Vivianne Silver believes she’s well equipped to realize her vision of building bridges between Montreal women of different backgrounds.
Silver is the new president of the Montreal Council of Women (MCW), a 120-year-old umbrella organization with 70 affiliated groups, as well as individual members, representing a total membership of 30,000.
She’s only the third Jewish president – an elected position – in its history and hopes to contribute to a better understanding of Judaism and the community during her two-year term.
She’s completely bilingual and would like to reach out to francophones and expand what is mainly an anglophone membership.
Silver is also an immigrant, born in Egypt, who came to Canada with her family in 1957 when Jews were forced to leave after the Suez crisis. Thus, she is in a position to appeal to ethnic communities. (Her command of Italian will also help.)
Furthermore, she’s an educator, who retired two years ago after a 42-year career as a CEGEP teacher. She taught French at Dawson College from 1969 to 1994, and then at John Abbott College, where she was also co-ordinator of women’s studies, another skill she brings to her role as MCW president.
At the MCW’s recent celebration of its milestone anniversary, Silver’s address was bilingual – a first, she thinks, as likely was her invocation of the traditional Jewish blessing that one should live to be 120.
Four Jewish groups are affiliated with the MCW, and Silver is working on increasing that: the Jewish General Hospital Auxiliary, Montreal Hadassah-WIZO, Act to End Violence Against Women, Balfour chapter (formerly Jewish Women International of Canada), and the Book Lovers’ Forum of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom.
Silver first got involved with the MCW while serving as the forum’s chair starting in 2007.
When the all-volunteer MCW asked her to be education convenor, she readily agreed, impressed with its record in advancing the rights of and quality of life of women.
She shook up its programming, changing it from mainly social to topical, inviting speakers on a variety of current issues to its monthly meetings.
Facing retirement, Silver found the task a good transition from her professional life. After serving as executive vice-president, standing for president was the next step in that journey.
The 120th anniversary celebration was not the usual party, either. Instead, there was a panel discussion on Bill 60, the proposed Quebec values charter, with two outspoken human rights activists, lawyers Pearl Eliadis and Shahad Salman, who offered a young Muslim woman’s perspective.
The MCW is non-partisan, Silver said, but talking about the charter in a frank way fit in with its goal of creating “a spirit of tolerance and mutual respect” in society in general.
While the welfare of women is its focus, the MCW has been an advocate for social justice for all.
“The organization is definitely still relevant,” said Silver, who is trying to bring in younger women.
The MCW has its roots in the city’s English-speaking elite. Its founder was Lady Isabel Aberdeen and its first president was Lady Julia Drummond.
The first Jewish president took office 50 years ago: Beatrice Hayes, wife of Saul Hayes, then-executive director of Canadian Jewish Congress.
The current honorary president is Lucie Pépin, a former MP and retired senator.
As Silver said at the celebration, over its history, the MCW has played a role in advancing the cause of women and families, weathering the many social changes in the province.
The MCW’s landmark was recognized by Parliament. Mount Royal MP Irwin Cotler said in the House of Commons, “In the last few months alone, the [MCW] has advocated for improved public transit, raised awareness about bullying in schools, and honoured the important contributions of women to the field of journalism, while as an affiliate of the International Council of Women, it has continued to concern itself with the plight of women worldwide.”
Men are welcome to attend MCW events and take part in the discussions, Silver said. “We are a voice for women, but not only a women’s voice.”