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12 year-old Olivia Walsh follows in Agnes Macphail’s footsteps

OliviaAt their February 16, 2017 meeting, the Canadian Federation of University Women (CFUW) Leaside-East York will welcome a 12-year-old, not as a child prodigy university graduate, but as a guest speaker who is an expert on homelessness.

Olivia Walsh, a Grade 7 student at St. Anselm Catholic School, was a co-winner of the Agnes Macphail Public Speaking Contest in February 2016, the only Grade 6 student to take part in the contest last year.

The contest, organized by the Agnes Macphail Recognition Committee,is open mainly to schools in the old Borough of East York, the area which Agnes Macphail represented as one of the first female MPPs in the 1940s. Macphail was also the first female elected as a Member of Parliament in 1921, the first female in a Canadian delegation to the League of Nations, and an advocate for the rights of women, miners, immigrants, farmers and prisoners. The purpose of the contest is to raise awareness in young people of Macphail’s accomplishments, and to promote the art of public speaking, one of her many talents.

Olivia first became involved in the contest at St. Anselm’s where all the Grade 6, 7 and 8 classes participate in a public speaking competition every January in order to choose two representatives for the Macphail contest. She was intrigued by the idea and determined to be one of her school’s representatives.

Olivia’s motivation stemmed from her passion for the timely issue of homelessness. In their travels, her family had seen many homeless people in American cities. She was moved by the experience of seeing a man in downtown Toronto covering himself with a blanket on the sidewalk. “When I went to bed that night, I thought about how grateful I was to have a roof over my head, and wondered what I could do for that man and others like him,” she says.

Olivia’s decision to explore homelessness was encouraged by her mother, Michelle Flowerday, who, during her time at McGill University, was part of the “Dans la Rue” team, distributing food and hot chocolate to homeless youth in Montreal from a Winnebago on Sunday nights. Michelle and Olivia also volunteer every Monday night at St. Brigid’s Out of the Cold Program on Danforth Ave.

Michelle, a lawyer, was one of Olivia’s sources for the information in her speech. Olivia also consulted books from the Leaside Library and got statistics from internet sources. Once she won in her own class, she progressed to the school-wide competition where she was chosen as one of the two students to continue to the final contest.

After being named as one of the co-winners of the Macphail contest last February, Olivia recited her speech at the annual Agnes Macphail award ceremony and at a meeting of the East York Historical Society. Lis Lister, who organizes the speech competition with her husband, Bob, was impressed by Olivia’s dynamic personality, confidence and passion, and by the fact that she did not just discuss the problem, but outlined ways to improve the situation.

Olivia has several suggestions for alleviating the plight of the homeless such as spending more money treating and supporting people with mental illnesses so they do not end up on the street. She also believes, “We need to make sure that there are enough homeless shelters, medical clinics and support groups to take care of the homeless.” She herself hopes to study sciences and to become a pediatrician with a special desire to help homeless youth.

Pat Barnett, program chair of the CFUW Leaside-East York, heard Olivia’s original speech and asked her to present it again at their meeting this February. With her mature insights and aspirations, Olivia is a perfect fit for the group, whose mandate, as stated on their website, is to come together, learn and advocate in order “to improve the status of women and girls, and to promote human rights, public education, social justice and peace.”