A statement from Professor Airini, USask’s provost and vice-president academic, during Women’s History Month:
Hello everyone. Bonjour.
In the languages of the First Peoples of these lands: tānisi. hãn. ëdƚanet’e? taanishi. aniin.
I am Professor Airini, and I serve as provost and vice-president academic at the University of Saskatchewan. On behalf of our senior leadership team, I would like to acknowledge Women’s History Month, which is commemorated annually in Canada in October.
This month is an important time to celebrate the women and girls from our past, and our present, who are contributing to a better, more inclusive Canada. The 2023 theme for Women’s History Month is Through Her Lens: Celebrating the Diversity of Women. This theme emphasizes the importance of recognizing the achievements and contributions of women from diverse backgrounds. It focuses on the unique perspectives, experiences, and challenges faced by women, including Indigenous women; women from 2SLGBTQIA+ communities; women with disabilities; and newcomer, racialized, and migrant women.
At USask, I am honoured and privileged to be surrounded every day by remarkable women who are making a difference from Saskatchewan—for Saskatchewan and for the world. Our university has the bold ambition to be the university the world needs—and these women are uplifting that goal.
So many amazing women have helped to build our university, and our province and communities, and I am grateful for their many contributions. For example, I think of Sylvia Fedoruk, a trailblazing USask medical physicist who co-developed the cobalt-60 technology that revolutionized cancer treatment around the globe. Sylvia Fedoruk was a sports icon and a pioneering woman of science—one of the few Canadian female medical physics researchers in the 1950s. She went on to serve as the university’s first female chancellor and the province’s first female lieutenant-governor. Her fascinating life was the focus of a biography titled A Radiant Life, written by USask graduate and staff member Dr. Merle Massie.
During Women’s History Month, I also think of Annie Maude (Nan) McKay, the first Métis woman to graduate from the University of Saskatchewan, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1915. She was an accomplished student who was active in campus life, serving on the student council and the editorial board of The Sheaf and playing on the women’s hockey team. She was also a tireless volunteer nurse during the flu epidemic of 1918.
A well-known 1915 photo depicts Nan McKay sharing an embrace and a kiss with a woman outside a university residence building. That photo is featured on the cover of an award-winning book written by USask history professor Dr. Valerie Korinek, titled Prairie Fairies: A History of Queer Communities and People in Western Canada, 1930-1985.
Nan McKay is remembered as a dedicated USask employee who worked at the University Library for 44 years, from 1915 until 1959. In 2007, she was chosen as one of USask’s 100 Alumni of Influence.
Each day, I am inspired by the countless women who continue to make USask such a great place to work, learn, and teach, and to engage in research, scholarly, and artistic work. These women are our faculty, staff, students, alumni, and donors, and our friends, family members, mothers, daughters, sisters, colleagues, and neighbours. For example, I think of Nigerian-Canadian sisters and scientists Rita and Fidelia Orji. These award-winning USask graduates are experts in their field—persuasive technology in computer science—and each has received the prestigious Vanier Graduate Scholarship.
I think of our leaders in health, such as Dr. Wendie Marks, an assistant professor in pediatrics and newly appointed Tier 2 Canada Research Chair who is focused on improving Indigenous children’s wellness, and Dr. Janet Tootoosis, the vice-dean Indigenous health in the College of Medicine. The college recently created a first-of-its-kind department at a Canadian medical school, dedicated to improving the health outcomes of Indigenous Peoples in Saskatchewan through academics and education.
I think of our leaders in the arts, such as Dr. Véronique Mathieu, USask’s first holder of the David L. Kaplan Chair in Music. She has been awarded federal funding to research and develop a set of 12 violin etudes in collaboration with 12 internationally established composers. She also released a new CD this past summer of works for violin and piano by women composers.
I think of Tasnim Jaisee, an award-winning USask student and former University of Saskatchewan Students’ Union president who is making a difference on our campus as the equity, diversity, inclusion project specialist in the Office of the Provost and Vice-President Academic. She played a key role in the recent launch of USask’s Period Equity Project, which provides free menstrual products in our university’s washrooms.
I think of USask student Banin Arjmand who, after moving to Canada in 2021 as an Afghan refugee, has used her personal experiences to advocate for Afghan women. She is also USask’s newest recipient of the Loran Award—a four-year leadership enrichment program that offers experiential learning through work placements, mentorship, scholar gatherings, an annual stipend, and a tuition waiver.
And I think of Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella’s remarkable judicial career and extraordinary contributions to her community. She was celebrated during USask’s Spring Convocation ceremonies on June 8, 2023, when she was awarded an honorary degree. Her devotion to the advancement of justice, equity, and human dignity are highlighted in the documentary Without Precedent: The Supreme Life of Rosalie Abella.
A key part of Women’s History Month is equity and respect for gender diversity and all gender expressions. I think of the excellent work taking place in the interdisciplinary women’s and gender studies program in the College of Arts and Science, which explores gender and sexual diversity, masculinities and queer studies, practices of representation and cultural production, popular culture, and critical transnational feminisms.
A new USask research project, for example, is aiming to fill in gaps in our province’s queer history by creating an updated 2SLGBTQIA+ timeline in collaboration with community stakeholders. It is being undertaken by USask’s Social Innovation Lab on Gender and Sexuality, which is led by project director Dr. Rachel Loewen Walker, a faculty member in the Department of Political Studies who teaches in the women’s and gender studies program.
There are many, many more women I could highlight during Women’s History Month, and I am grateful for all of them. I am so privileged to work and learn alongside them, and to draw inspiration and hope from their many contributions, innovations, and successes.
The commitment of these women to advancing gender equality will leave a lasting legacy for many generations to come.
During the month of October, I encourage you to think about the women who are making a difference in your life. I encourage you to acknowledge those women who are inspiring and impacting you, and those around you.
Statistics show that at USask, during the 2022/23 academic year, there were about 18,260 women studying and working here—about 14,640 students and about 3,620 faculty and staff.
In all workplaces and institutions, there is a need for continued action on pay equity. We must work to ensure that women are included in every level of decision-making in our universities, and that we model inclusive practices of recognition and language.
I wish every woman at USask all the best during Women’s History Month. Thank you for everything you have done, and continue to do, to make our university—and the world—a better place.Professor Airini
Provost and Vice-President Academic
Nan McKay: A ‘queer-eye view’ of prairie life
Sylvia Fedoruk: New biography sheds light on Fedoruk’s ‘radiant life’
Dr. Rita Orji and Fidelia Orji: Persistent and persuasive
Dr. Janet Tootoosis: Building an Indigenous space in the College of Medicine
Tasnim Jaisee: USask launches Period Equity Project
Justice Rosalie Silberman Abella: USask honorary degree recipient the subject of new documentary
Dr. Rachel Loewen Walker: Researchers collaborate with community members to update queer history timeline