Virtual wellness gathering celebrates Island women to ‘Break the bias’

Painting was on the agenda during Women's Wellness week. Sheila McDermid led a paint night for participants who wanted to explore their creativity and share some laughter.

MANITOULIN—March 8 is known as International Women’s Day. It was also the day that kicked off Women’s Wellness Week, a virtual gathering sponsored by the Mnidoo Mnising Coalition Against Domestic Violence with funding provided by the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services and facilitated by Manitoulin Family Resources’ Outreach staff, led by Schuyler Playford, the current coordinator for the coalition.

“We’re taking this moment to celebrate women in our community,” Ms. Playford said.

International Women’s Day (IWD) is one of the most important days of the year to celebrate women’s achievements, raise awareness against bias and take action for equality. IWD has been marked for well over a century. Its roots lie in late 19th century suffragette movements but it has a broader scope today as a global celebration of the economic, cultural, political and social achievements of women.

The theme for IWD 2022 was “break the bias” and that was the conversation starter for the event: whether deliberate or unconscious, bias makes it difficult for women to achieve their potential. “People shared their experiences with bias and discrimination,” Ms. Playford told The Expositor. She asked people to “imagine a gender equal world, a world free from bias, stereotypes and misinformation. A world that’s diverse, equitable and inclusive. A world where differences are valued and celebrated and to think about how, together, we can move forward towards women’s equality and how we can collectively break down biases against women.”

That gave people space to talk about bias and how it affects their wellness, she said, and throughout the week, presenters spoke about “recentering on our strengths and trying to let go of the ways that discrimination or bias has made us feel small in life. The various presenters throughout the week shared their expertise and imparted knowledge, experience and perception to help support and build people up.”

The first presenter was Wendy Payne, lead pastor at Cedarview Church in Paris, Ontario. Ms. Payne wrote a book called, ‘Lord, why are my thighs not like hers?’ The title was a thought she’d had in her mind growing up, one similar to those of many other girls and women. Why is my (insert body part here) not like somebody else’s? “As we go through this wellness week, it’s all about encouraging us as women to come to that place where we feel confident in who we are no matter what we look like, no matter what our personality is like, no matter what our status is in the world as far as our job, our money, our education, whether we’re at home or in a career. No matter who we are, we matter,” she told the gathering. “We have purpose and we have something to be able to add to the world and so that’s what I want to encourage each and every one of us with today.”

Ms. Payne shared the story of her journey because she believes there is power in sharing stories. “When we can come together as women, like this, and share our story, it’s nice to be able to say, I’m not the only one who felt that way.” The only one is a lonely and debilitating place to be, she said. “There is power in being able to encourage one another and spur each other on, and we can get through the journey we’re going through.”

She raised the question, “Who decides? Who is the person who gets to decide what is good and what is perfect?” We give permission to the world to create what is perfect, she said. “Today I really want to encourage each and every one of us that we are actually imperfectly perfect.”

At the end of the day, she concluded, “People will think about the impact I had on their lives. That’s what’s important. What is my purpose on earth and how can I best accomplish that?”

Elaine Alec is the author of ‘Calling My Spirit Back,’ a memoir about growing up as an Indigenous girl in Canada and the impacts of colonization. She speaks from the heart as she was taught because, “as long as you’re speaking from the heart you can never say anything wrong.” In her workshop on cultivating safe spaces, Ms. Alec reminded people that the foundation for any action is understanding yourself.

Wellness comes in many forms and during this year’s wellness week, Island women were introduced to different ideas, tips and techniques to help achieve wellness with presenters including Gloria Oshkabewisens-McGregor, who explored our relationship to the four medicines in “Creator’s Healing Instructions to the Four Medicines.” Candice Irwin led an interactive session that focused on movement and dance and their connection to wellness. Annie Cassie introduced participants to yoga and breath work. Amy Rempel provided a hands-on experience with meditation and the emotional freedom technique of tapping.

There were different ways to participate throughout the week. “We did get good numbers, especially with the bigger presentations,” Ms. Playford said. “With the yoga workshop, participation was a little smaller. The movement workshops also had smaller groups and that was fine.”

Those who couldn’t work with the online format were still eligible to receive a wellness care package delivered to them. “For some people, just receiving that care package of local things caringly put together and delivered in the bleak winter of Manitoulin, especially if they have been cut off for the past couple of years, it was really quite a nice thing. For some people, that was participation enough and that was how they were supported. For others who received the package and also participated, that was what they needed.”

Although the event was virtual, there was a strong sense of women supporting women throughout. This was Ms. Playford’s first year coordinating the event. “There are some obvious drawbacks (to virtual events) like not being able to come together in the community and we just overly miss that. We would like to gather, to smudge and to be together next year.”

There are definitely some advantages to the format, she noted. “Some people might find it hard to commute. The Island is big and people who have childcare responsibilities or maybe have other reasons to be tied more closely to home can join virtually. Somebody mentioned they hope next year the event is in person but that there’s also a virtual element. It is a mode of inclusivity, basically, is what we’re discovering as well.”

The virtual format also “lowers the barriers for entry, by allowing people to join anonymously with no expectation,” she said. “You can have your camera off and just listen. That’s totally fine. You don’t have to feel like you’re going to have to tell your life story. People started to get comfortable and turned their cameras on when they were ready to share.”

MFR’s outreach team demonstrated their skill at engaging and connecting with participants, offering support and making them feel comfortable. “Their skills really shone through, even with that platform,” Ms. Playford acknowledged. “It seems that people felt connected and I think that had to do with the Tea and Chat sessions hosted by the outreach team.”

Several Tea and Chat sessions followed presentations throughout the weeklong event. These were a “get together space where people literally had snacks and shared stuff about their pets and just talked. It really worked,” said Ms. Playford. “It really worked as a community building piece despite the obvious drawbacks. We do want to be together. This wellness week really seemed to make best use of what virtual allowed in terms of including people who would otherwise find it hard to get out of the house and come across the Island to do things. We found ways to make space as a group together, which was really nice.”

People want to do something to keep the energy going throughout the year, Ms. Playford said. As the event concluded, people remarked on the “sense of connecting that was empowering for people,” she noted. “That can be something that can be built from this too, women supporting women. There was interest and need.”

“People are hardest on each other when they themselves are feeling most isolated or frustrated, so reaching out with open arms and creating a supportive space kind of changes everyone’s stance to one of mutual support,” Ms. Playford said.

The outreach team at MFR is thinking about how they can create that supportive space, she said. “We need to catch our breath but I really feel there’s some momentum here.”