“I learned over my oatmeal at breakfast that you owed something back.”
Maude Barlow, LLD’05, shared those morning meals with her father, William McGrath, a justice advocate who led the fight in Canada against capital punishment and pushed to support Indigenous youth through changes in the law. “He was my hero,” she said.
Inspired by those lessons, Barlow dedicated her life to social justice and environmental activism, and she continues to make an impact around issues such as women’s rights and access to clean water.
The award-winning author and activist was recently named to a three-year term as Chancellor of Brescia University College, acting as an ambassador and inspirational leader for the Western affiliated college in this honourary position.
As Chancellor, Barlow will preside over Brescia’s graduation ceremonies and support its mission of educating future women leaders. She is the third chancellor in Brescia’s history, as she follows Justice Eileen Gillese, a former Dean of Western Law, and inaugural Chancellor Joan Francolini.
The recipient of 14 honorary doctorates and numerous awards, Barlow is the Honorary Chairperson of the Council of Canadians and co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, supporting a case for the human right to access clean water. She has written numerous books, including her latest, Whose Water is it Anyway?: Taking Water Protection into Public Hands.
Early on, Barlow was inspired to activism by the women’s movement of the 1970s, particularly around the issue of violence against women and media violence.
“It’s really about finding a way to express and live the values that I’ve been taught,” said Barlow, Chair of the Board of the Washington, D.C.-based organization Food & Water Watch. She also served as Senior Advisor on Water to the 63rd President of the United Nations General Assembly in 2008 and 2009.
“We’re taught these values as children. But how we go about expressing them and how to make them real, that becomes something else. It’s always very exciting to be a part of.”
Barlow admits that battling corporations and countries can quickly lead to disillusionment; the desire shrug your shoulders and move on is easy to surrender to.
“It’s hard – no question. You lose more than you win if you look at it as just victory versus defeat,” she said. “But when you look at it as building a movement, then the victories and defeats come together and create a much stronger sense of solidarity. It’s not a case of winning or losing or failing; you’re building a movement towards justice for all.”
It is always a battle over the long haul, she continued. That is a fact many forget.
“If you become negative or one of these people who becomes angry at the world, you need to remember it’s not about you – it’s about a larger movement,” Barlow said. “You have to understand you need to get up in the morning, put a smile on your face and go out and face the world. Working for environmental and social justice is the most important thing we can do with our lives.
“You’re about something more than yourself. That’s what keeps many of us going.”
While she realizes being in the spotlight is not for everyone, there are important roles for all to undertake – writing letters, making phone calls, stuffing envelopes or offering support.
“Anything you do is valued,” she said. “Not everyone is the same – but everyone can make a difference. Don’t feel you’re too small or insignificant. You’re not.”
Barlow will deliver the annual Dr. Hanycz Leadership Lecture as part of Brescia’s International Women’s Day celebrations at 6:30 p.m. March 5 in the St. James Building Auditorium. She is looking forward to her time as Chancellor and sharing her passion with the students.
“My passion the last few years has been for the human rights to water. I’d like to get a lot of students at both Brescia and Western excited about the issue,” she said. “People think it’s far away and affects poor people in certain countries. But they don’t understand it’s a real issue in Indigenous communities here in Canada.
“We are a planet in crisis around water. But there are things we can do. It’s the great ecological and human threat of our time. I don’t think people understand what’s coming.”