Senator Paulette Senior on Taking Up Space

by Caroline Leal | February 22, 2024
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If her legacy wasn’t already assured by the years of work disrupting barriers to gender justice and equity as CEO of YWCA Canada and then as CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, Paulette Senior has now guaranteed herself a place in our nation’s history. Representing Ontario, Senator Senior was welcomed to the Red Chamber on February 6, 2024.  

“I know who I am. I know what I’m passionate about and I certainly want and intend to bring that as part of the work I do in the Senate,” says Senator Senior.  

Reducing women’s poverty. Shrinking the wage gap. Addressing gender-based violence - these are some of the social justice issues at the forefront of her work. For Senior, taking a leap into Canada’s legislative branch of government ensures that the voices of people in the margins, herself included, are involved in the decision-making. How does it feel to leave the charitable sector and cross to the other side?  

“If not us, then who?” she answers with a confident smile.  

I'm thinking of the fact that we're still here and we weren't meant to be here. And when I say here, I mean here physically, but also here successfully. Surviving what was meant to suppress us and throw us away like we didn't matter, and daring to be in spaces where we weren't intended to be. We’re still here.
Senator Paulette Senior
photo of a black woman wearing a red blazer
Photo: Caroline Leal/Oxfam

We're Still Here

For Senior, advocacy has always been a passion - a way of life. Raised within a Jamaican immigrant family in 1970’s Toronto, it’s her life experiences as a racialized woman that led her to a career in social justice and consequentially, the Canadian Senate. Senior has led, managed, and operated shelters, employment programs and housing services, where she supported women, children, and youth in some of Toronto's most economically disadvantaged neighbourhoods. She went on to lead major national women’s organizations and sat on the board of directors of several organizations, including the Women’s College Hospital and most recently, Oxfam Canada.  

But there wasn’t a particular ah-ha moment that pushed her to walk on the Senate’s signature red carpet.  

“For some populations more than others, political decisions impact our lives. They matter, whether it’s funding, criminal justice, housing or poverty. All of these things touch our lives – and I’m part of those populations,” says Senior.  

She shares a story of how, despite being in this country for almost 50 years and leading national organizations for a long time, people still ask her – how did you get here? The word here, whether in the physical or metaphysical sense , comes with a double-edged sword. “There’s clearly genuine curiosity,” explains Senior, “but there’s also a I-wouldn’t-expect-you-to-be-here kind of thing,”.  

And that is precisely why it’s essential for racialized women like Senior to step into these roles of leadership in all sectors, and in all levels of government.  

“It’s to demonstrate that there isn’t a space where we don’t belong,” Senior adds, “demonstration is part of the struggle, and so is insistence.”  


Does Senator Senior ever get tired? “Of course!” she laughs, “if we don’t get tired, then something is wrong.”  

For advocates and activists, it can be easy to fall into a culture of martyrdom, fearing being seen as uncommitted to a cause. During a TED Talk at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Senior told the crowd that when it comes to social change, “it’s about seeing it as a relay, rather than an individual event.”  

This is echoed in Tireless, a campaign launched by the Canadian Women’s Foundation during Senior’s tenure as CEO and President. The message is clear – to fight tirelessly doesn’t mean one can’t get tired. Rather, to fight tirelessly is to support each other to continue on.  

“It’s only together that we are extraordinarily powerful. That’s where the power comes from.”   

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