2006 Alumni

Special Recognition Northeast

Pat Aitken

Pat AitkenPat Aitken embraced cultural diversity with her heart, mind and soul. She spoke it, wrote about it and most importantly, she lived it.

Aitken was a woman with a social conscience who knew the global and community issues of social injustice. With this knowledge, she set out to make it right.

Unfortunately, Aitken was taken from her work, friends, and family when she came to an untimely death in October 2005, as a result of a motor vehicle accident.

It is those same close friends and colleagues who nominated her as Greater Sudbury's most influential woman. With this Special Recognition Award, Aitken's vast accomplishments will be brought to the forefront, imparting a greater appreciation of her contributions to the public sector.

Born in Winnipeg, the bilingual mother of one lived in Toronto where she received her post-secondary education. With a degree in English literature, she moved to Sudbury in the '70s to perform editorial and freelance work for several media outlets. She also operated a business called Northern Writing Services.

Aitken's teaching experience in English composition at Laurentian University and Cambrian College fueled her advocacy for the instruction of proper literacy skills in the education system. Consequently, she assisted in implementing Writing Across the Curriculum (WAC), an exam testing literacy skills of students, says Colette Mann, a former colleague at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA).

Aitken also wrote a guidebook on cultural diversity while working as a public education co-ordinator at the CMHA, further testimony to her strengths as a communicator. Published through the CMHA, the book was called Embracing Cultural Diversity: A Resource Guide to Canadian Parents. It was a means of advocacy aimed at parents to educate their children about racism and tolerance in the environment in which they are raised.

"Seeing injustice was a catalyst for a lot of her actions," former colleague and friend Donna Vendramin said.

As a social development officer with the Department of Canadian Heritage, Vendramin worked with Aitken on the guidebook. She said it was a "fantastic resource." The guide was promoted nationally and has become a valuable educational resource.

Described as a spiritual, compassionate woman with a great mind, Vendramin said Aitken had an authentic commitment to helping people, particularly the underdog.

"She would see what needed to be done, roll up her sleeves and jump in."

This was evident during her 12-year employment at the CMHA. Mann worked side by side with Aitken in providing presentations for schools, teachers, and community forums covering a myriad of topics such as suicide, racism and mental health issues, to name a few.

"Pat worked diligently at making sure everybody was included," Mann said. "She was somebody who wanted to make a difference."

When Aitken became policy advisor for former Sudbury mayor Jim Gordon, she recognized the need for institutional change, Mann says.

Consequently, she was able to influence decision-making and policy on a municipal level, which had ripple effects across Northern Ontario.

In the fall of 2002, a position paper was struck called Embracing the Future: A New Vision for Northern Ontario. Nine specific proposals were created from a coalition of northern mayors in consultation with the Federation of Northern Ontario Municipalities (FONOM) and the Northwestern Ontario Municipalities Association (NOMA).

Aitken was instrumental in moving this paper forward. She saw that getting the North working together on projects would serve the common good better than a fragmented approach and competition between regions, according to Jean McKechnie, executive assistant to the mayor that worked with Aitken.

Although parts of the proposal remain a "work in progress," several offshoots have resulted, such as the Grow Bonds investment initiative and the Premier's Council on Northern Ontario.

Other initiatives such as Develop Existing and New Research and Development Activity, Use Information and Communication Technology to Connect Northern Ontario, as well as Create Programs and Incentives that Direct Immigrants to the North are all developing programs and indicators of healthy sprouts from a small seed planted by Aitken.

McKechnie described Aitken as the soul, ears and social conscience of the political office. This is evident in the creation of The Diversity Plan called Diversity Thrives Here!

It put racism and awareness on the radar of city council, said Vendramin. It now has an annual budget and advisory committee addressing economic issues and events for the multicultural sector, francophones and Aboriginals.

The Mayor's Welcome has also become an annual gathering each September that invites international college and university students in Sudbury, recognizing their potential contributions to the city.

Aitken also helped bring to the attention of the former mayor some of the social problems in the community. Thus, she played a role in promoting the need for the Samaritan Centre, which hosts several of the city's social service programs for the homeless and vulnerable under one roof.

"She brought a lot of insight into the project and the partners that should be at the table," MecKechnie said.

Described by many as a quiet hero, she had the ability to make each person feel special. She was a woman with flair and style who stayed connected with people in need. This understanding and empathetic nature may have been partly due to the fact that she also experienced periods of depression. Yet despite her personal challenges, she impacted many lives, through her work and in the way she conducted her personal life.

She had many friends in different pockets of the community. In her church life at St. Andrew's United, she sang in the choir, participated in a vast number of outreach programs, fundraising events and the annual fall fair.

Fellow parishioner and friend Judith Traulsen described Aitken as an inspiration. They shared a zest for the outdoors, embarking on a yearly hiking and camping trips in Killarney as part of a diverse group of women self-named "the goddesses."

Aitken's interests were endless, and her enthusiasm and desire to help people emerged in numerous small acts of kindness. She financially assisted John Moore, a local Aboriginal who spent 10 years in jail for a crime he argues to this day he did not commit, to attend a conference in Western Canada for the wrongly accused.

Before she passed away, she looked into organizing a blues concert to raise funds for victims of the Boxing Day tsunami and Hurricane Katrina.

Aitken's compassionate heart lives on in her daughter and new mother Sheila, who works for the Ministry of the Attorney General in the Victim/Witness Assistant Program, working with victims of violent crimes going through the court system.

Aitken's memory lives on in the blooming daffodils sprouting in gardens across Sudbury from bulbs given out at her autumn funeral. Each flower is seen as Aitken's spirit springing forth with the hardy vigour she portrayed throughout her life. As the bulbs multiply in the ground over the years, so will the number of people affected from her hard work, selflessness and valuable contributions, making the world we know a more tolerant, diverse place to live and love life.

-Adelle Larmour

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