Interview of Smita Joshi

Bio:

Smita Joshi retired from the Department of Education in 2012. She had been responsible for social studies curriculum for several years. She is active in the multicultural community in St. John's. NL.

Interviewer:

Okay so I know you were involved with both, well formal women’s movement and multicultural issues, can you tell me what you were doing in regard to that in the 70’s and 80’s?

 

Smita:

Specifically with multicultural issues I guess I was one of the fortunate ones to come to Newfoundland in the 60’s as a school student.  And so I kind of grew up here and when I think back of what I did in the 70’s those were great times.  Those were days of university, we had the official organization called Friends of India.  And I was a youth member in that trying to promote the Eastern culture, at the same time soaking in the Newfoundland culture.  And in the 70’s I ended up working with the Multicultural Women’s Organization, I was one of the founding members and its first president.  And we decided that there were certain issues that really needed to come to light and the time was just right for them.

 

Interviewer:

What was it like, you were a visible minority in this town, is that something that you think made your life different from other people.

 

Smita:
It’s an interesting question because you know, the good part is you don’t see yourself and so when people watch you, they are seeing  your reaction… and if you feel  you’re one of them and no different, they treat you exactly like that!  So I never felt any different.  I was welcomed, Newfoundland is a welcoming community and yes they were curious where I was coming from and what I had to contribute.  But after a while, as a youth when you start growing up and you have friends and you become one of them a lot more readily.  As a younger person then, had I it easy, but my Mom who was in a different boat.  But yes there were moments where I was part of the showcase and I guess I enjoyed that part too because it was a chance to share my culture of what I was brought up with, some of the Eastern dancing, music, et cetera.  So it was a two way communication and it was a privilege!

 

Interviewer:
What about being a woman in the 70’s and 80’s?  Did you feel things were different from men?

 

Smita:

I guess I come from a very fortunate background of five brothers and I’m the only daughter in the family.  And my parents did not see a different role for me as a female than my brothers and in fact insisted that I should be able to take on similar challenges… i.e. do as well, if not better than them.  And my brothers saw me in equal light.  And so I never had an idea that females were different and had to play different roles at least from my family’s perspective.  And I grew up and attended school at Holy Heart.  That was different because it was an all girls school and we were told that there were certain ways young ladies behaved… yet we were a group of, a wonderful group of women who in fact are leaders right now in Newfoundland who challenged some of the conventional thinking in the right way.

 

Smita:

And in the 70’s going through university, it was a brand new world, we could do anything, anywhere and it was a “can do” attitude.  So appreciated that time, it was actually a fun time and in fact I recall when I graduated in the 70’s, two of my girlfriends and I went hitchhiking across Europe and my brother said to me that yeah of course this is the thing to do.  And my family encouraged it; my mother was reluctant  but she had no choice because she was outnumbered at that time!  So I think we were lucky that I was part of a group of people who thought we could do anything and the time was right for us to do those things.

 

Interviewer:
So did you find there were any barriers to you as a woman or as a visible minority when you entered the workforce or in any other avenue?

 

Smita:

Well in terms of my chosen profession, I’m an educator.  And I was fortunate enough to get my first teaching job in Fortune, in Burin Peninsula.  And that was for a Senior High School program and I was the only female on the staff of this high school; which was no different because I was the only female at home with the five boys.  So and the guys were very welcoming, they taught me you know how to play poker and go to hockey games and the carpools.  And also I didn’t really think there were any barriers and in fact I think most of it is an attitude.  And if you make it a barrier then it will become a barrier but if you come out as I’m an equal and there is no reason why I cannot function in this particular position or this situation that will stop us.  So, no and in the 80’s I was the first, I guess visible minority woman to be hired by the Department of Education in the role of Curriculum Consultant for Social Studies.  And my first task was to bring about a new curriculum for the Newfoundland and Labrador Heritage Corp.  And obviously the people who interviewed me thought that I would be able to represent our heritage as a Newfoundlander.  And so they probably did see something in me that most people may not have and luckily given these opportunities, a lot of wonderful doors have opened up for me.

 

Interviewer:
Well I know that multiculturalism in education is important to you, can you tell me how you started to bring that into your job and got involved in that?

 

Smita:

Well I was involved in multicultural education long before I came in as a consultant with the Department of Education.  I was part of the Multicultural Women’s group and with Friends of India as a volunteer.  But specifically I guess I got the ability to take some of those ideas and implement them in both policy, and the programs we developed. At the Department of Education, I chaired the committee that drafted the policy on multicultural education.  So that was the first policy and in fact, we were in a way trendsetters because many of the provinces at that stage hadn’t developed that.

 

Interviewer:
What year would that have been?

 

Smita:

We started the work in 1989 and the final policy was launched in 1992.

 

Interviewer:
So that was pretty early.

 

Smita:
It was and at that stage, the public’s  experience of multiculturalism was limited to unique dance and dinners . Our policy articulated the other importance of cultural diversity, understanding, appreciation, and respect into our school system.

 

Smita:

And the Social Studies Program that I was responsible for, had highlighted the importance of sharing cultures and understanding.  So it was really easy to develop and implement some of these ideals into our school curriculums.  And I remember the books that we developed in partnerships with publishers, the grade five social studies curriculum, the great six social studies curriculum, seven, eight and nine.  All of those had specific sections on multiculturalism and we had local pictures of our children performing during Canada celebrations on the George Street.  And I arranged for interviews of multicultural leaders and had that included as part of the Social Studies Grade 5 text.  So in terms of multiculturalism, I guess what we were able to do was to really develop a policy, develop curriculum, and  develop resources that went hand in hand to support the curriculum and the policy.  And at the same time develop a network of speakers that would be available for schools to enrich that curriculum.  And again that’s the beauty of Newfoundland… that because we are small we can come together a lot faster and we can come and work on common agendas!

 

Smita:

So it’s been good and in fact even the encyclopedia for Newfoundland and Labrador, the encyclopedia done by Joey Smallwood has a section there on multicultural families and the East Indian community.  In fact, they interviewed our family and our contribution, so  now we are Newfoundlanders by choice and  are part and parcel of that major resource as well.

 

Interviewer:
Oh that’s nice.  Can you talk a bit about Multicultural Association and the Friends of India.  What was role in that association and what do you think and why is it important for your community and ours as the community at large as well.

 

Smita:

Friends of India has been in existence since the 1960’s and its mandate is to promote friendship and to share cross cultural understanding.  It is one of the oldest multicultural organizations in Newfoundland.  And in the beginning I was a youth member and asked to perform on the stages and host specific programs, etc. And then as I moved on in the 80’s I served as the Executive to the secretary as well as a member at large and eventually became the president of Friends of India.

 

Interviewer:
What  year was that?

 

Smita:

I became the president of Friends of India in 2000-2001.  And very recently, in fact last year, friends of India honored me for my volunteer work and presented me with a plaque for my work with them.

 

Interview:
And what about the Women’s Multicultural Association.  Now you said you were one of the founding members, why did you see a need for that and how did you start it?

 

Smita:

It was an interesting meeting, it was a group of women who got together and there was a friend of mine, her name was Jasmine Hajji, she called me and she said, “Smita you have to come to this meeting.”  We met at the Hindu Temple and our goal was to bring awareness of certain issues and bringing in the forefront.  I guess being fortunate with my families situation as well as my married life, I never saw any barriers in my life.  But Jasmine was really good at pointing out that there are barriers and there are women who do need help.  In the case of Newfoundland at that stage, we were very fortunate that the immigrants who came here were highly educated immigrants because we had no major industries here.  And the barriers that women were facing were more in terms of credential recognition…for instance they may have  a medical degree from India and they were coming here and basically not being able to get into the system as easily as they would like to.  And continue to contribute for what they were really educated to do.  So Jasmine and Marion Muie was there and a couple of other ladies… memory is getting to be a problem these days.  This meeting was followed by a focus group meeting with newcomer women to identify their issues.

 

Smita:
And remember in the 80’s, I can’t remember the actual date, this is the time when the Federal Government was also setting up task forces to listen to the women to see what the issues are at grassroots level.

 

Interviewer:
Immigrant women or all women?

 

Smita:

It was all women but immigrant women were included in that particular forum.  And I remember someone funding me to go to Halifax and the meeting took place at the Lord Nelson Hotel, very nice.  And we talked about the issues from our perspective because the issues that were coming out for immigrant women from Ontario were very different issues then the issues that were coming out from multicultural women from Newfoundland.

 

Interviewer:
And why do you think, because of the level of education again?

 

Smita:
 Yes, because of education level of our immigrants was different from that of Mainland Canada.  The other issue for our mother was the importance of maintaining heritage languages while being part of the minority culture. But as far as social issues of being accepted, racism was not our priority.  We were fortunate not to have those kinds of issues faced by our women.

 

Interviewer:
So do you think a lot of those credential issues, were they specifically women issues or were they a cross gender?

 

Smita:

They were cross gender, but what would happen was that often the men were, often successful, a lot more, successful when women weren’t as successful.  And women did experience a further barrier for them.  They had to really not only prove that they were able and willing, but work twice as much to prove it.  And often if there were two physicians in the family, the husband would get the job in St. Anthony but the other physician who was the female, may not have the job there.  And unfortunately ended up losing those skills.

 

Interviewer:
So going back to the founding and the first meeting you went to and that sort of convention.  How did you form a group in St. John’s and what sort of things did you work on?

 

Smita:

We were really idealistic, I remember somebody telling us we have to set up an organization with a president and a vice-president and a secretary.  And my reaction was that this is such a male-dominated type of thinking.  Women think collaboratively and we do not necessarily have to have titles to work.  And the fact is that we could have a rotating chair.  That was the idea I really wanted to bring about but again it lasted for awhile but it wasn’t very functional.  I guess we were idealistic at that stage but so we had to choose a president because again with the Federal Government where I was working it was basically we would need one representative, please send your president.  And we’d say well we don’t believe in it so we were also trying to fight the system and we thought as women we were going to change it structurally as well.  But I guess we soon found out that in order to play the game we had to abide by the rules.  It was too bad.  But I guess again it’s realistic and I guess how we function is different but we sometimes have to take on the challenges….

 

Interviewer:
So can you tell me some of the early activities that you worked on then in the Multicultural Women’s Association?

 

Smita:
Once we got this group, once we had the feedback there was some more movement federally to recognize the women and basically the voting power of the women, that really got us started.  And somebody recognized, hey these people count.  And we made sure we counted, so, we became part of the federal agenda.  But after that I really had to step back because that was the time when I was beginning to work in here and the job requirements, required me to move a lot more in the province and work in the curriculum sections.  So we started some of the work and there were other women who were very capable who took on that organization and brought it to a fine state right now.

 

Interviewer:
I’m sorry what year did you say it started?

 

Smita:

Late 1982 and early 1983.

 

Interviewer:
That’s a long time to have an organization.

 

Smita:

…and Friends of India was established in 1965, long before the Concept of Multiculturalism was in vogue!

 

Interview:
And I know you were also involved in the St. John’s Status of Women’s Council a little bit.  Can you tell me a bit about what you did with them?

 

Smita:

Well I met up with this group because I really wanted to make sure that, to understand what they were doing and what were the issues to make sure that this would reflect in our curriculum and reflected in our resources.  So I did meet with them when we were drafting the curriculums based on what was called at that stage a Social Studies Foundation document called the Master Guide, it should have been the Mistress Guide.  So I did have some input from them and again this was in the early stages as well.

 

Interviewer:
So that would have been early 80’s?

 

Smita:

Yes.

 

Interviewer:
I know that the Status of Women Council in the 70’s did some work on literally you know counting how many women were in a book, that sort of thing.  Did you finally have to do some of that with multicultural phases as well and change the resources that way?

 

Smita:

What we did was thanks to those kinds of issues we became a lot more aware and cognizant that we had to be much more inclusive.  And as a result we developed a Publications Handbook, in1988 which guided the curriculum development, the resources and classroom texts, and make sure that there is visuals that represent other cultures.  Visuals that represent women, visuals that represent women in different roles because traditionally and especially curriculum had a tendency to talk about leaders and focus on men.  And it was history of the men and history of the War.  And when I started the work in Social Studies in the 80’s we wanted to make it a social history.  And as a result it was almost like a symphony and the women, the contributions of women in fishery, in household, in making sure the root cellars were stocked, in making sure the gardens were planted, the vegetables were harvested was as important as women who fought for the votes and who were explorers and inventors.  Those were the major roles that we often forgot and in fact one of my first roles for the Curriculum Developer was to work on the Cultural Heritage for the Newfoundland where we highlighted the contributions of women to our culture.

 

Smita:

And it was a wonderful journey because it often included faces without names, but these were the faces of women who actually made Newfoundland work.  And we were able to do that thanks to the efforts of a lot of women and educators who agreed with this approach…. And of male leaders who were willing to be educated, willing to change, willing to accept and be part of the new message.

 

Smita:

So I fondly remember the many professional development meetings at Max Simm’s Camp with 22 men and myself discussing importance of women’s role they were very professional and I respected them because they supported the agendas that we put forward.

 

Interviewer:
That sounds nice, sounds like a very positive experience.

 

Smita:
Absolutely.

 

Interviewer:
Is there anything about your work or experiences as a visible minority and a woman that you would like to share especially with maybe how things have changed from the 70’s and 80’s to today?

 

Smita:

I think what I do want to emphasize again is that every individual counts and there is no action that is insignificant.  So let’s be vigilant about that and let’s not make excuses for what we can’t change.  But let’s work to change things that are within our control.  Maybe start with acts at home, a small act in a community, in the province and in Canada.  And I think we are strong because we were made that way.  It’s just a matter of finding that strength within us and making it count.

 

Interviewer:
And if you were to pick some issues that still have to be worked on in the women’s movement or multiculturalism, is there anything that comes to mind?

 

Smita:

I think we still need to, we make roadways, but I think we still need to continue working in the terms of making sure the women are promoted as much as men you know.  There is still unfortunately a man’s network on top and we have to be a little more vigilant and a little savvier of how to get there.  The door is open but it is not quite there where we would like it to be.  We’ve come a long way!  But in terms of, if we did a quick count of how many visible minority women are in top executive positions, maybe that is one count that one needs to even think about.  How many women are in the Federal governments executive and how many of them are working civil service, how many of them are teachers, how many of them are in positions of power that can make a difference.  So we still need to make roadways there but we’re getting there.  That’s the positive part.

 

Interviewer:
Entrepreneurship, can you tell me a little bit about that?

 

Smita:

I guess that is one of my proudest babies that I have been involved with in the Department of Education.  In the late 80’s we recognized that one of the most important things about empowering people was economic empowerment.  And as a result while we were going through some hard times in our community, we developed a curriculum called Enterprise Education for our school system and at one state we were the only province that required two credits in this area.  And I think as a woman educator, focused on empowerment, I was able to bring in this new approach to curriculum development.  Because normally it was a top down where the province developed the curriculum and we passed it into the school system and  we also authorized  the resources to be used!.  But with enterprise education, we’re talking about empowerment, and what I suggested was, if people want this, we should really develop a curriculum based on their needs and their community situation and help them to develop this as a local course.

 

Smita:

So there is a bond, there is ownership, there is relevance and from there we started. I would work with a  school board team of educators to develop their very own curriculum and as a result of that we ended up with something like 12 different courses on Enterprise Education.  But, the one in Labrador was focusing on different enterprising skills and abilities and issues versus the one in St. John’s, versus the one in Corner Brook.  And it was one of the defining moments for me because I think I was able to bring as a woman the idea of collaboration and respect for how people do things and how we empower people.  And I was very fortunate that I was recognized not only in the province by my colleagues, but by the ACOA for being awarded the person who promoted enterprise education in all of Atlantic Canada.

 

Smita:

This was an honor and today, we still have remnants of that across Atlantic Canada…it was  truly an honor to be able to do those kinds of things for Atlantic Canadians.

 

Interviewer:
How did you develop the course, from the bottom up; what kind of process did you use?

 

Smita:

Each school district was first exposed to the big ideas of what it means to be enterprising and why the province needs is more entrepreneurs.  Next we invited them to bring a team which included a teacher, a parent, a principal, a school board member and a local entrepreneur of their choice.

 

Smita:

They were given a full week of training of how to develop this curriculum based on their local opportunities, needs and issues.  And then they went back and developed the curriculum and forwarded it for feedback. I met with them several times and finally we had them pilot it in their schools. During the following year I worked with their teachers to implement the ideas and the vision behind their curriculum.  And so that was a really satisfying moment because you could see people come in. Teachers, I remember once in Corner Brook I was there where the teachers said, “Well I’m going to retire here next year, I don’t know why this principal sent me to this in-service.”  And at the end of the five days he came back and he said this is going to be the best way for him to retire because he knew he was convinced of the importance of education once again.  And it was a wonderful moment.  And so I have had lots of stories like that and again it was a team effort and it was successful because of people believing in themselves.  I’m hoping someday that I could take these ideas and work with women in developing nations to empower them and that would make a difference to their family, to themselves and to the community.

 

Interviewer:
Yes, it could. Well thank you very much.