Letter From Our Founder
It has been eleven years since I started The Shoe Project in Toronto in 2011. I knew newcomer women who had much to give to Canada were often sidelined by a lack of expressive writing and speaking skills in English. Women especially- whether journalists, teachers, psychologists, nannies, or homemakers- were kept out of the Canadian conversation unnecessarily. I wanted to hear from those women. My idea was to create a writing workshop for immigrant and refugee women to tell their stories. Heather Gardiner, a philanthropist and English literature, scholar pitched in with some funds. Elizabeth Semmelhack, now Creative Director of The Bata Shoe Museum, offered the museum’s lunchroom on Thursday evenings—on the condition that we talk and write about shoes.
In this small way, we began—twelve women newcomers from five continents sitting around a table with me and an ESL coach, drinking tea. In wide-ranging and often emotional conversations, we explored “the shoes I left behind”, “the shoes I wore to cross the border” and “the shoes I dreamed I would wear in my new life.” After ten weeks of sharing, coaching, and editing, each member had written a 600- word memoir of her journey. At the reception that opened the exhibit of their shoes, our writers- from Afghanistan, China, Russia, Columbia, Ukraine, Japan, Eritrea, Turkey, Brazil – spoke into the microphone and I realized that we needed to do more.
We began to work with drama coaches. One session became two a year, then we had three years of sessions. We built chapters in Vancouver, Canmore, Calgary, Edmonton, and Halifax. The women had gone from writing a memoir of shoes and migration, to telling their personal stories in public – in a second or third language. For many, it was a journey they never believed they could make. For audiences it has provided a glimpse into a new Canada they have not appreciated.
A decade and a year has passed. The Shoe Project has brought together veteran writers and theatre artists across Canada with refugees and immigrants to exchange storytelling skills for brilliant insights into the lived experiences of women as they leave one life behind and build a new one. It has been a phenomenal experience for me. The journey continues as Board members and alumnae take on the management and direction of The Shoe Project. All its successes are their own. I will be cheering from the wings.
Katherine’s most recent novel is The Three Sisters Bar and Hotel, set in the Rocky Mountains. Her previous novel, The Ghost Brush, is about the daughter of the Japanese printmaker, Hokusai, and was published worldwide. Her earlier novel, Creation, about John James Audubon in Labrador, was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. She has won the Toronto Book Award (1992) and Canada’s Findley-Engel Award for a mid-career writer (1997) and has been President of PEN Canada and Chair of The Writers’ Trust. Born in Edmonton, Katherine holds a degree in Honours English from the University of Alberta and a Master’s in English Literature from York University. In Dec 2019 she was made a Member of the Order of Canada.