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Johnson, Laco among women’s history inductees

A new ‘art bus’ design will honour Thunder Bay women’s history month inductees including former city councillor Rebecca Johnson and broadcaster Lisa Laco.

THUNDER BAY — The City of Thunder Bay has marked Women’s History Month with five new inductees to its women’s history exhibit, and a soon-to-be-launched “art bus” honouring women who have made notable contributions to the community.

The city adds new inductees to its online women’s history exhibit each October during Women’s History Month.

This year’s list includes former city councillor Rebecca Johnson, the late broadcaster Lisa Laco, pioneering lawyer Eva Maude Powley, the Northwestern Ontario Women’s Centre, and the Rosies of the North project.

Laco, who died in 2021, was honoured for her more than two decades hosting local CBC radio programming, as well as work supporting charitable groups and Indigenous organizations, notably establishing a bursary for students at Dennis Franklin Cromarty High School.

Johnson honoured Laco in her remarks at a ceremony at city archives Thursday, praising her work as a journalist as well as her volunteerism.

“She had an infectious laugh, she was calm under pressure, she had an ability to analyze the situation on the air,” Johnson said.

“There was always something to talk about with Lisa. We always were going to change the world, and I think we did a little bit. [Her passing] was a loss to our community.”

Johnson, who served on council from 2003 until last year, was recognized for contributions on issues like poverty, the environment, and seniors’ care, as well as her work as a vocal champion for female participation in politics, working with Women in Politics Northwestern Ontario and mentoring local candidates.

She called Thursday’s ceremony a chance to celebrate “women who don’t accept the status quo” and fight to change it for the benefit of others.

Eva Maude Powley was inducted to recognize her trailblazing legal work, becoming the second woman in Canadian history to be called to the bar in 1902.

Powley was born in Port Arthur in 1875, and returned to the community to practice law at Keefer & Keefer. She later moved to Winnipeg, transitioning to a management role in the coal industry.

The Rosies of the North project was recognized for preserving and sharing the stories of dozens of women who worked at Fort William’s CanCar manufacturing plant during World War II.

Kelly Saxberg, who conducted dozens of interviews with former workers for the 1999 Rosies of the North film, said the thousands of women who joined the workforce in those years had a profound and lasting impact.

“Their experience working in a factory, getting proper pay, and doing everything from the very top – Elsie MacGill was the chief aeronautical engineer – to the very bottom, like somebody sorting the rivets – all of those women had an experience that was life-changing.

“It’s no surprise that the next generation, their daughters, that was the bra-burning, women’s liberation generation. I think that made a huge impression.”

She said the women’s experience demonstrated “women can do everything, we can certainly work at any job, and we should be given that chance.”

Saxberg noted the project might never have happened without the support of Laco, whose backing helped lead to a feature-length radio documentary in the 1990s.

Interviews with many of the women and other information is now available at the project’s website.

The Northwestern Ontario Women’s Centre was also inducted Thursday, recognizing its role championing women’s rights and providing important programs and services as it marks its 50th anniversary.

Johnson said the organization had offered a focal point for organizing during a crucial time for the women’s movement.

“I have lots of memories of the bra-burning days of the ‘60s prior to the beginning of the centre,” she said. “We knew then change had to be made. We still aren’t where we need to be as women – and in the wider world, we’re definitely not where we need to be – but we continue to work and seek equality.”

The centre continues to help women and gender-diverse people navigate concerns of violence, poverty, human rights, and systemic legal or administrative barriers.

More information on the inductees is available online.

Some of the new inductees will be featured on the city's latest “art bus,” a program that uses buses as a “mobile canvas” for selected local artists.

Artist Shelby Wideman’s colourful design was chosen for the project after a call for proposals.                          

“My goal was to celebrate the diverse women who have been nominated in the past as well as the new nominations this year,” Wideman said in a statement. “I wanted them to be the main focus. Through the vibrant colours of the portraits, I hope to capture and inspire viewers and spark meaningful conversations about the everlasting impact of women throughout our city.”

Ian Kaufman

About the Author: Ian Kaufman

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