The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all. — Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau is literally a force of nature. She brings a heart-centered approach to every arena of her life, from her marriage to Justin Trudeau, a liberal member of the Canadian Parliament and son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, to raising her two children, to being a social activist, right through to her position as Quebec correspondent for eTalk, Canada’s most-watched entertainment news program.
Listening to her speak, one can’t help but think she has a natural flair for connecting with people, especially to women and girls, who readily respond to the openness and transparency she offers. Sophie immediately demonstrates her willingness to be straightforward, speaking about her struggles as well as what brought her to the different aspects of her path as an advocate and a reporter.
“To make a long story short, I’m an only child,” Sophie states. “I was brought up in a very loving family and I was fortunate to have a privileged upbringing. We weren’t millionaires, not at all, but we never lacked anything and we led a good life. My parents sent me to camp and paid for my travels and studies, so and I was very well cared for. I’m still very close to them, and they’re also amazing grandparents. Yet, obviously, everyone has their own struggles and I had mine. In my teenage years, I was faced with dealing with an eating disorder, which of course was an illness, but it was also a symptom of greater wounds. And as any other teenager who is dealing with building a notion of self, I was having difficulty building mine when it came to who I was, why I was here, and what my place was in this world.”
As an only child, Sophie mentions feeling a special kind of pressure. “You are trying to answer to so many things that are asked of you and you’re trying to perform. I know I wanted to be good at everything. I did well in school and sports and tended to be a perfectionist. Actually, I was asking way too much of myself.”
Sophie notes that adolescence is a time, especially for girls, when bonding and intimate relationships are at the core of building self esteem. She recognizes that her desire to excel compensated for a deeper need to connect. “It’s very important to have a good social network. When I struggled for years with an eating disorder, I knew very well what I was suffering from. Every time I was into binging and purging, I was really feeling isolated in my mind and deep down somewhere in my soul. Today, as a thirty-six year old woman, and now a mother of two, I understand that I was looking for something deeper back then — for my place in the world. I had wanted to pack my bags, and just travel and explore,” she says laughing, “but obviously, you have to go to school, and there are rules to follow. But what I really wanted to do was connect with human beings.”
Raised by parents who were always sensitive to the suffering of others had its effect. Sophie mentions that even at a young age she naturally extended herself to children who were lonely or being taunted. “My parents always said I had a tender heart. And today, I’m married to someone who’s like that, too. My husband, Justin, and I are both moved easily. We know how fortunate we are, and that it comes with a responsibility. I also felt at a young age — although I couldn’t put my finger it — that I had to do something greater. Not just for me,” Sophie says, pausing to reassess, “but you know, actually it was for me — for me to become the person that I wanted to become. But when you’re a teenager, that’s all blurry, which is normal.”
After studying Commerce at McGill University and attaining a BA in Communications from the Université de Montréal, Sophie worked in advertising and sales for several years before deciding to redirect her course. “I was not finding my place in that world, and I wasn’t feeling happy in my jobs. At one point, I decided to go to radio and television school because I had a gift for sharing information and for speaking to people. So I went to school and did very well. I landed my first job as a journalist in a newsroom, writing the ticker — the news you see at the bottom of the screen. I worked night shifts and it was actually a cool job. Being in the newsroom was exciting — you’re in touch with what’s happening around the world so it was all very interesting. And then, a couple of months later, there was an opening for a cultural entertainment reporter on the same channel. I was called in to audition, and I got the job.”
Being a media personality provided Sophie with an additional opportunity to connect with people, but now on a much grander scale. Literally having a voice that could reach millions of viewers, Sophie disclosed she had struggled with an eating disorder. “I remembered journalists asking me, ‘Have you ever had a problem with your body image?’ When I actually told the Quebec and the Canadian public that I had suffered from an eating disorder, the response was so amazing. At first, some people would ask, ‘Were you completely insane when you came out with that? Didn’t you wonder what people would think?’ And to be honest with you, No. Because I knew that so many of my friends and so many girls that I didn’t know were suffering. And from that point, it became a snowball effect. I started giving speeches and being invited to host events. And as more time passed, I really started to invest myself in women’s issues.”
As Sophie notes, she moved into advocacy work as a matter of course. “I didn’t wake up one morning saying, ‘Okay, now I’m going to do this.’ It just came naturally. I started to get more and more requests to speak. What really struck me was the response I received when I met people after a speech, and how the women — mothers, aunts, grandmothers — came up to me with tears in their eyes and shared their stories. It just all made sense. The message became loud and clear: This is what you have to do.”
Telling her own story was just the beginning. The open doorway Sophie provided, allowing people insight into her personal struggles, proved to be the passage she used to venture out into the world, acting as a voice for women and children in need.
One journey that was especially moving for Sophie was the trip she took to Ethiopia in 2006 with her mother-in-law Margaret Trudeau, Honorary President of WaterCan, a leading Canadian charity dedicated to fighting global poverty by helping the world’s poorest people gain access to clean water, basic sanitation and hygiene education. Their life-changing venture was captured in the CTV documentary, A Window Opens: Margaret and Sophie in Ethiopia.
As Sophie explains, the trip to Ethiopia with WaterCangave her further insight into the difficulties people were facing. “I had been to Africa and had seen suffering,” Sophie remarks, “but not in the way that I did in Ethiopia. We traveled through the country with WaterCan, an organization which among other things, builds wells and brings clean water to remote regions in Africa. When we were traveling, we stayed with families for many hours during the day, and we saw that women were actually victims of the water problem more than men. That’s because they’re the ones who usually fetch the water and put their lives in danger, walking miles and miles and sometimes meeting up with violence. Little children are also walking way too far and are involved in accidents. So once again, when it comes to basic human rights, women and children are often the first ones to pay.”
Sophie has also lent her voice to a number of other initiatives, including being a spokesperson for Shield of Athena, an organization which operates therapeutic services for women and children who are victims of domestic abuse and violence. Among their services, they provide emergency housing and offer a safe and empowering environment, employing social workers, educators and cultural intermediaries who offer multilingual services. In addition, Sophie encourages girls’ activism through Girls for the Cure, a student-led initiative of young girls from six independent Montreal-area schools — Miss Edgar’s and Miss Cramp’s School, Queen of Angels Academy, Sacred Heart School of Montreal, The Study, Trafalgar School for Girls and Villa Maria — who work together to make a difference in their communities. They offer a Student Scholarship Program which allows young women of participating schools the opportunity to develop projects focused on philanthropy, volunteerism and education. “In September, Girls for the Cure [watch the 2010 CTV video] will be doing an amazing event where thousands of girls will be uniting on Mount Royal Summit in Montreal,” Sophie informs. “They’ll be walking to raise awareness for women-related cancers and research.”
As Sophie clearly indicates, women’s issues are of primary importance to her, both in Canada and around the globe. She points out that even today, in 2011, over sixty million girls cannot lay claim to basic human rights, including access to education or personal safety. “When you think deeply about it, women today are being raped, violated, coerced into the sex trade, and humiliated for one reason — and for one reason only — because they’re women. That is unacceptable. And we’re paying the price worldwide since nations are becoming impoverished because women cannot fully participate. Obviously, there are some regions in the world where this problem is extreme, like in China and India, where we’re talking gendercide and infanticide with regard to girls. The situation is quite alarming. If you read the facts and know what’s going on out there, there’s no way that you’re not going to be touched by all of this, especially if you’re a woman.”
At the same time, Sophie acknowledges the importance of men’s participation regarding women’s rights. Respecting women and focusing on their empowerment does not represent a ‘women against men’ issue, but rather only helps to create a balanced approach to human rights in all sectors of life. “Each time I get to address an audience, and I see the men that attend these events, I always thank them because without them, without all of us holding hands together, where are we going to go with all this?”
As Sophie indicates, more men need to advocate for girls and women in order to turn the tide. “Unfortunately, when we talk about these problems, about gendercide and crimes against girls and women, especially within some regions of the world, these extreme actions have often been led by men. Obviously, there have been some instances, especially with regard to female genital mutilation, where it’s a vicious cycle. Women who have not known anything else actually encourage young girls and other women to get that sort of thing done.”
Nonetheless, the pendulum has been stuck on the side of patriarchy a bit too long. There’s no doubt that it’s an unbalanced paradigm, with disregard for the feminine creating its own deficit problem.
“I truly believe humanity is facing a huge imbalance between the male and female energies,” Sophie asserts. “We have disrespected, in such a deep way, the womb of humanity — women — and we are paying the price right now on all levels. We’re even seeing it in our pop culture. It’s so in our faces that it’s kind of hidden at the same time, because we’ve become accepting of it. Talking with young girls, I realize that there’s a culture of self-hatred that really has been rampant, and it’s actually normal to hate yourself when you’re a teenager today. That’s unacceptable. That is why we have to address these issues, and we have to do it locally, one baby step at a time.”
And those baby steps have led to much bigger strides. As Sophie travels have informed her, more and more women are coming to the fore around the globe, supporting one another and advocating for their basic human rights. “There are women’s movements all over the world, including in the poorest regions and places where women have not had a political voice,” Sophie states. “I think that’s because we’re in an era of information. These women now have more of the facts and they realize this is not right. So as much as in Canada as abroad, I think that these little cells of women, of energy, are feeling one another. I don’t want to sound too esoteric, but there’s definitely something remarkable happening and more and more men are beginning to address the situation. And fortunately enough, I’m with a man who shares my values and thoughts, and obviously part of his battle will be dealing this issue as well.”
Adding more women to the mix seems not only rational, but essential. Sophie emphasizes the importance of women’s roles as leaders, whether in politics, education, or any other sector of society, noting that women bring certain qualities to the table that benefit the whole.
“You know, there’s a reason why there are more women in volunteer work,” Sophie remarks. “There’s a reason why there are more women in social work. The reason is because in times of struggle, we tend to open our arms and build a social network, to come out with our problems and to talk about them because we need to. Also, women leaders have been shown to be more compassionate colleagues. Generally speaking, that’s been demonstrated. Of course, many women are occupying amazing roles in society, but there’s still a huge gap in the financial world and the political world.”
Sophie indicates it’s really about our future. Her panoramic view takes in the larger sphere of the human family where additional women in leadership means a more balanced paradigm, one that would help us take the next step as a noble humanity. That includes peace resolution work as well.
“You know, I don’t want to fall into a cliché because there are clichés out there,” Sophie notes, “but yes, I do believe that women have certain qualities — especially when you’ve become a mother or you go through your own struggles — that have allowed us to build a larger tribe to face our problems. And once again, if I go back to volunteer work, social work, health care, or nursing, I think there are a lot more women doing these types of things because some part of our bodies, not just our minds, are meant to create peace around us and to foster democracy and justice.”
Philosophically speaking, Sophie notes that we all have masculine and feminine qualities, and our internal dynamics have often set the stage for the larger societal problems we face. “When it comes to talking about gender discrimination, I think that the first thing you have to ask yourself if you’re a woman is how do I treat the man in me? And if you’re a man, it would be how do I treat the woman in me? I think that’s the first question you need to ask yourself, and the answer probably indicates how, as a human being, you interact with your environment as well as how you perceive others and the world around you.”
Sophie also enhances awareness of gender discrimination in her role as national ambassador for Plan Canada.
Plan International’s Because I am a Girl initiative is a social movement to unleash the power of girls and women to claim a brighter future for girls in the developing world.
And just why is focusing on girls’ empowerment so important?
“Helping young girls throughout this world is really at the core of the issue,” Sophie asserts. “First of all, we need to stand up for the millions of girls around the world who face barriers to their survival, basic rights and their ability to develop simply because they are young women. And when we invest in them we are directly reducing global poverty and suffering for the whole, for all of society. It’s incredible that right now, over sixty-five million girls are being denied even a basic education.”
Girls and women are particularly affected by poverty. This is partly because they have less power to fight it, less access to the means to overcome it, or their entire families are suffering in poverty. Being born underweight, given little or poor-quality food and having little or no education can prevent girls from developing properly. Poverty can also force girls to work or get married at young age instead of going to school. — Plan Canada
“Plan Canada really believes in the Because I am a Girl project. We really want all young Canadian women to be aware of what’s happening because we feel that we have the power, the tools and the democracy to create movements that can help abroad and bring about social change.”
Girls advocating, giving public talks, driving transformative agendas . . . Plan Canada’s Because I am a Girl clubs and speakers bureau engage girls to do just that, empowering and supporting their efforts to stand up for girls’ rights at home and abroad. “The girls give speeches and are really creating a social movement with others their age. There are website blogs and fundraisers and there’s also been a documentary made. So they’re using different kinds of media to really get out there and reach out to each other.”
With regard to Plan International’s other initiatives, Sophie explains there are current projects such as the one in Bangladesh, which supports human rights, including the protections of women and girls. She also mentions the Early Girl Child Marriage Project in Kenya which works to protect girls from this illegal practice. “There have been some documented impacts,” Sophie indicates, “and they have seen a reduction in teenage pregnancies and marriages. Also, in Burkina Faso, there’s a program called BRIGHT — Burkinabé Response to Improve Girls Chances to Succeed. So once again, it’s about education. Obviously, when you get to girls, you’re also getting to young boys and their families. So we’re trying to change parental views on girls’ education as well. That’s where it starts. If a girl is not educated you’re losing her whole soul and heart and mind. Not being educated means a girl isn’t able to fully participate in society, and the nation will be paying the price for that on every level.”
Plan Canada has also championed the presentation of a motion which was passed by the Canadian Parliament, proposing the creation of a UN Resolution proclaiming September 22nd as the International Day of the Girl.
“I think that because of the privileges we have here in Canada, we need to be leading the way on this matter,” Sophie states. Spearheading the initiative, Canada has now established the groundwork for a global movement. In fact, the call for the International Day of the Girl is imminent and can also be supported by signing the Girl Petition.
As Sophie reflects on her own advocacy work dealing with women and children’s issues, she remarks pointedly that no matter who she meets or what type of position they may hold, there’s are certain type of person that inspires and impresses her. “Women following their own passion. Their message and their energy are completely contagious.”
As eTalk’s Quebec correspondent, Sophie is also in a unique position to not only inform but to do her own brand of inspiring. “This job is an amazing tool and a window for me to connect with youth because so many of them watch the show. Besides doing interviews, I also talk a lot about the responsibility of public personas and stars to use their voices for something important because young people look up to them so much. And there are some people in the entertainment industry who are doing amazing things. I would say that celebrities like Angelina and Brad are putting it out there that it’s important to do things to make this world a better place. I also know many other celebrities who have started fundraisers and foundations and who are doing great work.”
Sophie also mentions finding inspiration through many adventurous avenues. She plays flute and guitar, composes songs, and loves to sing (perhaps we’ll hear her sing at an event one day).
“I also get inspired a lot from my yoga practice,” she reveals. “I think that it brings me to that little person inside of me that’s the same as in everyone else. As yoga philosophy mentions, that person is in a continuous state of gratitude and peace . . . a person that’s both male and female — the perfect balance between the two. Then there’s the feeling yoga gives me of being connected to everyone — from the people in my class to every human being on this planet. It’s a feeling that really pushes me on a deep, deep level. Also, in yoga practice, there’s always this little voice that comes across in its own language and vibration that makes me feel that everything is going to be okay. That good does prevail.”
Idealistic and passionate, Sophie inspires in a way that is both personal and touching. Even as she reflects on the advice she would give her own children, one can’t help but think that, on a universal level, the message is meant for all of us.
“If I were to say one thing to my little ones, I think I would tell them that the only word to live by is love . . . self love and love for humanity.”
As a reporter, an advocate, a wife and a mother, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau is a woman whose struggles have awakened her heart to the world, allowing compassion and tenderness to direct her course . . . a woman who understands that the light of courage is far more powerful than any darkness.
Photo Credits: Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau headshot – Courtesy of CTV, Bell Media. Photo of Margaret Trudeau and Sophie in Ethiopia – Peter Bregg, 2006. Photo of Mutsumi Takahashi of CTV News, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau and Elena Kratsios – Courtesy of Girls for the Cure. Because I am a Girl Ambassador photo – Courtesy of Plan Canada.
Article written by Angelina Perri Birney, author of the blog, Powerful Women Changing the World, dedicated to women’s influence on world affairs. Angelina is also coauthor of the novel, PURE VISION: The Magdalene Revelation, available in print and as an eBook on Amazon US, Amazon Canada, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Apple.