Remarkable Woman of 2011 in Vancouver

Jane Rukaria with husband Patrick O’Reilly and son Killian Mwenda (seated) and friends at the at the City of Vancouver Parks Board Remarkable Women 2011 Awards celebration. (Standing L to R:Selina Chan, Jennifer Khayang, Njambi Woods, Lilliana Chuaqui, daughter Fauziya Issa, Julianne Okot Bitek, Maika Tshimbalanga, Judy Lynch)

Jane Rukaria with husband Patrick O’Reilly and son Killian Mwenda (seated) and friends at the at the City of Vancouver Parks Board Remarkable Women 2011 Awards celebration. (Standing L to R:Selina Chan, Jennifer Khayang, Njambi Woods, Lilliana Chuaqui, daughter Fauziya Issa, Julianne Okot Bitek, Maika Tshimbalanga, Judy Lynch)

Report from Mossul Byugduv, special for The Afro News : International Women’s Day saw the City of Vancouver honouring fourteen women of diverse backgrounds and abilities for their commitment to community building. Among these Remarkable Women of 2011 we were delighted to see one of our own – Jane Gatwiri Rukaria from Kenya.

Jane was presented with her honour by Parks Board Commissioner Constance Barnes who is daughter of the late Emery Barnes, one of the first two black politicians elected to a legislative office in British Columbia.

‘International Women’s Day is an opportunity to celebrate and honour the achievements of women from all over the world, different cultures, backgrounds and ethnicities,’ said Jane after receiving her award. ‘This is a very special day for me. My late Mother would have been so proud to be part of this today!’

The AfroNews caught up with Jane after the recognition ceremonies for a one-on-one interview.

TAN: Congratulations on being selected as one of the Remarkable Women of 2011 by the City of Vancouver. How does that feel?

I actually feel very humble, and as I stood in line with other women who had done so much over the years, I felt very privileged to share the evening with them. As someone who is new in Vancouver, I am very happy that my work outside the office has been so valued. And as I sat there and listened to Commissioner Barnes introduce me, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that I am the product of many hands: my Mother, Grandmother and the many women who held my hand along the way, as well as my friends and family here in Canada.

Remarkable Woman of 2011 in Vancouver Jane Gatwiri Rukaria

Remarkable Woman of 2011 in Vancouver Jane Gatwiri Rukaria

TAN: As one of the very few black female lawyers in western Canada, what are the biggest challenges you face in your practice?

I think when you belong to a visible minority and speak with an accent, you are made to feel that a little bit more is expected of you. I can recall an experience when a client took one look at me and decided that she couldn’t understand one word I was saying. And in some situations people don’t recognize that I’m the lawyer in the room. If I sense I am being evaluated and assessed, I just try to do my very best every day. But I am blessed by a very faithful and diverse group of clients who give me great joy, so I really enjoy what I do.

Another challenge arises from the fact that I also give a lot of free advice to fellow Africans, either individually or through outreach into the community but it hasn’t necessarily translated into paid work for me. But I am just happy to be of service to my community.

Maybe the biggest challenge I face in my profession is the ability to network with other black women, either lawyers or in business. I would like to change that so that our daughters have it easier than we do.

TAN: Your citation referred to the fact that you do a lot for the community through your pro-bono work – can you tell us a bit about that?

I work through the Access Pro Bono Society of BC to give some of my time to help people who simply cannot afford to pay for legal advice – the clinic I support is the one at the Gathering Place downtown. Also through the Canadian Bar Association program I give legal advice for 30 minutes for $25. But in my office on a daily basis I’m always doing something for free over the phone, especially if a client has a prepared list of questions. I find that many people, especially new immigrants, simply don’t know how our system works here in Canada and I try to assist by seeing if I can help them navigate the system. As you know the legal system can be very daunting. And there is such an overwhelming need for legal aid for so many people whether it’s in applying for Legal Aid or accessing legal services.

TAN: What do you think should be done about to improve the legal aid situation here in BC?

Considering the financial constraints on Legal Aid they do a good job, but, still many people are going without legal services because they cannot qualify for Legal Aid. Of course it’s easy to ask for more money to be dedicated to Legal Aid – but I believe that if every lawyer in BC gave an hour a week of non-billable time to such people we would be able to open up the justice system for many more. I don’t think we have embraced this idea enough.

TAN: Much of your work deals with immigration issues faced by fellow Africans – are there particular trends that you are seeing?

Extreme delays in family re-unification – especially for cases handled by the Canadian embassies in Nairobi, Accra and Pretoria. I had a recent case where an adoption file got stuck in Pretoria for a year but correspondence went unanswered. It took the intervention of headquarters here in Canada to get us the visa. And applying for a visitor visa or study permit is getting much harder for African applicants.

On a more positive note, there is lots of potential for skilled workers to enter Canada from Africa. There are many who have degrees and who can speak English or French well and would qualify as a skilled worker, nurses and IT workers for example. I know of many from my own country, Kenya, who have created successful careers in their field here. However, I feel that Canada’s policies relating to skilled workers have failed to recognize the huge potential Africa has.

TAN: You mentioned refugees–do you think Canada is doing a good job resettling refugees from Africa?

Yes. However, current government policies are not going far enough to account for the circumstances of resettled refugees. The one-year period to find housing, get a job and perhaps retrain or learn a new language and pay back loans, leaves people feeling panicked and unsupported. Anyone resettling from traumatic situations needs much more time to get settled and fully integrated – it takes time to get past any major trauma; people just don’t transition from where they came from to where they are now without a lot of support. And this all leads to many problems for resettled refugees.

Jane Rukaria with Commissioner Constance Barnes at the City of Vancouver Parks Board Remarkable Women 2011 Awards celebration

Jane Rukaria with Commissioner Constance Barnes at the City of Vancouver Parks Board Remarkable Women 2011 Awards celebration

TAN: So what’s missing here in BC to support immigrants, particularly those from Africa, whether they are refugees or not?

I think a major part of the solution lies within the African community in BC. I feel strongly we can do much more. We have many talented and experienced people who ought to be working together and with government to support our newly-arrived fellow Africans. But we tend to organize into fragmented groups when we should all be working together for the African community at large. I have clients from all over Africa who would benefit from this broader approach. And of course it would allow us to advocate and lobby more effectively.

TAN: If you were Minister of Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism for a day, what would be the one thing you would change?

I would reverse the recent government decision to cut $53 million for immigration settlement programs across Canada.

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