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Alumnae Awards

Alumnae Awards

A highlight of each Reunion Weekend is the honouring of two remarkable Branksome alums, nominated by their peers. Both awards pay tribute to alumnae who exemplify Branksome’s mission of developing graduates who shape a better world.
The Allison Roach Alumna Award
Named for alum, former Branksome Hall principal, and honorary Alumnae Association President Allison ROACH’51, this award is presented annually to an alum who has demonstrated outstanding distinction, character and vision in her professional and/or volunteer endeavours.
The Young Alumna Achievement Award
This award recognizes an alum under the age of 40, at the time of nomination, who demonstrates the character and leadership fostered at Branksome in her pursuits to serve and shape her world through positive change. The nominee should be an inspiration and role model for our students and community at large.

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  • 2019 - Christina GILPIN’95

    Since September 2017, Christina has been the Chief of the Cree Nation of Wemindji, in Northern Quebec. As the first-ever female Chief of her community, she has made education and economic development her priorities. Previously, Christina was the Chief Executive Officer and Executive Director of the Tawich Development Corporation. She also served as Councillor for the Cree Nation of Wemindji for one term and spent over a decade as a Career Counsellor and Employment Officer for Cree Human Resources and Development. Christina travelled to Branksome from the Cree Nation of James Bay in Grade 7 and called the school home as a boarder for seven years. Christina attended Algonquin College for Lean Management, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue for Career Development and Trent University for Native Studies.

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  • 2019 - Sohani AMARASEKERA’06

    Sohani is a Surgical Resident of Ophthalmology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre. She also works with Project Theia, a non-profit organization that provides ophthalmic and facial reconstructive surgery to communities in developing countries. Sohani has worked with the organization Unite for Sight in the United States and throughout South Asia, performing free vision screenings to underserved populations. Sohani also founded the first vision clinic in Sri Lanka to provide free, comprehensive vision screenings for a particular diabetic eye disease—providing service to 600 patients per month. A Prefect at Branksome, Sohani was involved in public speaking and debating, and attended Model United Nations in The Hague, Netherlands. She holds an MD from New York Medical College, a Masters in public health from Cambridge University and a BSc from the University of Pennsylvania.

Previous Award Winners

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  • 2018 - Rebecca ROBERTSON'68

    Rebecca is President, Executive Producer and co-founder of Park Avenue Armory (named by The New York Times as New York’s “most important new cultural institution.”) From 2000 to 2006, Rebecca ran the $1.4 billion redevelopment of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. Before that, she led the team that transformed 13 acres around seedy 42nd Street into a vibrant, mixed-use block of popular culture that included eight historic theatres. She also served as a lecturer at the Harvard School of Design. Rebecca holds both a Master of Science in Planning and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto.
  • 2017 - Andrea DORFMAN’87

    It all started with a gift from her father — and unleashed her own.
     
    Flashback to the Dorfman household in Toronto, more than 35 years ago: Most teenagers wanted their parents to buy them one of the new video cameras that were showing up in stores, the first hint at what would eventually be today’s Age of YouTube.
     
    Not 12-year-old Andrea Dorfman. She wasn’t interested in what everyone else wanted. She had her eye on another prize — her dad’s Super 8 camera, collecting dust in a box, with an unexposed roll of celluloid film awaiting inside.
     
    “The camera was just lying around and I noticed there was a reel of film in it. I asked my father if I could have it and shoot with it,” Andrea recalls.
     
    “Sure,” her father answered. But he had a caveat, perhaps to test his daughter’s commitment. It took money to develop those homemade 8mm films. So, if she did any filming, she needed to pay for the developing herself.
     
    And that was the moment one of Canada’s most innovative women filmmakers got her break.
    
    Andrea dusted off the Super 8 and began shooting images around her: The wind rustling through the neighbourhood trees; moving clouds above, the dark shadows deep in the garden; a friend launching into the air from a playground swing. “I didn’t even know if I was shooting on colour or black and white film,” she recalls. “I just shot and shot, to see what would come out.”
    A few days later, she paid for the developed reel of film, brought it back home and threaded it into the projector. As black and white images flickered onto the screen, Andrea was mesmerized. “It was simply magic, that’s how I remember it. I watched my friend jumping off the swing, again and again, and it was like another world. I was hooked.”
     
    It became a passionate hobby. Fellow Branksome students might remember “that girl with the camera,” presenting her latest monster film at school assembly. “It was Grade 7 or 8. I had this little film a friend of mine and I made in a graveyard. We played piano music live to it at the student assembly. It was so cheesy and terrible — my friend was the fair maiden, putting flowers on her lover’s grave. I played a predator. It was sort of a horror film.”
     
    It was an early indication of a recurring and powerful theme in Andrea’s later work — women overcoming adversity, danger and social taboos.
     
    Andrea caught the eye of critics in 1998, when she burst onto the scene with two films: Swerve, the story of a group of friends who go on a road trip and become part of a lesbian love triangle, and Nine, a docudrama about a nine-year-old girl facing separation anxiety. The Atlantic Film Festival named the 29-year-old the most promising director of the year.
     
    Andrea followed up two years later with Parsley Days, a comedy shot on a $65,000 budget, about a young woman who hopes to end her unwanted pregnancy by gorging on parsley. The comedy premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival to more positive reviews —“endlessly charming” wrote The Globe and Mail — and signaled that Canada had a new, innovative woman director on the scene.
     
    Now based in Halifax, Andrea has become a prolific filmmaker, with dozens of documentary and feature films in her iMDB profile (not to mention music videos to pay the way). She doesn’t aim for commercial films, but rather makes films to make a difference, or show us those who do. Consider The Girls of Meru, a film that follows the inspiring 160 girls who take the Kenyan government to court for not protecting them from rape.
     
    “They won,” says Andrea. “What motivates me to make films? Social justice, children’s rights, environmental activism, feminism.”
     
    Want to see the power and intimacy of Andrea’s work? Go to YouTube and watch How To Be Alone, the four-minute video poem she made with her friend, the poet Tanya Davis.
     
    “We were just sitting around and thought we should do something about being alone, a topic of conversation we often returned to,” recalls Andrea. “Tanya wrote a beautiful poem. We made it into a short film.”
     
    The film critic, Roger Ebert, loved it and tweeted it out. Eight million have watched it since. “It’s the little film that keeps on ticking,” says Andrea with a chuckle.
     
    Yes, Andrea Dorfman — that young girl who so many years ago opted for the old-fashioned Super 8 over going digital — has gone viral.
     
    Miro Cernetig’s latest film is Facing Saddam for National Geographic. A former Globe and Mail foreign correspondent, he is the founder of Catalytico, a strategic branding company based in Vancouver.
  • 2016 - Ann DOWSETT Johnston'71

    Ann DOWSETT Johnston'71 is an award-winning writer and an inspirational advocate. She has had a stellar career in journalism, including close to three decades at Maclean's magazine, where she was the chief architect of the magazine's famed annual university rankings, and in higher education, as a vice-principal at McGill University. In 2013, her international bestseller Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol combined her groundbreaking reporting on the topic with a searingly candid account of her own journey.

    Today, she is a sought-after public speaker and consultant, as well as co-founder of two advocacy organizations—the National Roundtable on Girls, Women and Alcohol; and Faces and Voices of Recovery Canada. "My passions are to jumpstart a broad conversation about the impact of our favourite drug, including on public health and on public policy, and to destigmatize a very pernicious disease, addiction, which touches nearly every Canadian," Ann says.
    Raised in the varied environs of northern Ontario, South Africa and Toronto, Ann studied at Queen's University and then joined Maclean's in 1977. In the 1990s, she turned its brand new university rankings into a huge phenomenon—the biggest-selling issue every year, and a major influence on post-secondary education—and earned five gold National Magazine Awards. In 2006, she accepted a major leadership role at McGill, in charge of development, alumni and communications and oversaw a record increase in fundraising.

    Ann now devotes herself to informing, advocating and consulting about the complexities of risky drinking, for which she has won a series of national and international awards, including a Transforming Lives Award from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. She consults with corporations and a wide variety of organizations, last year advising the government of Ireland. "I feel a responsibility to contextualize what's happening to young women," she says. "Our stories set us free."
  • 2015 - Nicole LEVESQUE'95

    Nicole LEVESQUE'95 is one of Canada's leaders in helping people with criminal records put bad behaviour behind them and become fully engaged members of society.

    Since 2002, and as co-founder of the Montreal-based National Pardon Centre with her husband, Michael Ashby, she has assisted thousands of Canadians in obtaining a federal pardon for past convictions and getting rid of a record that can hamstring them in later life—in employment, in education, even in coaching sports or crossing the U.S. border.

    "People deserve the chance to prove themselves," says Nicole, whose firm walks them through the process. She can also help people who were never convicted but may have been fingerprinted. That alone can deny people security clearances or cause a U.S. border official to refuse them entry.
    After growing up in Thornhill, Ontario, Nicole moved to Rosedale with her family as her teen years dawned, and she attended Branksome for Grades 7 to 9. The school, she says, helped her become "a proud, strong woman." Her studies continued at the University of Surrey in England where she received her MA in Sociology and Criminology, and an associated internship in Jamaica, working in the women's prison.

    Nicole proudly calls herself an entrepreneur, even though her organization is non-profit. "It's run the same way as a for-profit business—you have all the same challenges," she says. "I wanted to make a difference, and I also wanted to be my own boss."

    Nicole gives back by plowing surplus revenues into education and youth counselling. She briefs young people on what rights they have even with a criminal record, and goes into prisons to talk about re-integration in society, counselling many women about their employment options.

    "Pardons are the light at the tunnel for so many people," she says. "I really get a lot of pleasure out of seeing people turn their lives around."

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  • 2018 - Emily HINES’10

    Emily is a speaker and advocate against gender-based violence. She is a web designer and content creator for the Good Lad Initiative, which focuses on bringing men into the #MeToo movement and finding solutions to domestic violence through discussion. Emily has been a featured podcast guest and has been published in Oxford Notes, Shameless and Feelz magazines. A global traveller, she has also worked internationally to bring greater awareness to the impacts of aquatic policy on communities. She holds a Master of Science in Water Science, Policy and Management from Oxford University as well as a Bachelor of Arts in Aquatic Sciences and Public Policy from St. Francis Xavier University.

  • 2017 - Sarah CLARKE'97

    Sarah Clarke knows what it’s like to fall through the cracks.

    When she enrolled at Branksome Hall in Grade 6, Sarah could barely read — a result of several years in French Immersion and an abrupt switch into English school that left her scholastically unmoored. She found at Branksome teachers who were not only educators, but mentors. They believed in Sarah, and their compassion helped her flourish as a student and future leader.

    Her own struggles to find her path and her voice fed Sarah’s impassioned advocacy for the rights of First Nations children on reserves, who lack access to basic services other Canadian kids take for granted. As principal of Clarke Child & Family Law, Sarah now specializes in child protection, custody, access and adoption cases.

    Small talk is not Sarah’s thing. Launch a conversation about her work, her schooling, Toronto traffic, whatever, and the topic soon veers to advocacy. Within moments, she is deep into details of her latest case, representing a First Nations child who was denied funding for medically required orthodontic care.

    Her growing renown in legal circles began with the landmark case Sarah helped steer to victory before the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal. Starting in 2008, first as an articling law student and then as co-counsel, Sarah stood for First Nations Child and Family Caring Society in Caring Society v. Canada.
    In its ground-breaking judgment in January 2016, the tribunal found that the federal government had underfunded First Nations child welfare programs, and thereby discriminated against Canada's aboriginal people.

    Sarah’s unrelenting work on this case has garnered great respect among her peers. In August 2016, she was named one of the year’s Top 25 Most Influential in Human Rights Law by Canadian Lawyer magazine. The following November, she received the Odyssey Award from the University of Windsor, for Windsor Law alumni who are making a mark early in their careers. Last June, she was honoured with the President’s Award from the Ontario Bar Association, recognizing her significant contribution to the advancement of justice in Ontario.

    Much work remains to be done. Sarah continues to push the federal government to comply with the tribunal’s order. Changes have been slow and minimal, she says, and “there are daily, detrimental impacts on Aboriginal kids due to not following the spirit and letter of the law.”

    As a member of the Ontario government’s Office of the Children’s Lawyer panel, Sarah represents kids in the child welfare system and before the Child and Family Services Review Board. She speaks publicly to raise awareness of ongoing discrimination against First Nations families.

    On a segment of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin after the tribunal decision in 2016, Sarah’s fierce devotion to equality shone through her calm eloquence. She spoke of chronic underfunding on reserves, and of the 163,000 children brought into foster care since the infamous “Sixties Scoop” tore babies and young kids away from their families.

    “It’s not just about money,” Sarah says. “It’s about restoring hope and the integrity of the Aboriginal family unit. It’s about dignity.”

    How does Sarah juggle her compelling work and her cherished family with two young children? It’s a challenge she shares with her husband, Jim Elson, whom she met in law school.

    Jim’s is the hand that keeps the household humming. He gets home by six o’clock every evening from his job as a social policy analyst with the Ontario Bar Association. “I make the menu plans and he executes,” says Sarah.

    “I have working-mom guilt,” she readily admits. “I try to be present with my kids as much as possible, but I’m never there for dinner. My goal is to be home before they go to bed. I invest all my attention into those one and a half hours and our time together on weekends.”

    As to the origins of her extraordinary early accomplishments, her mother, Pat Robinson, reflects: “Sarah was born a leader. As a child, she was always setting the agenda for friends and family. As an adult, she still does. She is able to rally people to the cause, mentor them, inspire them and ultimately lead them to accomplish their shared goals.”

    Janet Sailian is a freelance communications consultant, writer and editor.
  • 2016 - Emma BEQAJ'06

    Emma BEQAJ’06 has loved cooking since before she even started school, when she would help out in her mother's kitchen. By Grade 7, she was holding formal dinner parties for her Branksome friends. So it's not surprising that four years ago, she successfully started Emma's Eatery Catering, serving meals and buffets for groups of people in homes, at corporate events, at cottages and at weddings.

    Since making that leap of faith, Emma has steadily built a client roster that now includes the National Ballet School and Branksome. And she is getting plenty of notice. She has appeared on CityTV Breakfast Television, Global News The Morning Show and Rogers TV daytime. Last year, her cooking skills got the stamp of approval from the expert judges of Food Network Canada's series Chopped Canada, where she won her episode against three other chefs.
    After Branksome, Emma attended Acadia University in Nova Scotia, studying languages, then entered chef school at George Brown College in Toronto. During school and afterward, she worked at a prominent Italian restaurant, but soon found that "the restaurant industry was not for me."

    So she went out on her own. "Catering is more than just the food," she says. "It's always different venues, so you're creating the entire ambiance for an event with the linens, the décor, the flowers, the table settings. It's something I'd always thought about and it seemed like the right step."

    She regularly consults her collection of some 95 cookbooks – "I read them as literature" – and hopes to write one herself someday. Then there's broadcasting: "I would love to have my own TV show."

    Emma has used her skills to help support two Toronto charities. And she keeps on cooking. "I just love how food brings people together."
  • 2015 - Victoria CHENG'00

    Victoria CHENG'00 was a finalist on the CBC Television show Canada's Smartest Person, and you can easily see why. She is one of those high-achieving people who is ready for anything. A classically trained violinist from childhood, still playing. A serious athlete, still racing up mountains. A graduate with two MAs, including a Harvard credit. A writer and editor, working at McGill University. And, hardly least, a mother of two young children.

    Victoria grew up in Edmonton, then spent three high-school years in her parents' native Hong Kong before moving to Branksome for Grade 13. At Branksome, her language and writings skills flourished. "It was an exciting time for me intellectually, developing my passion for the written word," she says.

    She met her future husband, Thomas Leenders, at the University of Waterloo, and later received an MA in English from Western University. The couple married in 2005 and soon after moved to Boston where Thomas was accepted at Harvard. Victoria took the Master's in journalism program at the Harvard Extension School, where she won the Dean's Prize for her thesis. Her classes led to regular freelance work with the Boston Globe and an internship with National Public Radio.
    After the couple moved to Montreal, Victoria joined the communications team at McGill University's Faculty of Law, editing the alumni magazine and pioneering a more digital approach. For a time, she edited McGill's research magazine, then rejoined the Faculty of Law in her former role.

    Outside work, she volunteers in her daughter's school and plays her violin in an improvisational orchestra. "I don't know from one year to the next what the new one will bring," she says, "but I trust that it's going to be exciting and entertaining and fun."

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