When Patricia Whittaker’s first son was born, he and his mother became instant sensations. Patricia and her family were living overseas, at the time.
“There were not many black people in Singapore,” she says. “When I gave birth to this white baby, the nurses started freaking out. At all times of the day or night people would open my hospital room door and start gesticulating while speaking loudly - in Mandarin. When we went to register the birth, they had a big list of nationalities, none of which fit for me as they did not have Canadian nor Black. Eventually, I was registered as ‘other.’”
Transferred there for her husband's job, Patricia enjoyed her three years in Singapore, despite the intense heat. She was involved in the community and even volunteered at a local convent.
“It was very clean, and I loved the people,” she says. “Singapore is very ‘propre,’ which also means clean in French. It looks perfect, but the essence of Singapore lies behind the veneer of perfection. It is like when we tell a teenager to clean their room because company is coming. It looks great until you open the closet. At the convent, the single mothers were ‘hidden.’ The homosexuals were ‘hidden’ down on Bugis Street. No one could see the imperfections at first glance. However, I learned so much about the Chinese and Malay cultures and made many strong friendships.”
Singapore is a long way from Canada and it is a long way from where Patricia grew up. Born on Remembrance Day, 1957 on the island of Barbados, she was the second of five girls born to Keith and Sheila Whittaker. A businesswoman, mother, educator, politician and advocate, Patricia’s entrepreneurial spirit can be traced to her mother, who, while raising her family, was a teacher, secretary and grocery shop owner. From her father, she inherited a fierce sense of justice and an unflinching ability to face life head on.
“My father wanted to be in the police force, but was too young, so he lied about his age. Despite having not completed high school, he worked his way up to become deputy commissioner of the Barbados Police force, which included being chief narcotic officer,” says Patricia. “People on the island used to call him Dick Tracy. Life as Dick Tracy’s daughter was scary and exciting. There was one incident where a well-known criminal had escaped and came looking for my father. My sister arrived home in his car, got out and the car blew up. We were all scared, but luckily they caught the criminal and no one was hurt.”
One important element from her youth that helped shape Patricia was the pervading sense of family that exists on the island; she was taught proper behaviour from a young age.
“Manners were hugely important,” she says. “You could not pass an elderly person without greeting them or your parents would know about it before you returned home. It was the adult’s responsibility to look out for you and to correct your behaviour. We are the sum total of that upbringing.”
Another important factor Patricia recognizes about growing up in Barbados is the wonderful education she received. Though she only completed high school there, when she was evaluated after arriving in Canada, she was found to be equivalent to a second-year university student.
“My education has been very useful. I find it extremely difficult to find people here who can write creative and grammatically correct sentences. I had a particular English teacher in high school who instilled in me the love of language and the power of words. My English teacher used to say, ‘I am pushing, are you pulling?’ Little did she know how significant that phrase would be to me as an adult. You have to have a balance. You can’t have everyone all pushing the same way. That phrase shaped the essence of who I am as an adult.”
When Patricia arrived in Canada in the mid 1970s, she spent the first several years between Toronto and Edmonton. Perhaps surprisingly for someone from a tropical island, Patricia genuinely enjoys the cold, crisp weather in Canada - even the minus 30 temperatures in Edmonton.
While working for Air Canada reservations, Patricia struck up a friendship with a passenger who was impressed with her customer service skills. They met over coffee, started dating and wound up being married for 17 years. Their daughter was born in Toronto and their two sons in Singapore following the transfer.
When the family moved back to Canada, they settled in Richmond, hoping to be transferred back to Asia one day. While her children were young, Patricia spent most of her time close to home. Every day, she would bundle her boys in a double stroller and set out with a goal of meeting two new people.
“I made friends and then started actively volunteering in my daughter’s school,” she says. “I soon realized that new people were ostracized and were not naturally embraced. I decided to run for the PAC with a mandate to make things inclusive. I was elected as Chair and made a concerted effort to get ‘different people’ involved. It was a great learning experience and taught me about the importance of being involved in my children’s education.”
Patricia started getting involved in other committees and eventually this led to her job as assistant to MP Joe Peschisolido. She knew it was time to leave when he tried to dissuade her from running for office as a trustee with the school board in Richmond, suggesting it would be a conflict of interest to have two politicians working in the same office. Patricia won her election and enjoyed her time on the school board.
“I did enjoy the interaction with the parents and bringing a different perspective. When trustees started talking about Chinese New Year, I made sure to intervene and advised them that it was also Black History Month,” she says. “If you want to affect change you have to be sitting at the table. I found opportunities to sit at tables and to get involved. I like finding resolutions to problems and making people happy.”
Before the Federal Liberal party asked her to run for office in 2006, Patricia continued her efforts to improve people’s lives. She became one of the first people in the Lower Mainland to teach social etiquette courses to young people, which resulted in great publicity, placing her on the front page of the *Globe and Mail*. At the West Richmond Community Centre, she wrote a grant proposal and secured funding for a program to help seniors avoid social isolation by learning to use the Internet and email, and utilizing the students at the local high school as teachers. The program became so successful it is still ongoing today. She also worked for the Richmond Women's Resource Centre, utilizing her skills to affect change there as well.
“I was successful in finding funding for the Centre, since I know how to put ‘passion on paper.’ I wrote a proposal that focused on seniors who did not speak English, but who were taking care of grandkids. I wanted the seniors to reduce their isolation and learn English and first aid. Meanwhile the children would learn by playing together. It was a great program.”
The federal election in 2006 was another learning experience that saw Patricia losing to the popular incumbent by just over 5,000 votes - despite almost no help from her own party and very little financial support. She credits Hedy Fry for letting her know what she was in store for as a woman in Ottawa and recognizes Ujjal Dosanjh for wanting to help her financially, but being unable to due to election rules. “I realized how naive I was and so decided I would fight for the people in a different way,” she says.
Since then, Patricia helped establish an entertainment group she is part of called Mukutano and co-founded a nonprofit organization with a friend to find funding for and establish the Centre for Integration (formerly for African Immigrants). This Centre is provincially funded and is a place where immigrants can feel welcome and receive training and workshops on how to integrate into the workforce. After years of unfunded work, the Centre received major funding in 2006, moved to a larger office in 2009 and now operates with 10 employees. All of which means it is time for Patricia to look ahead to her next challenge.
“I need to do what I am passionate about and take my life back,” she says. “I want to have a business called ‘Don’t Lift a Finger!’ - a moving arranger company. I know how to pack. I’ve packed for moves from Canada to Singapore and back. I have it down to a science. I can now help people to downsize and to get organized. I also want to motivate people and to write. I have lots of talents, skills and abilities and so when I start something, I won’t stop until it’s finished. I always call myself Cleopatra from the Shakespearean play ‘Anthony and Cleopatra.’ In the play, Cleopatra is described as ‘a woman of infinite variety.’ And so am I.”
MAY 2010 SENIOR LIVING MAGAZINE VANCOUVER & LOWER MAINLAND
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