Interviewer: So, Melly, what kind of work – paid or voluntary – were you doing in Newfoundland or Labrador in the 70s and 80s?
Swamidas: After two years of being here from ’75 to ’77, we went back to India. My husband was here in engineering. We came back to Newfoundland in 1981. From ’81…I had been active and taking part in various things; but in 1986 I became a member of the Multicultural Women’s Organization executive. And from then onwards, I had been very active in the Multicultural Women’s Organization and later on with mostly the seniors from different countries in the Seniors Bridging Cultures Club of the Senior Resource Centre. Along with Miss Purnima Sen– a professor in the faculty of nursing - I organized the Seniors Bridging Cultures Club.
Some women were here as grandparents and others were retired from work so they had no way of getting together. They were all very lonely in their own homes. So we got them together and we launched the Seniors Bridging Cultures Club. First we had a conference, bringing all the seniors from different cultures as well as the service providers from the various groups… they were so astonished – the providers.
Interviewer: The service providers?
Swamidas: The service providers for the seniors. They didn’t know that there were so many seniors from different ethnic groups or countries. Various issues facing seniors and multicultural women were being discussed and many solutions were being addressed side by side involving both the Multicultural Women’s Organization and the Seniors Bridging Cultures Club.
Interviewer: That’s ongoing – both?
Swamidas: Still ongoing.
Interviewer: So when did the Seniors Bridging Cultures Club begin?
Swamidas: That began in 1991. In November of ’91, the Senior Bridging Cultures Committee held a workshop and conference for the seniors from different ethnic cultures, inviting health professionals, service providers to seniors and multicultural councils, and seniors from the Senior Resource Centre Friendship Club – I was coordinator for that project. Until today I’m on various committees and I’m also on the Seniors Inter-agency Committee for Eastern Health.
Interviewer: So you remain very active. During the 70’s… when you were here in Newfoundland…
Swamidas: ’75 to ’77, but I went away and came back again in ’81.
Interviewer: Before becoming a member of the Multicultural Women’s Organization in Newfoundland and Labrador, were you involved in any other sort of volunteer activities or activist work?
Swamidas: I was very active in the church.
Interviewer: What kind of things did you do in the church?
Swamidas: I was a Sunday school teacher – 1981 and onwards – for grades ten, eleven and twelve – six years. My family with some members of the church and young people went to Bell Island. We had a Girls and Boys Club every Sunday afternoon between two and four on Bell Island. I was involved in coordinating the program here for seven years.
Interviewer: So what was the focus of those type of activities?
Swamidas: To get all the children together and have Sunday School… we had drama and sports activities. I was teaching something similar to Sunday school.
Interviewer: And so when you started working with the Multicultural Women’s Organization, what kind of work did you do for them and what kind of positions did you hold? Particularly in the 80s, what kind of things were you doing then?
Swamidas: I came to know about the Multicultural Women’s Organization in 1984 and have been involved since then. I have always been interested in the well-being of the women, I mean, the helpless ones. In India I was involved with a “social work club” in the university and also when I was working as a professor teaching economics. We use to go to nearby villages and teach women about nutrition, baby care, and establish sewing classes for the women to earn a living. So when I came, I found this group here working with women. When I started they worked to ensure the rights of the multicultural women, to empower their capacity, to provide social support and to network with cultures of different ethnic groups and the mainstream people. That was our main goal and that’s what we were doing. We had several information and brainstorming sessions to accomplish those goals, including workshops. For all that time, at first, I was a member at large of the Multicultural Women’s Organization. Then I became the secretary and then became the vice-president and the president.
Interviewer: So when did you advance to the presidency position?
Swamidas: Presidency? – I think ten years back – what is that – 1997. That lasted four years and I was very active in that. Then besides that, I’ve been on the board of the Friends of India.
Interviewer: Friends of India? What’s that?
Swamidas: Friends of India – that’s another organization. They get together and raise funds, and they have scholarships now – two scholarships for students who top their classes. In High school - whoever gets the highest mark. In the early years, in 1984, I was on the board of Friends of India. And then three years back I was on the board again. So I worked in different areas, but my main focus was with the Multicultural Women’s Organization.
So I was on many committees like the Community Contribution Program of the Victim Services – I was on that board as a member of the Multicultural Women’s Organization. We received funding through that from the Justice Department, and I coordinated… did the research and brought out two booklets for immigrant and visible minority women: ‘Let’s Break the Silence’ and Guide for Service Providers Working with Abused Women. These two booklets were printed by a seniors national organization called One Voice from Ottawa. I got a call one day suddenly and they said, “Oh, Melly Swamidas, is that you who coordinated this and brought this booklet? We’d like to print it and distribute it all across Canada.” And they did it.
Interviewer: Oh, that’s amazing.
Swamidas: So that was wonderful and these are the two booklets if you want to have them. But this is outdated now. We also translated it into Tamil, Chinese, and Hindi. So that was hard work, and I really enjoyed that. And I was a member of the National Executive Committee of the National Women’s Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada whose headquarters were in Ottawa. The Multicultural Women’s Organization is the member organization here. I attended a lot of conferences and I worked on a project from the National Office on “violence against women”.
Interviewer: And that was what years?
Swamidas: (trying to sort out the time)
Interviewer: So that was somewhere in the past decade or so?
Swamidas: Yeah, that was ’92 to ’93.
Interviewer: One more question just to focus in on the 70s and the 80s. Within your role in the Multicultural Women’s Organization – you say that’s where your primary focus was and you mentioned the issue of domestic abuse within multicultural family homes – were there any other issues or were there any other specific workshops? How did you organize these workshops? Do you want to tell a little bit about that before we move on to the next…
Swamidas: One issue was how to get information for the booklet because we were trying to focus only on the visible minorities. Immigrants from visible minorities are different from the others – immigrants from the European countries. Visible minorities are often Asians, mostly Chinese, and that’s why we had those three languages. When you try to contact them – our culture is really different too – they will not come out and talk to you about things like abuse. I had small groups of women from different ethnic groups and discussed issues relating to their problems in this country. I’d tell them why I was inviting them and then they would discuss their thoughts.
Interviewer: So it’s kind of like a consciousness raising exercise.
Swamidas: Yeah. And it was very good because so many of them openly talked about the problems they face and how they didn’t want to talk about it. I chose different places to meet together. We met in small places and had lunch. We met in small groups of different religions as well.
Interviewer: Mm mm - they thought it was a private issue and it’s not something that’s supposed to be brought up in public, right?
Swamidas: Yeah! And so many things came out because of that.
Interviewer: For instance? You want to give me an example?
Swamidas: I won’t even remember the names. One person – she was a student – a graduate student - I don’t want to say names, okay?
We had graduate students over for supper and that girl came and started talking, but she couldn’t bring it up because it’s not natural for the visible minority people to talk about these problems in a country where they’re trying to establish themselves and do very well. So she couldn’t say much but, finally, when she was beaten up very badly by the husband she went to her professor, head of the department, who was from Newfoundland. He immediately took her to the hospital and placed her in safety.
Interviewer: That’s great.
Swamidas: When I met her later she said, “I didn’t want to say anything because I tried talking about my problems and I couldn’t get any response.” That’s what happens.
Interviewer: Okay. So can I just clarify what year these things started happening – when you were inviting women into your home and that sort of thing? Was it in the 80’s?
Swamidas: No, 90’s – early 90’s
Interviewer: And before that in the 80s, was there anything similar or something else going on that you were participating in?
Swamidas: ’86 – yeah, we were meeting as multicultural women and at that time our main problem was employment.
Interviewer: You want to talk about that? I’d love to hear more about that time.
Swamidas: We really had a hard time getting jobs – quite a lot of us. For me it was a little different because I was attending church and the school here was a Pentecostal school. My children were there and I was able, in 1986, to become a substitute teacher there. I couldn’t get full time teaching, of course – there was no vacancy at that time.
A lot of others were well qualified in various fields but they couldn’t get jobs. So we talked about it.
A lot of immigrant families were coming in and they were learning English as a second language from the Association for New Canadians. Some of them came out and said, “whatever we are learning, we are not getting anywhere because we are just learning basic skills.” But they have to understand and speak. That’s the difference.
So we had to bring invite the immigration officials from the federal government department. Anyway, they came and we had a dialogue. Oh, it was very interesting! We had people who were providing services there also and I think the federal government officials from the Immigration and Employment offices really looked and said, “oh my, so many qualified people, well educated but with no jobs. Why?” The immigration department called the YM/YWCA and asked them to put together a program to bridge towards getting a employment in the workplace by providing some kind of training. So it was put together and they interviewed about 25 people, I think, from 19 different cultures and 7 different countries. I was one of them. We were all placed after being trained. We were given different types of jobs in banks and different places.
So that was really good. So many, you know, went for further studies. They were encouraged to study. One finished her masters in dietician/nutrition and she’s a dietician now in one of the hospitals. Quite a few, you know, went on. One lady got a job in Health Science. She’s still working there. I went to work with CBC for a year but after that a lot of people were laid off. I was one of them. I had to leave because I was one of the last ones to be appointed there. But it was interesting because it really gave me a lot of time to see what, you know, the working world is like. Then I’ve been a translator for the refugees who have come in from Sri Lanka.
Interviewer: What year?
Swamidas: ’90 and ’91.
Interviewer: Someone – I’m not sure who wrote this – but they said that you “dedicated your time to helping women, especially immigrants in St. John’s, to cope with the problems they face in their daily lives.” I just want to focus a little more on that. Was that dedication a part of what helped to get that started – the training?
Swamidas: I made a lot of friendships being in an apartment building, you know, and talking with those from different countries… becoming friends with different nationalities. From ’81 we used to visit each other a lot… we used to walk together with some of our friends and those are the ones who all got together for the training program.
Interviewer: Did you feel that you helped get the awareness out so that these training sessions were implemented? Were you actively participating in some sort of activism to help?
Swamidas: I think I did it only through the multicultural women’s organization (MWO for short), but as an individual I’ve always been interested in helping out. The women in the MWO used to talk about these things. We always talked about the various problems we are facing and helping out people. From ’85 I became a member and in ’86 I went on the board.
Interviewer: So the Multicultural Women’s Organization, they were one of the ones who, basically, started this whole awareness? And you were part of that?
Interviewer: What brought your attention to this particular issue that eventually led these organizations to provide training for immigrants? How did you do it?
Swamidas: When I listened, women shared their problems. Even though they were trained and even though they were learning English, they couldn’t get jobs. So women from MWO said, okay, let’s all get together and, you know, find solutions. So that’s how we did it and that’s why we invited the Employment and Immigration officials and the women who didn’t have jobs. We had very good dialogue.
Interviewer: So when you got together and talked about it, how did you get those training sessions started?
Swamidas: They realized the need for one and started it through YM/YWCA.
Interviewer: That’s great. And so you basically motivated them to do something about it.
Swamidas: Oh yes.
Interviewer: And so how did what you were doing help to improve the lives of multicultural women overall – anything not mentioned already that you could talk about?
Swamidas: See, especially at that time when we had this training – I think we calculated it as 70% of the women were helped. Some went for higher studies and then others got jobs.
Interviewer: So what year was the graduation from the training program?
Swamidas: 1990. See, ’89 onwards we were working towards that, from ’89 to ’90.
Interviewer: Just one more thing in terms of the work you were involved in - I found out that you were an advisory committee member on the Provincial Strategy Against Violence. Do you remember what years that was? Was that during the 80’s or was that later?
Swamidas: Later, between ’88 and ’94 or ’95. It was really intense working against Violence against Women. I attended so many conferences. I’ve been on many committees. I visited the various women’s centres and the shelters. I’ve gone and talked to them and made aware that there are people from the multicultural community, such as immigrant women, who suffer from violence in St. John’s. Some of them said, “yes, we get a few visits from immigrant women and we don’t know what to do. Because of the language problem, we are not able to help them out very much”. That was the reason I brought out this booklet, a “Guide for Service Providers who are dealing with abused, immigrant, visible minority women” to help them out. We faced these problems where the service providers could not understand the different cultures, you know.
Interviewer: So that began in 1988 and then finally in 1995 this booklet came out?
Swamidas: Yes because I worked in the early 90’s with the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada (NOIVMWC) where, again, I interviewed people. We had one Muslim woman, who was the wife of a medical doctor, who didn’t want to be identified. She gave a very interesting story about how she was abused. She went back, again came, and went back. Finally, she said no more. She had three children, but she actually became a student afterwards, and then moved on.
Interviewer: So that leads into my next question. Can you think of ways that you or your efforts encourage other women to improve the lives of multicultural, visible minority women? Are there any other examples of that?
Swamidas: I used to go and give her help with small things and all that. I’d help her out and encouraged her; I talked to her on the phone when she was lonely. She was a young mother of three children. One year at Christmastime through our church, I asked the young youth pastor, “Can you go and sing or help her out?” Even though she was a Muslim, the youth group of the church took a tree for her, and she just cried; she was so happy and she cried. She said, “I didn’t know that people cared so much” – especially for the little ones. You know, the children were so excited and happy. And I also took gifts for her and in so many ways the MWO also helped out a lot.
Not only that, we have sponsored refugee women. In the early years, one woman from an African country with five children came. So all of us, you know, on the MWO committee – we were only four or five of us at that time – we used to go and meet with them and help them out – to settle. That was in early ’88… ’89 – those years. Later on we helped – in maybe ’97… ’98 – those years – we had a refugee from Afghanistan with two children. She came and we all worked together to settle her in and help her out. Even now those who can speak the language are still in contact with her.
Actually, that’s my thing I guess; I’m always encouraging people.
Interviewer: So do you think of yourself as someone who’s worked for equality for women?
Swamidas: Oh yes, that’s what… you know, when I worked on Violence Against Women the equality issue came up – that, yes, you are equal with your partner. That came out in so many of our talks and I used to get a lot of speakers from the Women’s Centre like Jane Robinson.
Interviewer: So can you remember when you decided that you wanted to help change some of these things – focusing on your involvement during the 70’s and 80’s? What was it that motivated you?
Swamidas: That women always had a voice, whether you are a wife at home, a mother, or even a single person working in the workforce. Women always had a voice. We have come from different cultures, yet I found so much similarity between Indians and Newfoundlanders. Newfoundland women also were abused in the same way in the workplace. I mean, it was so astonishing to see that comparison, you know, because I have talked about it with a lot of people and the abuse goes on the same way, and the way of thinking and attitudes were similar.
Interviewer: So would you say that you stepped outside the traditional role for women during the 70s and the 80s in any way, you know, when you first came to Newfoundland; and if you would say yes to that question, can you describe one or more of the unconventional things that you did and what motivated you to do so?
Swamidas: What do you mean by that? Can you give an example?
Interviewer: When you were participating in these activities of bringing awareness to domestic abuse, for instance, did you feel like you were stepping outside of that traditional role?
Swamidas: Oh yes, definitely.
Interviewer: How so?
Swamidas: Yes, my husband said, “Why are you doing this – making problems for the men?” – not that he’s against… I mean, he’s a very soft spoken person… but he didn’t realize… I mean, he knows about it. He knows there is abuse, but he thought people here are educated. He couldn’t understand that men would be treating women like that. Quickly he learned that my work in these various things, whether it’s education or money or status or whatever, that everywhere it is the same – that women are being treated badly. So I stepped out. Yes, I stepped out and quite a few people had said, “my goodness, what are you doing?”
Interviewer: So what exactly were the unconventional things that were recognized in terms of stepping out of that role?
Swamidas: To talk openly about abuse because not many… I mean, in our cultures – the Indian culture or even the Chinese culture – nobody talks about it. Nobody wants to talk about abuse. Even though they are going through it, they never talk about it. It’s all hush-hush. But I helped them to come out and openly speak about it.
Interviewer: Wow – that’s great. Definitely something that’s unconventional, especially during that time in the 80’s, I’m sure. So can you remember when you first became aware of inequalities or social injustices around you, particularly around the issues affecting multicultural women? When did you first become aware of them, do you think?
Swamidas: I was always aware, even in India when I was in college because I was an economics student. I mean, I did a Masters in economics and I went into the villages to help out in the communities, and there I heard things from the women about how they were being abused. They have to do, not only the housework, but they have to go out and work; and still they’re beaten up. So I was aware of that. I was always working towards the betterment of the woman, even as a young person before I got married.
Interviewer: So when you decided that you wanted to help change some of these inequalities, can you think of any particular issue, event or activity involved in your work that stands out as something that is important to you?
Swamidas: Yes. I mean all along we have been helping out people – young couples – both in India as well as here. My husband used to talk to the men and I used to talk to the young women. I have always found out that men and women were not equal. Women, in some sense, felt really put down, and we, my husband and I, have always counseled that by saying “no, both of you are equal and it takes both of you to solve the problems.” We have had some cases which failed.
Graduate students who have come here, international students – they’re being abused. Also, there are a lot of cross cultural marriages who have many differences, they have had problems. From 1981 you can say that we were dealing with all these couples – young couples. And then later on in years, I’ve seen it again in my own family with my sisters. So that’s why this became more important. I was having my eyes opened and I became very much interested in this.
Interviewer: So what role or how big of a role did your involvement with these issues play in your life?
Swamidas: I feel that I have to help people. I felt good when issues were solved, or not solved but they were able to move on, you know. I have even done long distance counseling for people who have been here and gone, to the States and other places. I’m not a counselor; but I am so much into doing that… and some have been successful and some have not. When it failed, it was very difficult.
Interviewer: So that’s something that started right from the beginning of your involvement – the peer counseling aspect?
Interviewer: Was that part of the services offered through the Multicultural Women’s Organization when you started out?
Swamidas: There was so much peer counseling with… I mean, that’s an automatic thing, really, that I feel I’ve been doing. It’s about encouraging women, encouraging young people, you know, to face realities and inequalities, and how to overcome that. The MWO women were all in agreement with me and together we made this as our goal to help women. I’m an educator. That’s one role I have played all along.
Interviewer: Outside of the Multicultural Organization, you mean?
Swamidas: Outside and in.
Interviewer: In everything that you did.
Swamidas: Mostly, you know, with family.
Interviewer: So what do you think was your hardest obstacle that you’ve ever had to overcome in the work that you did during the 80s?
Swamidas: I mean, people never liked it but that didn’t bother me. I still went ahead because… later on, many came along; my husband accepted it and my children support it. You know, they were also with me helping out. I used to write and write so much; both my son and daughter helped me. So they were educated along with me.
Interviewer: Were there any obstacles outside of the family that you had to face in terms of the work you were doing?
Swamidas: I’m sure there was but I didn’t give heed to it.
Interviewer: Can you give an example though?
Swamidas: There were others, you know, whom I knew – men would ask my husband: “Why do you encourage? Why can’t you allow her to listen to us?” So those are the things we did face.
Interviewer: What was your greatest victory, do you think, during the 80s or your involvement with the type of work?
Interviewer: Or if you can’t think of a greatest victory, what were some of the changes that you helped bring about?
Swamidas: I mean, even now people talk about how we encouraged one another to come out of ourselves and not be depressed – to come out of it and try our best to go forward.
Interviewer: So to empower each other.
Swamidas: Yes. That was our thing, yeah.
Interviewer: So what helped lead to women’s empowerment through your involvement in that?
Swamidas: We had a lot of speakers and, you know, several information and brainstorming sessions. Also, workshops were held, not only for violence against women but how to go forward. We brought in people like Jane Robinson and so many others who, at that time, were already active women in the women’s movement. We brought them in when we used to get together and Multicultural Women used to come and talk. We had brainstorming sessions and some things like that, which definitely empowered and enabled us. We still keep doing that.
Interviewer: So what would you say is one of your fondest memories of your involvement during the 70s or during the 80s?
Swamidas: To meet with like-minded women. Our main aim was not only getting together and being strengthened with one another but how to reach out and help others, and we did.
Interviewer: What was it like being a woman – a ‘multicultural’ woman, particularly – in Newfoundland during the 70s and the 80s while you were here, and how has it changed since then?
Swamidas: I felt appreciated and well accepted. The school children where I substituted were always curious and asked questions. My peers were happy that I was able to take a lead and we enjoyed doing things together for our betterment.
When my husband came in 1975 to ’77, he was offered a job in engineering. Why not a woman? He’s also educated in India. He had a PhD from engineering in India. So that kind of discrimination we saw a lot.
Interviewer: So in terms of the role or the place for a woman within the private or public, do you think that has changed?
Swamidas: Oh yes. Now, so much has. Still we have to go a long way, but I see a big difference. We are accepted and today I went for this meeting where the Eastern Health Board and the CEO, George Tilley – he came up and said, “Oh, hello. I think I met you somewhere. I’m so happy that you came.” The MWO women are welcome everywhere. There’s a big difference.
For Eastern Health, I went to their Health Care Corporation of St. John’s Ethics Forum they had in 2004 – I was one of the panelist. “One Size Fits All” - that was my speech; and after that, I got a letter from the director who organized it. He said, “Mrs. Swamidas, what you spoke out about, one size fits all, was very well accepted and you were very interesting.” So now I feel more confident people are accepting us MWO women.
Interviewer: How do you think the role of multicultural women have changed, comparing now to what women were doing or participating in during the 70s or 80s? Do you think it has changed? How has that changed for multicultural women or for Indian women, in particular?
More and more now… like I have been now invited to participate in one of the committees in the Eastern Health liaison committee that is now the Seniors Inter-agency Committee. I find more multicultural women are getting jobs; especially the younger people who are coming now are getting jobs. So that’s good. Many women from the MWO Board are now invited to represent in committees and to attend many conferences which we did not have in the early 80s or even 90s. That’s progress.
Interviewer: So has the participation of multicultural women in the workforce outside of the home changed? Has there been an increase in participation?
Swamidas: Mm mm.
Interviewer: Did that change the expectations within the home?
Swamidas: I don’t know about that. I think the men are happy because economically they are better off with the wife working too. A lot of the women have gone into child care – I mean, you know, after school care. So they are working part time. Some are working on masters degrees; but, still, they are willing to work at that part time.
Interviewer: So what one message would you like to send to young people today?
Swamidas: To always stand up for your rights, whether you are a girl or a boy, and always remember that you are very important.
Interviewer: Is there anything that you would like them to remember in terms of the work that has been done in the 70s and the 80s in the women’s movement, or rather amongst the Multicultural Women’s Community?
Swamidas: The women have really strived for equality, both at home and at the workplace and in the public. They’ve always worked towards equality, especially in wages, and slowly we will come to achieve that. So remember that you should continue to do the work.
Interviewer: So what work do you think still needs to be done within the Multicultural Women’s group or to improve equality for women?
Swamidas: We have to keep on educating. Recently the Multicultural Women’s Organization has done a project with/for immigrant and refugee women so they can become productive members of the society. It was empowering. The project entitled “Equality, Empowering and Building Abilities: A Gender Based Action Plan for Immigrant and Refugee Women” we did recently. It was really a success. The goal of the project is to immigrant and visible minority women to increase their role in decision-making through educating them on women’s equality issues.
Interviewer: Some of the issues that you discussed during this workshop were issues that were being talked about in the 70s and 80s – the same ones?
Swamidas: Mm mm. Yes.
Interviewer: So is there anything else that you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed already – like what motivated you, how you were affected – or is there anything else you’d like to add in terms of your participation with multicultural organizations during the 70s and 80s?
Swamidas: In the 80s, I’ve attended a lot of workshops. I may have been the first immigrant woman to attend these big things in Gander and Grand Falls and all these places, as well as NAC which stands for “National Action Committee. I’ve gone twice with Jane Robinson to Toronto. So all these things really helped me focus, I mean, on equality.
I never realized what equality meant. I was brought up in a different culture and I’ve seen abuse in India, but attending all these workshops and brainstorming sessions and going to all these various conferences really helped me to understand what is equality and empowering for women. It helped me to broaden my view and helped others. It helped me to understand my early years, even though I was, all along, helping women. I always brought back and discussed what I learned with friends while I’m walking with them every day – I always talked about it, helping them to understand.
Interviewer: So you’ve participated in a lot of different workshops and conferences in the 80s. Did you help to organize any of these?
Swamidas: Some. Well, from ’87 and ’88 onwards, I’ve been supporting families in the multicultural community. I coordinated a project here in Newfoundland for the National Organization of Immigrant and Visible Minority Women of Canada (NOIVMWC). Five regions were selected; one was Newfoundland and Labrador. So I coordinated that project.on “Violence Against Women”
Interviewer: Well, I think we’ve covered a lot of material so thank you very much.
Swamidas: You’re welcome.