Rachel Décoste is a woman who is unafraid of making her opinions known to the world. She is quite the force to be reckoned with, as her incredible sense of fearlessness is combined with her passion for advocacy and philanthropy. Whether you come to know her through her poetry or her Huffington Post contributions, Rachel goes through life with her eyes wide open.
An Ottawa native, she grew up in Orléans where, during the eighties and even into the nineties, she recalls that the community was, “not diverse at all.” However, Rachel now believes that both Orléans and Canada have expanded considerably, they have in a sense grown up, “And that has probably shaped my world view more than anything,” she said.
With regards to Canada specifically, Rachel stated, “Well, you cannot deny [our diversity] even if you take out the immigration since the 70s angle. If you go to Québec or Vancouver or Newfoundland…whether it’s language or what they eat, there are varying customs there. After the post-Trudeau immigration wave, it became even more diverse.”
“As a child of immigrants from the Third world,” Rachel identifies with the struggles newcomers to Canada have faced over the years. She also spoke proudly of how quickly her parents integrated themselves into their new lives here, “My parents started giving back pretty much five seconds after they got off the boat. It’s part of their culture to “help thy neighbour” or help people in need.”
This vocation to help others was an intrinsic part of Rachel’s life growing up and it remains a part of her personality to this day. She was even the woman responsible for coordinating Ottawa’s first post-Haiti quake fundraiser which she confesses to having organized so quickly because she was afraid that, “By Friday the story would be off the front page…by Friday there would be another scandal like some politician would be caught with someone who isn’t his wife,” and Rachel did not want Haiti’s crisis to be lost in the shuffle of the news cycle.
“I help inside and outside my household, it’s an extension of that,” she said. At home when she was a teenager, Rachel’s parents began a twenty-two year run as foster parents, “When you take in foster children, the parents sign the piece of paper but the whole family takes [the children] in.” Her sense of compassion and duty saw her driving various children to ballet or helping them with their homework. On Sundays, Rachel fondly recalls, “We would do Sunday Bike Days or visit the Children’s Museum to show them that there is more in the world than television, which I think warps their young minds.”
Even during her vacations, Rachel seeks to help out those in less fortunate circumstances. No matter where she goes, she tries to bring something with her, “I’ll buy school supplies. I feel like there are little things you can do to help the world and it doesn’t cost me much to bring half a suitcase of pens and papers on vacation.”
Rachel is confident in the value of education yet the story of the beginning of her post-secondary career is quite whimsical, even almost frivolous for a woman so devoted to learning. “I was supposed to be a surgeon actually,” she said when asked to discuss her position as a motivational speaker. This admission was accompanied by a preview of one of her talks entitled, “The Top Ten Lies My Immigrant Parents Told Me,”. This talk addresses all sorts of topics including the idea that there are only five career paths one can choose from in order to be successful. The answers of doctor, lawyer abound her sessions at youth and immigrant group meetings, however, what Rachel tells people is, “You can do anything when you’re in Canada.”
Apparently, she was not afforded the same luxury upon growing up here, “Nobody told me I could do something other than engineering,” she said. So when it came time for sixteen-year-old Rachel to select her university degree program, she actually played a little game of, “Eeny meeny miny mo,” to select her specialization since Guelph made engineering students choose their specialization upon entering instead of after completing second year. Luckily, she liked it. She even recognized some information in her classes from when she had done programming as a young teenager even though she had not been aware of exactly what she had been doing back then.
Guelph’s engineering program was also especially unique back then because, “At the time it was the only engineering school where there were more women than men. Overall women were not the minority,” she said. Even now looking back on her university years Rachel cannot pinpoint any exact time when her gender was an obstacle.
On the subject of gender and one of its current companion words, feminism, Rachel said, “I believe in equality for women. I’m for integral equality across the board.” When asked about her opinion on Canada’s Famous Five, she expressed her admiration in principle for what those women fought for, but in the end she noted, “I’m not under any illusions that these women were fighting for me.”
“If there is a group less represented than women, it’s minorities,” declared Rachel who pointed out that, “The part that kind of pains me [about the Famous Five] is that they got the right to vote for white women outside of Quebec… They were not fighting for all women, they were fighting for themselves.”
But the one thing that Rachel will fight tooth and nail for is recognition as a black woman whose
opinions matter just as much as everybody else’s. That same spirit was the driving force behind her work for both of Obama’s campaigns, which were opportunities that she still calls, “Absolutely life-affirming.” She drove to swing states during the initial campaign to do work. Then once he was in office, she took off two months from her job – unpaid – to work on his second campaign.
“I did it out of love. It wasn’t a strategic move to try to be ahead of the curve,” she said with conviction, “If I got hit by a bus tomorrow my grave would say ‘Obama supporter’.”
Obama certainly serves as one of Rachel’s inspirations because after discussing her affiliation with online media, it became clear that the struggle of minorities is never far from her mind. “I will say that Canadian media, in terms of op-ed, not the sports side or the entertainment industry – the side reporting on the national issues of the country – that side is like 99.99 percent white. So, when you ask if I enjoy online, I ask you is there any other place for a person of colour to comment on national issues?”
An advocate for equality across the board Rachel feels compelled to point out issues that many do not seem to feel the need to call any attention to, “Try to find anybody of colour coming from a minority perspective in the national papers – the only time you will is when they agree with the majority. If I want to say that something is not equal or unfair – the only place that will entertain publishing would be an online publication. This is the reality.”
Rachel calls for Canadians to take note of their actions and be conscious with regards to their consumption of media, “It shouldn’t take me going online to [call attention to the white media slant], if you actually embodied the values of Canadian diversity that we pretend to embody. But in actuality, we don’t.” The only way she can see this problem being remedied is through, “Conscious awareness, more sensitivity, and a genuine willingness to open the door to minorities,” but she also notes that a token will not do if the goal is real, long lasting change.
“The reality is that the people who hold all of the chips are not minorities. You can wake up one day and have your son come out as gay and you’ll have to make a decision to continue to be homophobic or not but you’re not just going to wake up with a black son,” she declared staunchly. It is clear, the chips are in our hands, and Rachel Décoste is watching us. A rallying point for the people she speaks her mind to in an age where conformity is cool, but equality is much cooler, Rachel stands above, and apart. She is a beacon of hope, spirit, and perseverance.