Canada 82/150: Tymmarah Zehr

By Tymmarah Zehr

I grew up in small communities in Canada, moving constantly, so I am used to being the ‘new person’ searching for that sense of belonging. I was born in Toronto and lived in Timmins, Hamilton, Kanata, and Labrador City by the time I was four. When I was six, we moved to Grande Cache, and halfway through my third grade we moved to Fort McMurray. The summer between grades 5 and 6, my mother, brother and I flew to Toronto where we stayed with my father’s parents in Brampton while he drove from Alberta to Ontario – almost 4,000 km. He picked us up and we all drove 2,600 km to Newfoundland, which included a ferry ride to Port-Aux-Basques. Two and a half years later, in the middle of eighth grade, complete with a perfected Newfoundland accent (which I can recall anytime, easily) and a new collection of salt and pepper shakers, we moved again. By now, you have probably guessed that my father was in mining – one of Canada’s major industries.

Up to this point, living in numerous small mining communities where transient families were the norm, I had friends of different cultural backgrounds - Aboriginal, Indian, African, Scottish, and Irish. My first boyfriend was Chinese. I also became aware of differences in socio-economic status and privilege, as well as differences in faith traditions and denominations.

All this exposure provided me with a unique perspective, and by grade 8 we were back in Grande Cache. Once again, I was the new kid and the cliques were well-established. I didn’t fit in anywhere. I soon acquired a reputation as the person who would stop after-school fights. This was the beginning of my efforts to stand up for social justice; for those who are ‘different’ or discriminated upon – anything that seemed unfair.

Upon graduation, I moved to Edmonton and studied Dance at Grant MacEwan College (now University). I injured my knee a month before the end of my first year. The following year I became a single mother and lived in social housing for just over a year. I was even on ‘welfare’ for a month. I put myself through a two-year Management Studies program with the help of a student loan.

During the next years I met my husband, had a daughter, moved to Grande Prairie in 1994 and got divorced a few months after that. I worked for construction, oil and gas, and non-profit organizations including the Canadian Red Cross, where I was inspired by founder Henri Dunant’s desire to take care of all of humanity. In Grande Prairie, I was able to get involved in things I was interested in, like helping to organize the Ten Thousand Villages festival sales. I remember standing in the corner of the first night of the first sale I was involved with, being overwhelmed by the feeling of seeing so many people there to support fair trade and people from other places less fortunate than them. It was a powerful feeling and was likely the moment when I realized that I should be doing more with my life than administration.

In 2006, The City of Grande Prairie signed onto the newly-formed ‘Canadian Coalition of Municipalities Against Racism and Discrimination’. I joined their ‘Welcoming and Inclusive Communities Committee’ as a community member. My involvement in this initiative led me to return to school and I completed a Master’s degree in Intercultural and International Communication.

I live in Red Deer now and am the city’s Human Resource Specialist – Diversity and Inclusion. Half of my job is to teach staff about diversity and inclusion, human rights and other legislation in Canada that protects the ‘other’, plus how to address racism and discrimination. The other half of my job is working with Red Deer citizens and organizations to help build a more welcoming and inclusive community.

I credit three things for my passion for inclusion: 1) being raised in the liberal-minded United Church of Canada, 2) being schooled during a time when Canada’s Multiculturalism Act and policy was at the forefront of discussion, and 3) being raised in a family where racism and discrimination were not taught.


Living Together: Red Deer Symposium
Fostering Diverse Communities Canada
City of Red Deer Welcoming and Inclusive Communities