Sociologist recently awarded the 2020 Killam Prize in Social Sciences
Stigma, inequity and marginalization often unite the communities of people that sociologist Cecilia Benoit has worked with in a lengthy career as a researcher and educator.
Her strong dedication to addressing the needs of midwives, street youth and sex workers, among others, has not gone unnoticed.
Recently, she was awarded the 2020 Killam Prize in Social Sciences from the Canada Council for the Arts. The award — which comes with $100,000 in prize money — recognizes scholars and thought leaders, and is among the most prestigious prizes for researchers in the country.
For Benoit, a scientist with the Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research and professor emerita of sociology at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, her interest in marginalized communities can be traced back to her own upbringing in Stephenville.
"I had a sense, from really early life, that gender was important and sometimes divided people, even in the small town where I grew up." — Cecilia Benoit
"I had a sense, from really early life, that gender was important and sometimes divided people, even in the small town where I grew up," said Benoit, who completed undergraduate and post-graduate studies at Memorial University before receiving her PhD in sociology from the University of Toronto. "I observed how my mother worked equally in the household, but she never received payment for her work, and even among my sisters and brothers, there was a sense of inequity. Everybody working hard, but certain kinds of work were more highly valued."
A major focus of late for Benoit has been the daily economic and social injustices facing sex workers. Benoit works with eight organizations across Canada dedicated to this cause, including the Safe Harbour Outreach Project in St. John's. Amidst the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, lots is happening within these groups to assist the workers.
"They're all mobilizing, trying to get food to them (and) help them with housing, because many of them are on the verge of losing their rental accommodation," Benoit said.
1. What is your full name?
Cecilia Myra Mary Benoit.
2. Where and when were you born?
Stephenville, Newfoundland, 1954.
3. Where do you live today?
4. What’s your favourite place in the world?
I actually have two favourite island places in the world. One of them is in Newfoundland, the furthest east in Canada, and the other is the furthest west, Vancouver Island.
5. Who do you follow on social media?
I follow an assortment of individuals. Leaders who take a stand against social injustice, community groups working with disadvantaged groups, social movement activists, progressive media reporters, and a large assortment of friends and family spread across the country.
6. What would people be surprised to learn about you?
That I come from pretty humble beginnings. My parents were a mix of different heritages — Mi'kmaq, French, Irish, English. They were hard-working but quite poor. My parents didn't finish elementary education, and then they had a very large family — 11 kids, 11 years. I was able to pursue my education and eventually my doctorate because of their encouragement. We were allowed to be free from chores if we studied. But fundamentally, it was because when I started university in the early 1970s, the Joey Smallwood government, which advocated for the beginning of a welfare state for Newfoundland, had made bursaries and low-interest loans available to needy students. I was just born at the right time in the right place.
7. What’s been your favourite year and why?
1971, when I had just turned 17 and was heading off to MUN for the first time. It was the beginning of my exposure to other places and people different than myself, and I think that's where I started to become self-aware.
8. What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Saying goodbye to my mother, Rita. She was the kindest person I have ever known and, even though she's been gone many years now, she remains the most talked-about person among my siblings and our extended family. I think from her we have learned compassion and humility and a love of gardening.
9. Can you describe one experience that changed your life?
Becoming a mother myself. I always loved children and being an auntie but never imagined I would be a mom. Maybe it was growing up in a big family and just the difficulty of feeding everybody. Then I met the right person, my co-researcher and husband, Mikael. He came into my life when I first moved here into Victoria, and then our daughter Annika was born, and now we have two beautiful grandchildren who bring a lot of joy.
10. What’s your greatest indulgence?
I would say wine. I like having a glass or two of wine in the evening after supper and after I am finished everything I hoped to accomplish that day.
11. What is your favourite movie or book?
I like movies about real-life experiences — historical and current events, especially about human struggle and triumph. One of my favourites would be "Rabbit-Proof Fence," which is an Australian film about three young women, mixed-race aboriginal girls, who left their native reserve and went to try and reunite with their family. It was one of really unbelievable human struggle, but also incredible resilience.
12. How do you like to relax?
Before COVID, it would be by having family and friends over for a cooked meal, stories and laughs. Now I relax by going for walks with one friend at a time, physically distancing but also socially connecting. It’s not the same, but it's allowing me to maintain important relationships until we can get through this pandemic.
13. What are you reading or watching right now?
I just finished the Netflix series "After Life" and "Derek," which are British comedies conceived and performed by Ricky Gervais. I think the series are great because they're really about people's unpolished lives, experiencing love and coping with loss.
14. What is your greatest fear?
It's a bit silly, but I fear driving a car. I have a driver’s licence, and I've had it for many years. It comes in handy for identification purposes. But actually, I don't drive. I ride a bike to the university and I go shopping, visiting friends. I think my fear relates to some car accidents I had in my earlier life. But it's deep-seated and I avoid it if at all possible.
15. How would you describe your personal fashion statement?
I'm not much for fashion trends. I would say perhaps casual and practical best describe how I dress. Recently, I've been trying to wear less black and more colour, just to brighten up the days.
16. What is your most treasured possession?
I have a few treasured possessions. A flowered sugar bowl and milk jug that my mom took out only on rare occasions when we had strangers visiting in our home. My wedding ring, which belonged to my husband’s maternal Swedish grandmother. And the third is bundles of hand-written letters from close colleagues, family and friends that I've kept safe over the decades, thinking that I might go back to them.
17. What physical or personality trait are you most grateful to a parent for?
My mom’s amazing capacity for unconditional love and my dad’s (Joseph's) steadfast encouragement to keep learning new things.
18. What three people would join you for your dream dinner party?
This was a very difficult one. I cannot limit the party to three people, sorry. In the first instance, it would be my husband, Mikael, daughter, Annika, and then her partner, Hjalmer, and their two little ones, Huumiis and Cinkwa. If I could extend my bubble at all, I would include my ten siblings who I love very much and remain in contact with. Most of them live in Stephenville, except for one that lives in Calgary.
19. What is your best quality, and what is your worst quality?
I would say probably my best quality is that I’m a hard worker. The worst is that I find it hard to stop working.
20. What is your biggest regret?
I think my biggest regret is that I did not identify and take pride in my Indigenous Mi'kmaq background at the beginning of my career as a sociologist. (Later) my colleague and friend, Dena Carroll, who is also Indigenous, got me to think about the important knowledge (and) ways Indigenous people developed to care for people, to use nature, to feed their families. And I owe it to my daughter, Annika, for helping me to publicly embrace my Mi'kmaq ancestry.