Pat McGrath was a natural leader, so perhaps it’s not surprising that when she died, she left detailed instructions for her funeral.
“She had three friends of hers sing a Bob Marley song,” remembers Arthur Carkner, who knew McGrath for 20 years. The two worked alongside one another at the Workers’ History Museum, an Ottawa-based virtual museum established in 2011 that’s committed to preserving the story of Canadian unions and working-class struggles in a non-traditional way.
McGrath left the museum a bequest of $10,000. Carkner, along with friends Barb Stewart, Zelma Buckley and Museum President Robert Hatfield, were left with the responsibility of deciding how best to use the money.
They debated about devoting it to one project or divvying it up to improve the museum, but eventually chose to create a scholarship in McGrath’s name.
“It was a combination of what best represented Pat’s passion for education and what best served the broader community,” Carkner says.
McGrath came from a military family and worked with the Department of National Defence. She was a union activist who served on equity committees, chairing the Public Service Alliance of Canada and the Members with Disabilities Action Committee.*
McGrath, who struggled with her own health problems, was a strong advocate for creating awareness in society about the challenges faced by those with disabilities. She also championed for visible minorities and gay rights.
“She started her activism at a very young age when she defied her teachers at the age of eight years old and…never stopped from there,” Buckley says.
According to Stewart, McGrath believed that people should help others in need and looked at things “through a disability lens – how to make things more accessible, ensuring that everyone else became more aware of obstacles and needs faced by those who had disabilities.”
McGrath’s enthusiasm for educating others is what led Carkner and those associated with founding the museum to invite her to become involved. McGrath was a fierce supporter of the museum and its work, serving as both a member of the board of directors and board of trustees. Hatfield remembers the first Colonel By Day the museum attended, where McGrath helped set up the exhibit and draw people in: “By the end of the day, there wasn’t a table that hadn’t been visited by the friendly lady with the raspy voice, and there wasn’t a table that hadn’t heard about the new Workers’ History Museum.”
The scholarship fund will provide an annual award of $1,000 for at least the next eight years, and is open to any student with a confirmed disability studying at a university or college in Canada. Museum officials say they hope the scholarship will attain additional funds to continue after the money from the original bequest is given out.
While 80 per cent of McGrath’s bequest is being put towards the scholarship, the other 20 per cent is being used to create a video. The video, to be produced over the next few years, will focus on workers with disabilities and the various challenges they face. This includes the fact that those with disabilities are frequently amongst the first to lose their jobs in times of austerity, according to Carkner.
Not only do people with disabilities struggle with their own physical problems, but they must overcome social stigma on a daily basis. Carkner explains that while many have the capacity to work, they are never given the opportunity.
“There’s an expression I think of often when working with those who have disabilities,” says Carkner. “If someone can’t get into a building because of the stairs, you can blow the stairs up with dynamite and put a ramp in. But the prejudice will still be there, and that’s what really stops you.”
McGrath was not one to let obstacles get in her way. “She fought tirelessly to have fully accessible workplaces and held her employer and her union to that standard,” recalls Buckley.
McGrath touched the lives of many people, and the scholarship created in her name will carry on that legacy.
By Nicole Bayes-Fleming
* Pat McGrath was on the Public Service Alliance council in the National Capital Region and she was chair of the Members with Disabilities Action Committee.