Who would have guessed that a young girl from South Porcupine, Ontario would grow up to change the world? Well, to be fair Peggy Taillon hasn’t saved the entire world yet, but she’s doing her best to help out Asembo Bay, a village in western Kenya close to Lake Victoria. She is also working to inspire everyone around her to see the world as a place of opportunity for improvement rather than sticking to the status quo. “We don’t have to be apathetic or accepting of the injustice in this world. We actually can change [the world],” said Peggy whose quest to fight against injustice began at a young age.
Apparently, Peggy always had a sense that she did not exactly fit in among her fellow townspeople, she said reflectively, “[South Porcupine] was a very blue collar town and most of my family didn’t have the chance to go to high school, let alone post-secondary. Women had very traditional roles, my sense was that my path would be very different in the end but I couldn’t describe how.” However, she credits her upbringing for shaping her into the woman she is today. She outlined how upon meeting people now they generally assume that her life has been the picture of a classic middle class upbringing but that is far from the truth. Peggy describes her childhood and early adulthood as, “Anything but a straight line. It was full of curves and challenges, struggles, and some pretty horrific events…you just have to learn from that and grow.” Overcoming obstacles appears to be second nature to Peggy who has often been featured in the media because of the special nature of her son Devlin’s adoption.
Devlin was born to a very young teenage mother from Asembo Bay when Peggy was in Kenya; the two of them formed a bond and suddenly, everything Peggy felt she stood for was thrown into sharp relief. She was drawn to Devlin and wanted to adopt him but unfortunately, Kenyan laws prohibited her from doing so because she would be a single mother. Faced with the decision that would be changing her life, forever, Peggy said, “I always believed that I was this courageous advocate and then I got tested in a way that I never expected to be…all of a sudden it was like, so you’ve said that [everything happens for a reason] now do you actually believe it? Or are you going to ignore these signals that are right in front of you?” She chose then and there to fight for the boy who was, in her mind already her son.
Peggy is not a woman to do things by halves and so proceeded to pick up her life and move to Africa for fifteen months while she fought and pleaded her case. In terms of leaving her Canadian life behind for more than a year, Peggy responded that, “You know some things do not make sense… but I needed to fight for [Devlin].” Interestingly enough Peggy had sought out travelling to Kenya in hopes of finding herself after going through a separation but upon meeting Devlin she realized that there was nothing to find, she simply needed to rediscover and reconnect with her passion for social justice.
From the beginning Peggy said she was, “…hardwired for social justice,” meaning that she was constantly, “pushing against all of the isms [and phobias] sexism, racism, homophobia, that kind of thing. I was very much someone who sought out justice.” Well, by the time she graduated from high school, she found herself searching for something that would give everything she believed in a context and framework. So after attending Ryerson University for her first degree, she found herself at Carleton University studying law. University served to reassure Peggy that she was indeed not alone in her passion for seeking justice as was confirmed by one of her professors, Diana Majury. She called Professor Majury her mentor and role model and said that university was, “A really powerful time for me. It really gave me a much more solid foundation for the work that I do today.” As for what she does today, Peggy is a successful woman with a packed work schedule. She is currently the President of the Canadian Council on Social Development and the President and Founder of HERA’s Mission, a charitable organization devoted to helping the village of Asembo Bay that she helped create after returning to Canada with Devlin. Beyond those positions, she holds several more, however, the title most dear to her is ‘Mom.’
Yes, she won the right to adopt her son, Devlin. The decision was unprecedented in Kenya and Peggy still recalls the day that they found out the result of the decision of one of her most triumphant moments ever. Cheerfully, as if the very memory of the moment fills her with joy, she related the story of that auspicious day seven years ago, “On February 29th, 2008…the judge ruled in our favour. I woke up that morning not knowing if they were going to take him away from me at the courthouse which was more likely than not and I had brought my passport to give to the judge to say ‘Take it, just let me keep Devlin.’ ”
Another triumph Peggy noted that she experienced more recently was being told by her, ‘partner in crime for HERA, Wendy Muckle, who brought her to Kenya originally, that HERA has raised upwards to $300, 000 since its inception. She credits the success of HERA Mission to the hard work of the many women in Asembo village who without whom she said, “The village would be stagnant and many more kids would be going without and not have a future. And so, to be a part of that is such a huge gift for me.” Peggy also acknowledged the magnificent encouragement that the organization has received from Canadians, and Ottawa residents specifically; she stated that the mothers in the neighbourhood where she lives are all extremely supportive of her initiatives.
‘Women supporting other women’ is a phrase that Peggy believes in wholeheartedly and she makes every effort to live out that message in her everyday life. “I certainly do feel pressure [to represent women],” she confided as she discussed how when she was younger her mother used to tell her that when people spoke badly about her they were just jealous. However, not until later in life was she able to see the truth in her mother’s words; this reality check emerged in the form of her friend, Senator Grant Mitchell who she said told her, “There’s so much about you that people would envy and you’ve got to recognize that other people generally don’t want people to do better than them.” Peggy laughed and said that she simply stared at him because the thought of people being so self-serving is so contrary to how she lives her life. Fortunately, despite jokingly calling herself Pollyanna due to her own self-proclaimed naiveté and going through a period during which she tried to tone down her bright and shiny personality, she has recently decided to embrace her lifestyle. “I’m going to embrace my life, my successes, and my failures, meet people, continue to learn and grow and be the best person I can be for myself, and my son, my family, my community, my country,” she announced passionately, “and if that means that sometimes I will put people off I have to accept that.” Peggy stated that she has now reached a point where she can say, “Okay, I know where that [negativity] is coming from but I’m not going to let that stop me,” and as evidenced by her life story, Peggy is a woman of her word; she will certainly keep that promise to herself.
One can be guaranteed that she will not let anything stop her from changing the world through a series of tiny ripples that will eventually culminate in a huge wave of positive change. “Women are wired for the greater good…and so we need more women in leadership positions. We need more women to be courageous and take risks and…we need to do it in a unified way where we don’t tear each other down to build ourselves up,” and with those words Peggy put forth a challenge to the women of Canada. Her personal life motto is that everything happens for a reason but in order for something to happen she said you have to work for it, “I’m a big believer in [you have to] put your hands on it and push it – magic will happen.”
To hear Peggy Taillon speak in person, make sure you attend the upcoming Ask Women Anything (AWA) event that’ll take place at Artissimo Coffee n’ Tea on May 27th at 6pm, as well as at TedxThe Glebe Women event that’ll take place at the Canadian Museum of Nature on May 29th, 2015.
IMAGE CREDIT: Michelle Valberg