May 7, 2018

The personal is still the political for Mary Valentich

Social work emerita professor receives Canadian Social Work’s highest honour
Pioneering feminist social work professor Mary Valentich, PhD, was recognized with Canadian Social Work's highest honour, for her decades of research, teaching scholarship and galvanizing community service.
Pioneering feminist social work professor Mary Valentich, PhD, was recognized with Canadian Social W University of Calgary

When someone gets a career award, it usually implies a couple of things. First, that the person was a game-changer in their field, and secondly, their time in the game is largely over. It seems clear that while the former is definitely true for Mary Valentich, PhD, RSW, the latter is most certainly not. 

Mary Valentich is the same force of nature that she’s always been. She’s agreed to sandwich in a quick chat before she heads off to her second meeting of the day, which will be followed by a webinar. Don’t even think about using the “R” word around her.

“I’m in the admirable period in my life where I can do the things that I really enjoy,” she says. “I don't have to get bogged down with some of the more tedious tasks that relate to almost any profession.” 

A passion for social justice

Social work is, of course, the profession Valentich chose more than 50 years ago, due, in part, to its unique focus on social justice. As an educator, researcher, and practitioner, she has certainly made her mark, and earlier this spring, the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW), recognized her with the highest honour that can be bestowed on a Canadian social worker, the Glenn Drover Award for Outstanding Service.

In making the award, CASW president Jan Christianson-Wood said, “From grassroots, research and education, to policy and political settings, Dr. Valentich has worked in an incredible variety of roles in tireless pursuit of a better world for all of us.” 

Valentich began her practice as a hospital social worker before joining St. Patrick’s School of Social Welfare at the University of Ottawa in 1968, where she met her partner and longtime collaborator, Jim Gripton. In 1973, following two years of opposition, the two created one of the earliest university courses in human sexuality. Three years later, they came to the University of Calgary where they continued to teach human sexuality for nearly 30 years. Valentich held many roles in the Faculty of Social Work over the years while teaching and engaging in scholarship. She was also adviser to the president of the university on women’s issues for three years.

A galvanizing force

What’s perhaps most amazing is that her professional career was mirrored by extensive community work as a private practitioner, advocate and galvanizing force in the communities where she lived. She was a founding member of two rape crisis centres: Ottawa in 1975, and Calgary, when she moved here in 1976. With a committee, she led the development of the University of Calgary’s first December 6th Memorial in 1990 and created what was most likely the first Violence Awareness Week on a North American university campus in 1991. This work reflects a feminist lens that has greatly fueled her activist approach. 

“Feminist practice takes you not only to direct work with people,” says Valentich, “but also to work in policy, and the kind of research that involves much more participation than we used to do in the past. 

“When you’re working directly with someone, you need to have a sense of the social conditions that may have prompted that particular behaviour. At some point, both the social worker and the client may choose to engage directly with aspects of those social conditions ... So for me, the personal is the political. The two are very interwoven. That’s an old declaration, but I think it’s still valid.”


Valentich brought her feminist lens to the Faculty of Social Work in 1976, and carried it into her community work. While the empowerment reflected in the worldwide #metoo movement was encouraging, Valentich says it is also discouraging because she believed things were further along.

“That's the puzzle to me,” she says flatly. “I thought we had made progress. I really did. It’s disappointing to realize we haven’t made that much progress. But I could say the same for other issues. For example, social workers have worked on issues of racism for a long, long time, trying to make positive changes. Bur clearly some problems are so woven into the basic structure of our society ... they're so lodged in there that it takes ongoing effort to keep dislodging some of these dysfunctional aspects. So in a way, that's discouraging.” 

Perhaps this realization is what fuels her passion to continue "dislodging" things, in what has become a second career. For Valentich, there’s always another issue, going back to the work she did over 30 years ago in starting an after-school program (that is still going strong). Or her more recent work around assisted dying, which increased social awareness and likely influenced provincial policies and practices. Or her work over the years — on-campus and off — to establish sexuality as an important component of social work practice. Or offering workshops on acting assertively at work and making decisions about professional boundary crossings. Or her promotion of gender equity, and the rights of gays, lesbians, and trans-persons. Or her ongoing pursuit to eliminate sexist language, including her decades-long fight to have the term alderman finally replaced with councilor. Or her more recent work focusing on heightening awareness of climate change ... etc. etc.  The fight for social justice hasn’t stopped, so neither has Mary Valentich.

Never lose that sense of vigilance

“There is continuous work for social workers around a lot of these issues,” says Valentich. “And we need to work around these issues and not just within our own profession. We need to be able to align ourselves with other groups because we aren't alone in our concerns about social justice. Citizens are very concerned about many of the aspects that are problematic. Right now I have concerns about what I would almost call the hatred that I see developing that is not the welcoming face of Canada. We need to be much more welcoming and understanding toward refugees, immigrants of all backgrounds, and Indigenous people. We can be proud of what Canada has achieved as a multicultural society, but you can never lose a sense of vigilance.”