Anna Willats

Toronto Through the Eyes of Anna Willats

Anna Willats approaches life through her political filter: from the serious, like her 19-year stint working at Toronto's Rape Crisis Centre, to the social, like dancing in Caribana as a mischief-making Blue Devil, splashing revellers with blue paint.

Growing up in Milton, Willats's passion for social justice issues was ignited at 17-years of age. She was at a town hall meeting convened by the late, crusading anti-abortion, anti-queer Baptist preacher, Ken Campbell to block a visit by a gay man and a lesbian to her high school to "rap" about homosexuality. "I was not identifying as homosexual, and I thought I didn't know anybody who was queer, but I really reacted to the hate in this guy, I just couldn't understand that level of hatred," says Willats.

Willats moved to Toronto in 1982 and she's been fighting for women's and queer rights in the city ever since. Her latest project, as a professor in the Assaulted Women's and Children's Counsellor/Advocate Program at George Brown College, is a pre-apprenticeship program to help female victims of violence women get started in a trade. A self-described "party animal" Willats mixes social justice and socializing, and as she celebrates her 53rd birthday today, it's obvious her politically driven life in T.O. is positively fun.

When you think of Toronto what three words come to mind?

Home. Queer. Festivals.

I love how queer Toronto is. I found it very difficult travelling in Europe this summer because I am a woman who doesn't appear as feminine so I get taken for a man a lot. And in a couple of the countries we were in I was getting stared at... getting a little freaked when I went to the washroom... This is a safe place for me, this is a place where I can be myself, and feel just comfortable in my skin.

You were the Honoured Dyke for the Dyke March in 2008, and you've been going to Pride since 1982. We know Pride as a massive, corporate celebration that's growing every year (even the Canadian military marched this year). What was it like back then?

It was a lot smaller, a lot more grassroots. The trucks were the flatbed kind and on the back local bars would gather dancers. In a funny kind of way, it hasn't changed a lot - most of the time the floats are people dressed up in costumes and dancing and club music, kind of fun like that. But in the past there were more political contingents like Queers Act Up... I marched with "Stop Police Brutality" signs in the past, I marched with the Committee to Stop Targeted Policing. Like Queers Against Israeli Apartheid, that group that marched this year, wouldn't have been controversial back then I don't think.

I feel like there's a bit of nostalgia when you're speaking of Pride days of old.

Well I prefer being able to jump in and jump out when I wanted to. And I really don't like the tall, tall fences that get put up, that feel like you're caged in and people are caged out. A lot of people are very critical of Pride and they want it to go back to what it used to be. But the fact is that it can never go back - people travel from all over the world to go to our parade. Having said that, I don't really want to be part of something that the Canadian military is marching in. It becomes less and less appealing I think for many, many queer people to participate in something that is really a Pride Parade - but I don't know if it's really definitive what we're proud of.

I missed the Trans Pride March this year and many people told me that it felt like more what Pride used to be. The trans community is an emerging queer community that is really claiming their right to take up space and be honoured for the identities they choose, so that make sense to me that you would have a political, exciting parade that's not over-prescribed. Personally that would be my choice.

What neighborhood did you live in when you moved to Toronto in the '80s?

My first apartment was at Markham and College. I was a member of the Toronto Rape Crisis Centre (TRCC), which was near College and Spadina. My partner and I had two children but before we had kids we moved with a group of other women and lived collectively in Riverdale.

Like communal?

It was co-operative living. I joined the RCC in 1982... and it was quite a place to be a radical feminist and a radical queer. We approached everything through our political filter, as you should, so we talked about women with children, about shared responsibility for raising children, about breaking down nuclear family structures, about taking responsibility for the children in our neighborhoods, in our lives. So a group of about six of us lived together in a house on Browning Avenue for four years in Riverdale. My then partner and our son left that house... and later we moved out to Main and Danforth until we split up in '95. And I met my current partner Helen and now we also live in a shared living situation. We have for 13 years now.

What does shared living mean?

Well we share the first floor living space, living room, family room - it's a big mansion we call the Lesbian Mansion, or the Woman-sion. It's actually got a neat history. It was called the Digger House.

Oh, the Diggers in the sixties?

Yeah. Yeah. And you know this house has quite a vibe to it, I don't know there's something about it that's just quite wonderful. And it's been co-operative living ever since it was Digger House to the present. My understanding is that Digger House worked but didn't work in some ways and she learned a lot of lessons, June Callwood, but it was a place for runaway teenagers and youth, a lot of draft dodgers, a lot of radical, lefty type of folks. You can trace the history a little bit by the mail that still comes to the house. It was Jewish lesbians for awhile and then it morphed into shared, kind of hippie type of people and now it's the Lesbian Mansion.

But it's shared space on first floor, laundry, backyard, front porch and then everybody has their rooms on the second and third floors. And my partner and I my two kids lived on the third floor. My son doesn't live with us now, but my daughter still does. And then a number of different people live on the second floor. Co-operative living is difficult. It's not for everybody... it's not the cleanest place on the planet but... I love it. I like living that way politically because it does break down nuclear family structures and I don't feel it's healthy to get isolated off with your family and your kids. It helps relationships and it helps you to maybe bite your tongue when you need to.

What about your daughter?

She's 20 and she looooves it. For her the bonus is that most of our roommates are young women so she's had a steady stream of young women come into the house who are involved in the queer cultural scene, are young feminists, are young radical women who maybe are saying the same kind of things that Helen and I would say, but it's from her peer group, right? And she's told me that even if I were to leave the house, she would stay. My son did not like it very much - he likes his privacy.

I'm the oldest one in the house, and I'm probably the bossiest one in the house and people kind of look to me and my partner as probably the house mothers. I love having young women around me; it helps me feel connected to what's going on in the city... it helps me feel connected to my queer community.

You say you're a party animal. What do you do in the city after dark?

I go to club events, like Granny Boots over at the Gladstone (one of my roommates is the curator). I really enjoy going to the Toronto Women's Bookstore event, seeing a local group of electronic musicians called Lal (they are an electronic music, politically active band). I love going to fundraisers, whether it's the Rape Crisis Centre or no one is illegal. I like going to panels, discussions, talks - you know, Naomi Klein's in town, bell hooks, Noam Chomsky. The Cherry Bomb events. Harbourfront concerts, strolling on Church Street, strolling in our neighborhood, you know.. a glass of wine...

What about that glass of wine... where do you like to eat in the city?

We like going to Slacks. Real Thailand at Bloor and Spadina. Love going for Baskin Robbins ice cream. We like Mitzi's and Mitzi's Sister in Parkdale.

And what's the one place in Toronto that you think people should know about that they might not know exists?

I remember the first time I discovered the Music Garden. That was a real treat to discover.

If you could tell City Hall to do one thing right now what would it be?

There are people who get the ear of city councillors and then there are an awful lot of people who don't. And there needs to be a mechanism to bring input from people who are marginalized... in the same way that lobbyists can bring the concerns of their corporate clients or their developers.

Maybe one of the most important things is to reverse amalgamation, because before that disaster imposed by Harris, Toronto wasn't perfect, but certainly people's connection to their local city councilor was more evident.

And they really need to look at the police budget. We look at community services very, very hard, we look at outside and inside workers very, very hard - lots of scrutiny, lots of criticism, lots of looking for ways to save money. But when we look at policing it's this sacred cow that nobody will touch... And I think we could be a little more creative about how policing services are delivered in this city. There are examples of doing policing differently and I would like to see us being committed to that.

Photo: Nicola Betts

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