'They want to make things happen': Award for female community leader honours late councillor Pam McConnell

Late Toronto city councillor Pam McConnell spent three decades in public service, fighting not only for marginalized members of the community, but also for women to get more opportunities to make a difference.

Award named for late city councillor, who died of lung condition in 2017 at the age of 71

Winner Alyssa Luttenberger said the young women acknowledged at city hall on Friday 'don't want to sit back and talk about things. They want to make things happen.' (Adrian Cheung/CBC)

Late Toronto city councillor Pam McConnell spent three decades in public service, fighting not only for marginalized members of the community, but also for women to get more opportunities to make a difference.

It was fitting, then, that on International Women's Day, the second annual Pam McConnell Award for Young Women in Leadership was handed out. And this year there were two winners, in addition to a handful more who received special certificates of recognition.

Ishita Aggarwal could not be at Friday's ceremony at city hall to receive her award. But her co-winner Alyssa Luttenberger — a program co-ordinator at the Native Canadian Centre of Toronto — was on hand to meet members of McConnell's family, city politicians and other nominees.

"It's amazing to be following in the footsteps of women who did so much for this city, did so much for their communities," Luttenberger told CBC Toronto.

"And I hope we continue to remember those women, to make those changes and to walk those paths that they started us on."

The award was established in tribute to McConnell, a long-time city councillor who died of a lung condition in 2017 at the age of 71. Over decades at city hall, McConnell not only fought for her constituents, but also helped women who wanted to get into politics. She helped establish the city's protégée program, which matches young women with mentors from city council.

On Friday, McConnell's daughter, Heather Ann, remembered her mother's tireless advocacy work.

"Creating that space to allow women to share and celebrate those accomplishments was something that she worked very hard to create. Today we got to see the fruit of that labour," she told CBC Toronto.

"I think she would be humbled, but mostly she'd be proud."

Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam recalled being mentored by McConnell — whom she called "the matriarch here" — when she first arrived at city hall and found her office next to the veteran councillor's.

"I know that Pam was incredibly invested in the success of young women," Wong-Tam said. "She gave them every opportunity and genuinely pushed them to excel. She asked them to dare to compete and I think that she often led by example."

'Each worked tirelessly'

There were 51 applicants for this year's award, Heather Ann McConnell said, and the young women work in an array of fields, including the arts, science, technology, mental health services, social services, peer support and more.

The nominees must be leaders in their community who've created, or worked with, programs and services aimed at helping vulnerable populations. The award is open to women aged 16 to 29, and the two successful recipients receive a $500 prize.

"Each worked tirelessly to improve the lives of others," McConnell said of this year's crop of nominees.

Mayor John Tory, also on hand for Friday's event, noted that more women are working in the upper ranks at city hall, including all four deputy city managers, the chief financial officer, the city solicitor and two new deputy police chiefs.

He hailed McConnell's determination and willingness to fight hard for what she believed in, including working with people across the political spectrum to get things done.

It is "entirely fitting" to have a women's leadership award named for her, Tory said.

"It is something that, certainly as long as I'm here, we're going to keep on with."

As deputy mayor, Pam McConnell worked tirelessly on anti-poverty measures, among other initiatives. (John Rieti/CBC)

Friday's event included an opportunity for the nominated women to network with each other and with representatives from various community organizations.

Anisa Mohamed was one of the young women who received a certificate of recognition for their work. Mohamed has organized after-school programs, backpack giveaways and barbecues in her community to counteract the fear and isolation created by a series of shootings in her neighbourhood.

When I was growing up, we were outside playing and hanging out on our bikes," she said. "And it's just different now. You can't come outside, you can't walk home. There's just a sense of fear."

Her programs create "a sense of family and community, and everyone really feels like they know each other again.

"It creates really a sense of oneness that we were missing because of the violence."

Luttenberger said it was "amazing" to meet so many people dedicated to helping others.

"They don't want to sit back and talk about things," she said. "They want to make things happen."

From left to right: Heather Ann McConnell, Alyssa Luttenberger, Mayor John Tory and Coun. Kristyn Wong-Tam. (Adrian Cheung/CBC)

With files from Adrian Cheung and Taylor Simmonds