Canadian women making moves in art & activism
Have you heard their names?
International Women’s Day is fast approaching, and Canadians have much to be proud of this year. Canadian women and girls continue to lead in the steady struggle toward universal gender equality in our nation and abroad – what’s more, we’re doing it with a level of persistence and passion that’s impossible to deny. As we look forward to the annual celebrations (and protests) on March 8, it’s only right that we take a closer look at them.
Autumn Peltier stood unshakingly behind a black podium, microphone poised and audience attentive as she glanced down at her speech. Taking in the 15-year-old’s composure, one might assume she was speaking to friends and fellow classmates from her Wiikwemkoong First Nation high school on Manitoulin Island, but Peltier is no ordinary Ontario teen. September, 2019 found her at New York City’s United Nations (U.N.) headquarters, greeting over 400 international attendees and nearly 10,000 livestream viewers worldwide first in French, then Ojibwe, then English. Her easy self-assurance comes as no surprise to those familiar with her activist journey: since first addressing the U.N in 2018, her profile as an internationally recognized water defender continues to grow.
“I’m not happy with the decisions you’ve made for my people,” the Anishinaabe teen reports telling Justin Trudeau at the 2017 meeting of the Assembly of First Nations, while gifting him a traditional copper water vessel on behalf of her people.
“I understand that,” the Prime Minister allegedly responded.
But Peltier is growing up, and patience for political understanding without action is wearing thin among supporters of her message.
“We can’t eat money or drink oil,” she reminds us, and she’s not the only youth taking elder generations to task. In January of this year, the three-time International Children’s Peace Prize nominee joined other environmental activists Greta Thunberg, Natasha Mwansa, and Salvador Gomez-Colon at Davos to remind international leaders of what our youngest generations cannot forget: the threat posed by climate change is real, it’s urgent, and Canada is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the globe. If you didn’t before, now you know: Maclean’s Magazine got it right this year. Ashinibek Nation’s adolescent Chief Water Commissioner has earned her top spot in their list of Canadians to watch in 2020 – and, undoubtedly, in the years to come as well.
“Let’s get on the same page everyone (accents or not): Maitreyi /my-tray-yee/.”
This (much appreciated) pinned post greets me below a charming duet of photos as I scour Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s Twitter profile. In one, she smiles widely as though mid-laugh. In the other, Michael Scott (of The Office, as played by Steve Carell) stares into the middle-distance, face arranged in an all-too-familiar expression of resigned miff. If not for the shout-outs from boss and pal Mindy Kaling, or the retweeted articles boasting the 18-year-old Mississaugan’s name, Ramakrishnan’s feed might read like any other’s. But, seemingly overnight, the young poster of GIFs, music videos, and political activist content has become the subject of much anticipatory Hollywood buzz.
Hand-picked out of 15,000 hopefuls by Kaling herself, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan scored the starring role of 15-year-old Devi in Never Have I Ever, a semi-autobiographical 10-episode series based on Kaling’s upbringing. Set to drop on Netflix sometime this year, the recent high school graduate answered a social media-based casting call for South Asian women at the urging of her best friend.
“I do owe her big time for helping me out,” the young Tamil-Canadian told Elle Canada.
Although the pressure of being plucked from anonymity and thrust into Hollywood fame can hardly be fathomed by those outside the spotlight, Ramakrishnan remains determined to stay grounded in authenticity. On her nerves throughout the audition process, she remarks, “I kept reminding myself to be true to who I am. That’s what made them like me in the first place … now, whenever I doubt myself, I remember they picked me for a reason, so I must be doing something right.”
If such strength of character seems surprising for a woman of her age, one has only to scroll through her social media to discover the places where this tenacious spirit was honed. The young actress lent her voice to social and civic causes long before lending her voice to exclusive Netflix scripts. Ramakrishnan participated in April 2019’s Student Walk-out protest, voicing her dissatisfaction with Doug Ford’s cuts to education alongside students across Ontario. In November of the same year, she encouraged readers of Brown Girl Magazine to “do their civic duty” by staying abreast of political issues and most importantly, to vote, calling the power of the ballot “that one teardrop that can start a whole storm.”
The journey to self-confidence is often fraught for any teen, let alone one whose previous acting experience consists solely of high school drama class, plays, and musicals. Yet, despite growing up without many female South Asian stars to look up to, Ramakrishnan is determined to expand diversity in media representation as she dreams of her future in entertainment.
“You don’t see what you want in the media or in the world in general, you should go out there and be that change and take up that space,” she asserts in an interview with CBC last summer.”Go after your dreams. Don’t stop for anyone.”
This weekend, let’s remember to raise our glasses, our ballots, our signs, and our voices to the power of ordinary Canadian women who do extraordinary things. May we love them, may we support them, and may we be them.