The Telegram's 20 Questions

Gemma Hickey

Daniel MacEachern
Published on July 18, 2014
Gemma Hickey. — Photo by Rhonda Hayward/The Telegram

Well-known St. John’s activist Gemma Hickey announced earlier this month she was beginning a foundation to help victims of abuse in religious institutions, in part because was a victim herself when she was young.

“I have been at the helm of a number of non-profit organizations in the province, and I have had a chance to see what the gaps are in service for this type of abuse,” she told The Telegram.

She says the response to the new Pathways Foundation — which will officially launch in the fall — has been gratifying, as she’s contacted by people both offering and needing help.

“There’s such a stigma to this type of abuse that people didn’t really want to talk about it. And people are still hurting from it,” she said.

“Faith communities are in crisis over this, still to this very day. And there are a lot of cases out there that have not been settled, or have been settled silently.”

Hickey — the executive director of  For the Love of Learning, an arts-based charity for young people — wants Pathways to help, through education and support, wipe away that stigma, and adds it’s also part of her own healing process.

“I’ve been in therapy for years over this, and I’ve worked through it, and I’m in a really good place in my life where I can help others,” she said.

Most important for Hickey, she says, is to offer hope.

“I want people to know that there’s hope. I want people to know that this is a positive thing that I’m trying to do, and through doing it, other people can be helped,” she said.

Hickey sat down at her home with The Telegram recently to answer 20 Questions.

What is your full name?

Gemma Marie Hickey.

When and where you born?

I was born in St. John’s, October 1976.

Where is home today?

St. John’s. Absolutely. There’s no other place to live, really.

What is one act of rebellion you committed as a youth?

I think all of my acts of rebellion have actually been around taking the negative and putting it into something positive, and I think that that is also a form of rebellion, and I think I’ve done that a number of times in my life. Especially now with Pathways, because ultimately my life could have went another way, but it went this way, and here I am, and I’m happy with that.

Where did you go to school?

I went to school at St. Joseph’s, on Quidi Vidi Lake, but that is now condominiums. And then I went to Gonzaga High School, and then I went to Memorial University, where I got my degree (in religious studies).

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

“Never let your fear paralyze you.” Father Paul Lundrigan.

What has been the defining moment of your life so far?

There’s been a number of defining moments, so many to choose from that I think, really, had an impact on me, and the person I am today. There’s been good and bad ones, and they’ve all shaped me. I remember being spit on, just before I went in to give a brief on same-sex marriage in Halifax, and that was back in 2003, to a federal committee, a standing committee on justice and human rights, and that was probably — well, it was humiliating, but at the same time, I think that moment really shaped how I devoted the next 10 years of my life to being an activist and working across Canada to get same-sex marriage legalized. ... I just remember wiping the spit from my face just before I went in to go deliver my brief, and it really gave me the fuel to put the passion behind what I was trying to promote.

Where do you find inspiration?

Poetry. I read a lot of poetry and I write poetry. I also really pay attention to speeches that people give. People’s words are so strong to me, I guess because I’m a writer, but how people deliver their speeches, what they say behind their words — that really can inspire me.

Are you reading anything right now?

I often re-read things that I enjoy. I’m reading “The Singer’s Broken Throat,” which is a book of poetry by Des Walsh, who’s a Newfoundland author and poet, so I enjoy that book. I’m also reading Flannery O’Connor’s collection of short stories.

What is your most treasured possession?

My grandfather’s pocketwatch. I was little. I was very close with him. He’s my father’s father. I saw him in his bedroom, and I asked him, ”What are you doing, Pop?” And he said, “I’m putting this away for your cousin Matthew, when I die.” And Matthew was just born, and I was the first grandchild, and there was only four of us on that side of the family, and I was really jealous. And I didn’t know how to express my jealousy, I was still young. I was always really close with my grandfather. Taught me how to fish. Taught me how to hunt. Taught me all those good things. I told him, “But I want that.” And he said, “Then you’ll have it.”

Wow — that’s some gender activism at an early age!

I had no idea. So that’s what I have, that’s my most treasured possession.

Do you have a favourite movie, or a recent one that sticks out for you?

I’m really interested in movies lately that are dialogue-driven. I really enjoyed “Midnight in Paris,” by Woody Allen. I like the book “Immoveable Feast,” by Ernest Hemingway, so I liked what Woody Allen did in that movie. It was nice to see that it was shot on location.

What is your greatest indulgence?

Probably poetry, again. I read it constantly, and it just gives me food for the soul. I suppose that’s a cliché, but I read it as much as I can, and it just continues to move me all the time. We have such a variety of amazing local talent here. A lot of great poets that have come from here that have really inspired me and influenced my own writing. Al Pittman, Agnes Walsh and I already mentioned Des Walsh.

What bugs you?

People who refuse to engage in dialogue. I think that even if people don’t agree, that there’s room for people to understand one another through dialogue, and it bothers me when people just shut down and refuse to communicate.

What would you say are your best and worst qualities?

My charisma. It’s a blessing and a curse.

What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you?

Well, getting back to Father Paul Lundrigan — when I was younger, he helped me out through a number of things, and I wrote a letter. I was young, I was a teenager and a writer, so I was always writing things. I wrote a letter and mentioned him in the letter. I don’t know why. I don’t know who I thought I was communicating to. Possibly God at the time. Anyway, I wrote a letter and put it in a Coke bottle, it was plastic, and threw it over Symes Bridge on Waterford Bridge Road.

And then 12 years later, he called me. We had maintained a friendship when he went to a different parish. He’s always been a big support to me and a good friend. He called me and it was his birthday, and I was going to come out and visit him, out in Ferryland at the time.

I said, “I’ve got something for you, I’ve got a cake, and my girlfriend’s going to come out with us and we’ll celebrate your birthday.” He said, “Sure, I’ve got something for you.” I said, “It’s your birthday, what are you doing?” So I go out there, and he says, “Close your eyes,” and I thought, “OK, this is very weird,” and I closed my eyes and opened my hand, and he put this paper in my hands, and I opened it up, and it was the letter. Twelve years later.

He said, “A fisherman from Renews” — which was his parish at the time — “found it on the beach, saw it, and saw my name in it and brought it up to me. Some of it is still legible, including my name, so I thought I’d give it back to you, because you’ve given so much to me over the years.”

Why did you decide to start this foundation?

Because of my own experiences, because of the fact that we’re an island culture. Things are different here. We have a fierce pride, and there’s also things that are unique to us because we’re from here and I’m sensitive to that, because I’m a Newfoundlander, I’m a proud Newfoundlander. So I wanted to do something really positive for my province, and something that would be helpful to other people who’ve experienced the same things that I have.

If you could live in or visit another time, when and where would you go?

That’s really a good one. I think I would probably go back to the ‘60s. I’ve read everything out there about the Kennedys, and I would probably go back during that time, just to see some of the changes that have happened, and some of the movements that were going on.

You became quite active in the United Church, and then you had difficulties in the church and wound up moving on. How would you describe your relationship today with religion, with religious institutions?

I’m not affiliated with any church now. My faith — I’m glad you asked this question. I didn’t stop believing in God because of what happened to me. I’ve always had a deep faith. I pursued religion academically, and I also had always felt that I wanted to pursue a call to ministry, but I couldn’t do that in the ministry. And because of what happened to me, and because I’m gay, and because I’m a woman, I just decided to give another church a try, and I picked the United Church. At the time, I was probably in the media every day, due to same-sex marriage, and I joined a church that was not as progressive. I didn’t realize that. I just thought the church as a whole was progressive, but individual churches can govern their own congregations, so because I was in the media a lot, and I was very involved with this one particular church — I won’t name it — I was a lay minister, I was a youth group leader. I was on the church council. I got really involved there. I was there for about four years, and I wanted to pursue ministry, but because I was in the media so much, people had their backs up to me. And I understand that, but I couldn’t be nurtured fully within that congregation. There were a lot of people there that were really great and supportive, but the majority of the people just didn’t understand, and that was very hard on me emotionally.

So I made a decision after four years of staying there — and that was not easy — I made a decision to leave. And I have not been back to a church since. I’ve been in churches, I’ve gone to mass for different christenings or weddings, that kind of thing. I’m still a spiritual person, but unfortunately now it’s outside of any particular church.

Who is one person, living or deceased, you’d like to have lunch with?

Probably Bobby Kennedy. I would probably order a steak, medium rare, with a salad and some Perrier.

If you were premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, what is the first thing you’d try to do?

House of Assembly reform. There has to be a better way of doing things. I ran in the provincial election back in 2007. I ran twice. I ran in a byelection in Kilbride, and then I ran in St. John’s East and came second. I love politics. It’s just like poetry to me, it’s a passion of mine. But I’m really turned off by the way people talk to each other and heckle each other. I just think there’s a better way of doing things. There’s a better way of contributing to our province than taking each other down.

Twitter: @TelegramDaniel