should be at home looking after your kids? You’re not leaving them home alone are you?”

The people’s house was clearly not accommodating to women. In fact, McDonough says it lacked a women’s washroom. “I used to go pound on the men’s washroom door and say, ‘OK, you’ve got three minutes.’”

When the legislature officially opened during her first year in the House, the Halifax Herald asked all the politicians’ wives to provide a detailed description of the outfit, handbag, shoes and hat each planned to wear to the ceremony. “I don’t want people to think I’m ridiculing those women. It’s a commentary on the times,” she says.

McDonough says she always looked for “teachable moments” in the chauvinism and sexism she encountered.

On the morning of the Centre’s opening, news broke that Nova Scotia MP and cabinet minister Peter MacKay was stepping away from politics. McDonough spent the morning fielding interviews about the announcement. Coincidently, MacKay was the key figure in one of the better-known episodes of McDonough’s time as federal NDP leader.

During the 2006 federal election, the pair appeared on a Halifax radio talk show. The conversation turned to the battle in MacKay’s riding, with McDonough touting the local NDP candidate. “I think you better stick to your knitting and win your own riding,” MacKay said.

McDonough later called it a “sexist slur.” She dispatched members of her campaign team to get two large knitting needles, the biggest ball of yarn they could find, and a copy of Knitting for Dummies. “I think that was the biggest press conference I ever had in my entire political career, except maybe when I announced I was running and when I stepped down,” she says with a smile.

More recently, McDonough sent the same items — along with best wishes — when McKay’s son was born. “We laughed about that.”

McDonough argues much has changed since her early days in politics. She points to the fact that Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia all have female premiers.

“There’s less sexism all the way around. And then you have young people who don’t even think about the idea that there might be a barrier to their stepping into what is traditionally a male stronghold,” says the grandmother of seven. “My four granddaughters barely know that exists. Now, they’ll run into some of it along the way, but we’ll hopefully do a good job of equipping them to deal with it.”

Riva Spatz, the mother of Southwest Properties CEO Jim Spatz, didn’t have the benefit of living in such a period. Born in Poland, Riva was a teenager when the Nazis invaded during the Second World War. She and her younger sister and younger brother fled into the nearby forest to join a group of partisans. Riva and her sister survived the war (their brother died in a mission to blow up a railway track).

The girls ended up in a displaced persons camp in Munich. There, Riva met and later married Spatz’s father, Simon — also Polish and also a Holocaust survivor. Spatz was 11 months old when his parents arrived in Canada. The family settled in Halifax and within two years bought a grocery store on Morris Street. They later moved into the property business, to great success.

Sitting in a side room on the main floor of the McCain Centre, as guests mingled in the atrium, Spatz recalls life in his “traditional” household. His father’s focus was “completely external”: he looked after the business while Riva took care of the house, the children, and the cooking. Spatz remembers seeing both his parents, in the early days of the family property business, sitting at the kitchen table, sorting out the rental payments. His mother was the business’s early bookkeeper. She was also the “foundation” of the family.

That’s why Spatz (Atlantic Business Magazine’s Atlantic Canada CEO of the Year for 2015) put up $250,000 to create the Riva Spatz Women’s Wall of Honour. (Riva died in 2013). Also unveiled on May 29, the wall is located just outside the McCain Centre and includes space for the names of 700 women. More than 400 names are already printed on the wall, each on a leaf-shaped plaque.

Lumpkin’s adoption of an “honouring women” strategy ensured the McCain Centre and Wall of Honour were built. She says the hope is that they will now inspire current students.

“Women are still not represented in the C-suites proportionally at all. In our elected legislatures they’re still a minority. They’re still a minority on corporate boards. There’s still a long, long way to go,” she says. “In the S&P 1,500, there are more CEOs named John than there are women.”

“So, yeah,” she adds, “there’s still work to be done.”

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