Good for one another
When Mary Anne Chambers arrived in Toronto from Jamaica in 1976 with her husband and two little boys, she had two things on her mind. “I was determined Canada was going to be good for us and that we were going to be good for Canada.”
More than 30 years later, Chambers’ wish has been granted. Both she and Canada have been very good for each other. Not only is Mary Anne’s professional career the envy of most people, she’s managed to improve life for a number of Canadians along the way, making her more than amply qualified for the YWCA’s 2010 Women of Distinction Award for Community Service.
Mary Anne received her university education at the U of T and from there entered the world of banking as a computer programer/analyst, moving up the corporate ladder to become a Senior Vice-President at Scotiabank in 1989. She graduated from the Executive Management Program at Queen’s in 1995.
Mary Anne also got involved in a variety of volunteer organizations, including the United Way of Greater Toronto. She found her volunteerism so satisfying that she took early retirement in order to have more time free to get involved. However, she soon found herself wooed by the provincial Liberals, who wanted her to run in the upcoming election.
Mary Anne had never considered a political career, but she felt a responsibility to run. “There aren’t many black women at that level of public service, so here was an opportunity to blend minority voices with those in the broader community,” she explains.
Mary Anne won election as the MPP for Scarborough East, serving from 2003-2007 and she was appointed Minister of Training, Colleges, and Universities. She had previous experience in the world of higher education from her tenure on the Governing Council of the U of T, where she helped establish a policy (adopted by other Canadian universities) ensuring that lack of money would not be a barrier for students accepted at university. During that time, she had also learned the strengths and shortcomings of Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) and when she became Minister of Training, Colleges and Universities she improved access to the initiative.
In 2005, she was appointed Minister of Children and Youth Services, where she established the first regulatory college for early childhood educators in North America along with the largest expansion of licensed subsidized child care in Ontario’s history– 22,000 new spaces. Mary Anne herself was also responsible for legislation making it easier for children in the child-welfare system to find permanent homes.
She recalls some of what she calls “tricky times,” but there were also many rewarding ones. “I remember my first funding announcement,” she says. “Parents and staff at children’s mental health treatment centres cried because they hadn’t had an increase in funding for so many years.”
Mary Anne says her ministry also changed the age limitation for children with autism to receive intensive behaviour intervention; it had been the age of six. As well, she helped to establish the first independent office for the province’s child and youth advocate.
Mary Anne decided not to run again but was grateful for the experience. “In hindsight I realize if you’re conscientious and committed you can have a really significant impact on the lives of a substantial number of people.”
These days she keeps busy with her volunteer work. In addition to sponsoring a mentorship program at the U of T, she sits on the board for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and the board of directors of the Project for Advancement of Early Childhood Education through which she sponsors two schools in Jamaica. Last year, two schools were adopted in Toronto in low-income areas through the program.
Mary Anne also speaks with children in schools and seeks to inspire them. “Young people are always looking for role models. It’s not just black kids, these are all kids. Whenever I visit the schools I find it so energizing. You know you can have impact.”
So all these years later, Mary Anne Chambers can look back with satisfaction in knowing that she has helped bring about positive changes here in Canada. “I still love Jamaica, but I’m proof that you can love more than one country. Even when I go to Jamaica, when I return here, I’m so happy to call Canada home.”