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January-February 2017

2017 Kick-Ass Activist: Vanessa Udy

Whether it’s through her work as a law student or a volunteer, Vanessa Udy wants all Quebecers to feel included

Jennifer M. Joseph@IamJenniferMJ

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 11.08.25 AMIn 2011, the Navajo Nation made headlines after an American clothing retailer appropriated its name and started using its traditional patterns on products. It wasn’t the first time Indigenous communities faced such appropriation. That’s why Vanessa Udy, a corporate commercial lawyer from Montreal, is trying to find solutions to these problems.

This year, the 30-year-old took a leap of faith and enrolled in the University of Victoria in B.C. to pursue her master’s in law focused on Indigenous governance. She was determined to fight against cultural injustice within her community. “It came to a point where I had to choose between a career where I did great work and had a great pay, and something that truly interests me,” she says. “There was certainly a risk, but this is where my heart is.”

Udy’s interest in human politics started at a young age. Growing up she struggled with her own cultural identity. She was French but rarely spoke the language and felt left out within her circle. This issue influenced her decision to pursue a career in governance. “At the time, when I went to public school, there was so much diversity and I had a group of diverse friends,” she says. “Seeing the issues with them such as racism, sexism, and language, I very much felt for them when they were going through those things and did what I could to support them.”

As a result of her experiences as a youth, Udy has a different way of understanding others. Both of her parents were social workers, which made her think more about the challenges her peers faced. In her mind, there is no sense in questioning why some people are mistreated. Instead, she works to find solutions and fights back. Whether it is through personal support for women dealing with past relationships or helping groups find their voice in society, she is all about making a change.

In early 2006, Udy got involved in the world of non-profits. Since then, she has been a key member and co-founder of several organizations. She has worked at the McGill legal information clinic as a volunteer, and at Dress for Success Montreal, Batshaw Youth and Family Centre Foundation, and La Fédération des Femmes Du Québec as a committee member. In 2015, she also became a Young Québecers Leading Way advisory committee member, supporting the development of new projects and shaping the engagements of youth in our country.

But most recently, Udy helped found Québec Inclusif, a not-for-profit and non-partisan organization that advocates for respect and inclusion of minority groups. The group was established in 2013 when Quebec’s Bill 60, a charter that would “affirm the values of state secularism,” was tabled. Many believed the bill caused an infringement on the rights of religious freedom, as it would limit government workers from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols. In particular, it would stop some women from wearing hijab.

It was Udy’s job to write a manifesto to oppose the law, and she quickly became the main point of contact in the group. Her hard work with Québec Inclusif paid off when the manifesto turned into a petition, which garnered much-needed public attention and support. “Everything we worked for was now coming into plan. It was a great moment of togetherness and community,” Udy says.

The bill was killed after the 2014 Quebec election, when the Quebec Liberal Party proposed a new law in its place, Bill 62. “The [new] law was much more moderate than Bill 60,” says Udy. “It wasn’t perfect but that bill represented a fairer balance of the values of state secularism and freedom of religion.” Today, Québec Inclusif continues its pursuit to battle other problems in the system.

Udy has also balanced all these opportunities while still working a full-time job. She mentions that she hasn’t perfected the act of management but is still working on finding a balance between both worlds. “As much as we like to think there is equality, there are still a lot of emotional expectations as women being caregivers,” she says. “It’s a part of the reason why a lot of people disclose things to me.”

Udy will continue her education this year, and she also hopes to start her own consulting business. But even after her work with Quebec Inclusif, Udy still thinks she could be doing more. She plans on leaving her mark behind, to keep on fighting.

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