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Police group pulls fundraiser for YWCA Hamilton after activist makes critical remarks in gala speech

A volunteer committee made up of current and former Hamilton Police Service members says it will no longer support YWCA Hamilton with a fundraiser that has raised over $130,000 since 2021. The committee says the decision was made following the YWCA's Women of Distinction Awards, in which an honouree criticized police during a speech.

Committee said they felt 'unwelcome' at gala, while YWCA says decision is 'disappointing'

A group of people stand side by side in an office. Several are in police uniforms.
Project First to Respond committee volunteers pose with YWCA Hamilton executive director Medora Uppal, far right. (Twitter/YWCA Hamilton)

A volunteer committee made up of current and former Hamilton Police Service members says it will no longer support the YWCA Hamilton with a fundraiser that has raised over $130,000 since 2021.

A committee member confirmed to CBC Hamilton the decision was made following the YWCA's Women of Distinction Awards gala in March, in which an honouree criticized police while accepting an award. 

"This year, several of the committee volunteers attended the YWCA Women of Distinction Awards. Unfortunately, the tenor of the evening left the volunteers feeling disheartened and unwelcome," police Sgt. Alexis Petrovic told CBC Hamilton in an email.

Petrovic is a member of Project First to Respond, a group of volunteers that is behind an annual golf tournament that has been held in support of the local YWCA for the past three years. 

She said members' discomfort at the gala prompted them to "look at broader community needs and the decision to partner with a different community organization every year."

Petrovic declined to say anything more about the group's decision.  

Medora Uppal, YWCA Hamilton's CEO, said she feels the change is unfortunate. "We had fostered a really positive relationship with the group over the years so it was disappointing," she said. 

Women stand on stage.
The YWCA Women of Distinction gala was held on March 7, honouring 50 nominees and several award recipients. (Submitted by YWCA Hamilton)

Uppal told CBC Hamilton that Project First to Respond emailed the YWCA to share their decision shortly after the March 7 gala, specifically expressing their displeasure with the speech of Jelena Vermilion, a community activist and the executive director of the Sex Workers Action Program (SWAP) Hamilton. 

Vermilion was among five women honoured that night "for their exceptional achievements." At the event at the Hamilton Convention Centre, 50 nominees were also celebrated.

Award winner criticized police during speech

In her acceptance speech, Vermilion said she was proud to represent other sex workers, trans people and people who had experienced police violence. 

"My life is valuable regardless of the work I do, regardless of the work that any of you do, except for maybe policing because that's my personal opinion," Vermilion said on stage. 

Jelena Vermilion's Women of Distinction acceptance speech

2 months ago
Duration 3:35
Jelena Vermilion spoke after accepting the 2024 YWCA Hamilton woman of distinction award. Her comments about policing led a volunteer committee of Hamilton Police Service Members to stop fundraising for the YWCA. (Video by Olivia Mancini)

Vermilion also acknowledged Chevranna Abdi, who died in 2003 during an arrest in Hamilton. An inquest ruled her death was the result of drug poisoning. 

Speaking to CBC Hamilton on Tuesday, Vermilion said the committee's decision in the wake of the gala is "disgusting."   

"What f---king bullies. They are going to punish all of the people and service users … because a civilian had an opinion that they didn't like," she said. 

She said she did not mean to imply police officers' lives don't have value but said she believes policing is deeply problematic work, citing a history of oppression. 

2023 tournament raised $28K 

Petrovic said, despite the decision, the committee is proud of the work they've done with YWCA Hamilton, which involved organizing the women-only nine-hole golf tournament, held most recently held at Southbrook Golf & Country Club on Sept. 28, 2023.

The club confirmed to CBC Hamilton another tournament is scheduled for this fall. 

The YWCA Hamilton previously shared that the 2023 event raised $28,000 and featured "a delicious taco dinner, door prizes, raffle, silent auction, and lots of networking," the organization said on Instagram.

In January, YWCA Hamilton posted on X, formerly Twitter, saying the committee helped in building affordable housing for women and children at the Putman Family YWCA, which opened on Ottawa Street North in late 2021.

"Your leadership and support will provide 50 women and mother-led families with a stable home and the resources and opportunities to rebuild their lives," read the YWCA post.

It thanked committee members Jo-Ann Savoie, Treena MacSween, Robin Abbott, Kelly Frapporti-Tobin, and Petrovic for their work.

'Winners speak for themselves:' YWCA CEO

On March 9, two days after the YWCA gala, Savoie, a committee member whose social media accounts identify her as a retired staff sergeant with the Hamilton Police, said on X that Vermilion's words that night were "an embarrassment and not those of a leader."

She wrote in response to a post in which city councillor Cameron Kroetsch praised Vermilion's remarks. 

Savoie did not respond to CBC Hamilton's request for comment.

A woman stands a podium
Jelena Vermilion was one of five women who received special recognition at the YWCA gala on March 7. (Submitted by YWCA Hamilton)

Vermilion said though she saw her win as "a vindication of the rights of sex workers" and "a validation of our dignity," she said she hasn't had much of a chance to celebrate because of the harassing comments she received online afterwards. 

Vermilion also said she did not prepare her remarks in advance, and that her speech has been affected by a head injury she sustained during an assault in October. 

Uppal said that as with any award winner, Vermilion's remarks are her own and do not necessarily reflect YWCA Hamilton's positions.

"Winners speak for themselves," she said. "We know they have different lived experiences and perspectives."

She said third-party events are not top fundraisers for the non-profit but that they're all important sources of revenue. 

It's also unfortunate police volunteers felt uncomfortable, Uppal said.

"We would never want anyone to feel disheartened or unwelcome at Women of Distinction." 

Vermilion said she's not concerned about that.

"I'm glad to hear that I have made them feel exactly how they have made all of my ilk and my kin and my community feel," she said. 

Police say they will continue working with YWCA

In an email, police spokesperson Jackie Penman told CBC Hamilton the decision to change the tournament's fundraising cause was made by a group of volunteers and that the event is not sponsored by Hamilton Police Service.

Penman said police chief Frank Bergen has had recent conversations with Uppal, and that "Hamilton Police Service is committed to our continued work with YWCA to meet the many needs of our Hamilton communities."

Uppal said she spoke with Bergen several times since learning of the committee's decision. She said he told her "the support from the police continues," and police will keep working with YWCA on events such as Walk a Mile in Their Shoes, which raises money for survivors of violence.

"I feel sad about the direction that this has gone in," Uppal said. "But I also feel proud about our continued support for women in this community."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Justin Chandler is a CBC News reporter in Hamilton. He covers all sorts of stories but has a special interest in how public policy affects people. Justin covered current affairs in Hamilton and Niagara for TVO, and has worked on a variety of CBC teams and programs, including As It Happens, Day 6 and CBC Music. He co-hosted Radio Free Krypton on Met Radio. You can email story ideas to justin.chandler(at)cbc(dot)ca.