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Civil Society Champions – The Ismaili Centre

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Toronto, Ontario

Opening Remarks – Rumina Velshi

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Thank you Anaar, and thank you to the Ismaili Centre for inviting me to be here with you today. The Ismaili community has been such an integral part of my life and I am honoured to be on a panel of such inspiring women.

I would like to begin by sharing a story that I think captures the spirit of today’s discussion.

It’s the story of the hummingbird, made famous by the celebrated Kenyan Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate.

There was once this huge forest fire. It started small, but quickly grew out of control. The flames spread from tree to tree in mere moments. It sent the squirrels and the rabbits and the bears running for their lives. All of the animals in the forest rushed out – except for one small hummingbird. The hummingbird, with its tiny wings flapping furiously, flew straight for the river, scooped a drink of water into her small beak, and soared right back into the forest. The other animals watched from a distance, as she repeated the process of dropping beads of water onto the roaring flames before making her way back to the river for more. They mocked the hummingbird and asked her “what do you think you’re doing? The fire is too big.”

Without missing a beat, the hummingbird said, “I’m doing what I can to help.”

Just imagine – if every one of us helped out just a little, together we could douse the fire.

A brief history

I came to Canada from Uganda as a refugee. I was 18 years old. It was a frigid February – much like the winter we just experienced – but we were welcomed with warm, Canadian generosity.

We received winter clothing, were shown how to use public transit, and when we needed it the most, we were simply given friendship. These little acts of kindness weren’t so little at all.

Like the hummingbird, they made a big difference in helping me and my family to quickly become acclimatized and integrated in Canadian society. Together, they helped us feel like we belong.

I will never forget that compassion, and how privileged I am to have received it. What it underscored for me is the role chance plays in one’s life. My success is not because of me. It is not completely deserved. It is largely because I have been lucky. Sometimes people fall on difficult times for reasons beyond their control. This too, is not deserved. We need to help them. Together, we can.


My own experiences have inspired my commitment for giving back.

Volunteering is something I have been doing almost all my life. It’s an intrinsic part of who I am. I have had the honour of working on several international development missions. For example, I was a founding member of Focus Humanitarian Assistance Canada which continues to provide international crisis response and disaster relief in the developing world.

I have also been dedicated to promoting careers in science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – for women and girls. Whether it be through mentoring, outreach or education, I continue to do what I can to inspire and encourage young women to enter this field, and break down any barriers they may experience to entering STEM fields.

Why Public Service

As for my professional life, I have had a fulfilling career as an engineer in the nuclear sector. Most of my career was spent at Ontario Hydro – now Ontario Power Generation. I was one of the first female nuclear energy workers in Canada. I worked on the design engineering side, the construction side, the commissioning side and operations.

I had always wanted to join the public service as I felt like it fit with my values of giving back to society. The opportunity to work at the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission was one I could not pass up. For me, public service is any activity that takes us beyond our narrow self-interest and into the world of serving our community. And being a public servant is just that, serving Canadians to the best of our abilities.

Importance of giving back

After a Commission meeting last year, a few of us were having a discussion on the subject of pens. We started talking about what kind of pens we prefer and I said I like one that feels like a fountain pen, another colleague mentioned she likes one that rolls smoothly on the paper. Someone else commented they found gel pens were too messy, and so on. I sat back and said “this is such a first world problem.”

It reminded me of a discussion I once had.

It was around 2009 when I was volunteering on international development activities to fight global poverty. I had just returned from a visit to Central Asia, to Afghanistan and Tajikistan, to review Canada’s international development efforts there. I was sharing my experiences with the Chairman of the OPG Board, Jake Epp, about the abject poverty I had encountered. He had been to Afghanistan earlier as part of a mission of the Canadian Government to see how Canada could best provide aid.

He shared a story with me I will never forget.

He had taken pencils with him to give to the children there. There were not enough pencils to go around. The children broke the pencils into three and shared them – so that each child got a piece.

He said, the child who got the piece with an eraser would just light up – like he had won the lottery.

For those of us here today who are in a position where we are able to help others – we already hold a winning ticket. It is up to us to decide how we go about using our luck for the greater good.

Thank you.

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