Warm welcome at Algoma University

Last week I gave the Peter McGregor Lecture, “Poverty and Transformative Social Change,” at Algoma University in Sault Ste. Marie, located in the heart of the Great Lakes.

I felt incredibly honored to have even been asked, and extremely grateful for the opportunity to talk about some of the social issues raised in my book, With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood.

My favourite part was the question and answer period that followed the lecture. In addition to asking me a lot of really great questions (some of which I’m continuing to answer in my head even now) there was also a lot of sharing from the audience. One woman stood up and through trembling lips shared what obviously continues to be a really humiliating story for her.

“I’ve never said this publically before,” she said, choking back tears, then went on to describe a situation where, years earlier, she had been treated with such a lack of respect by the welfare office, it still haunts her today.

Another young woman talked about how she’s the first in her family to break free of poverty, and admitted to often feeling guilty for having escaped the cycle when so many of her family remain behind, still trapped.

I could have listened to their stories all night.

The next morning I spoke to a class of social work students at Algoma- students who seem genuinely committed to making a difference in the world. But I’m not surprised. Algoma’s Honours Bachelor of Social Work (HBSW) Program is committed to promoting social justice, community healing, and social change based on humanitarianism, egalitarianism, and anti-oppressive practice. The program emphasizes structural, Anishinaabe/Indigenous and feminist approaches to social work.

In the end, it was an incredible visit to an amazing school. Approximately 60% of the students at Algoma are non-traditional and although Algoma is the smallest university in Ontario, as the school states on its website: “Small University. Big Education.” Algoma’s size is also its strength as the school is the only university in Ontario that never has more than 65 students in a class.

Speaking before a classroom of future social workers was such an exciting opportunity. My book shares the journey of how a small group of committed social work and med school students help transform my mother and five sisters’ lives, and here I was standing before a class of social work students. It truly felt like a full-circle moment.

Book reading at Ingleside Library


If you’re in the Ingleside area on Monday February 13, Kathy will be giving a book reading and signing copies of her book With a Closed Fist at the Ingleside Branch of the SD&G County Library. Check out the library’s Winter 2012 program here.


Book Reading and Signing, With a Closed Fist
Stormont, Dundas & Glengarry County Library: Ingleside Branch
10 Memorial Square
Ingleside, ON




“With a Closed Fist” book launch photos!

Last Friday was the official book launch for With a Closed Fist at Saint Columba House in Point St. Charles. If you missed out, check out some photos of the event, courtesy of Andrew Waldie Porteus. More photos coming soon! To see a larger version of this slideshow, click here.




Have your own photos of the event or of the Point that you’d like to share on kathydobson.ca? Send them in!


The Spelling Bee at my book launch

I know I probably shouldn’t admit this, being a writer and all, but I’m a terrible speller. I also sometimes screw up on “then” and “than,” and “their, there, and they’re.” But I’m working on it.

When trying to share an idea or point of view, especially via the written word, I understand how crucial it is to pick just the right word. If I’m talking to someone right in front of me, I can simply read their face or body language for an instant check on how my words are coming across. But for readers, it’s different of course. So I get how important correct spelling and all of that truly is.

At my book signing in Montreal last week, thanks to a combination of excitement, nervousness, and being a terrible speller, sometimes I had to ask a person how to spell their name. And sometimes more than once. Even simple names.

For example, somewhere out there is a Felicity who must be convinced I’m an idiot. I had to ask her how to spell her name. Three times.

“It’s F-E-L-I-C-I-T-Y,” she patiently said each time.

But for some reason, my brain just wasn’t getting or hearing that “F.” I kept wanting to spell her name with a “Ph” for some stupid reason, until I finally did a mental smack on myself and got it right. I think. I hope.

When it came time to write the word “Librarian” in someone else’s book (long story about why) I finally gave up and turned to my daughter, who CAN spell, and asked her if it has two “i’s” or three.

Oh, and where exactly each of those I’s go…


Advance review of “With a Closed Fist”

The Montreal Review of Books has written an advance review of With a Closed Fist. 






With a Closed Fist: Growing up in Canada’s Toughest Neighbourhood 

Back to the Point – Reviewed by Anna Leventhal


A current Montreal real estate website describes Point St. Charles as an up-and-coming neighbourhood, a good bet for potential property owners, and an opportunity for “more house for your money!” The irony is surely not lost on writer and journalist Kathy Dobson, whose memoir With A Closed Fist recalls a time when the Point was the last place anyone would willingly choose to settle. In the 1960s and 1970s, “Canada’s toughest neighbourhood” was neglected, disenfranchised, and prone to outbreaks of fire, roaches, and gangs of kids warring over territory. It was also Dobson’s childhood home. It was where her mother became politicized over her family’s abysmal living conditions, and where a young Kathy and her five sisters would regularly be recruited for lie-ins on the street and protests against an indifferent city hall.


With A Closed Fist is a kind of grassroots history of a time and place fast disappearing. Condo developments and gentrification are changing the face of Point St. Charles, from a one-time working-class slum and literal dump into the kind of place that gives developers a particular eye-gleam: it’s cheap, “authentic,” au courant, and, most importantly, marketable. But Dobson’s book records a much different transformation.As Kathy fights with an oblivious teacher over a school uniform she can’t afford, the women of the Point hold protests outside the school board office to get their kids better educations; as Kathy explores an abandoned building where the roaches form “a large wiggling carpet,” her mom joins an Informed Citizens group and meets with social work students from McGill to teach them how to listen to the poor. The memoir chronicles a true people’s movement, one that led to the autonomous Community Clinic being created to serve the neighbourhood, and Kathy and other Point kids being allowed to attend better schools in Westmount.


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Continue reading “Advance review of “With a Closed Fist””

Dobson doesn’t write as an adult looking back on childhood with the insight of experience, but “straight up, in my own voice, as a kid growing up in the Point.” For the most part, younger Kathy’s voice is strikingly believable: candid, scornful, funny, unadorned with the sentimentalism or preciousness some writers feel toward their younger selves. It reads like fiction. She speaks with the same frankness whether she deals with sexual abuse and near-starvation or talks about pranking the neighbours, hiding from the bailiff, and falling into a seething stew of cockroaches. Her harshest stories lack the gravity that more decorous, middle-class approaches to dire circumstance seem to require, and the effect is unsettling.


Dobson illustrates class tensions shrewdly. She shows how poor kids who get rerouted to middle-class schools or neighbourhoods don’t become middle-class by association – there are still and always deep divisions that isolate Kathy and the other Point kids from their peers at Westmount High. She systematically avoids the heartwarming tropes of the coming- of-age story.The charming teacher, the kindhearted social worker, the prospect of a new job all fail to transform Kathy from a troubled, shiftless kid to a self-actualizing, stable grown-up; unlike an after-school special, there are no sim- ple solutions here.The one exception is the book’s ending, which feels like a breathless rush to deliverance. It’s like Dobson ran out of time and had to engineer a boyfriend ex machina so we’d be able to sleep at night. It’s a little disappointing for a book that otherwise avoids easy answers, and whose struggle is of a neighbour- hood as much as a single person.


With A Closed Fist shares the time and place of David Fennario’s groundbreaking 1979 play Balconville, and the two works have a close sensibility. In 2005, Fennario revisited his setting and characters in Condoville, where the changes to the neighbourhood play out in tensions between the older residents and the new, gentrifying class, represented by a mixed-race gay couple. It’s a complicated dynamic, between those whose hard-won victories are under threat and those with their own struggles to find a tolerant space. But personal differences fall away in the face of structural inequality. A system that bars the poor from controlling their own possibilities will never serve anyone well, not even those who, at first, seem to prosper from it.


In one passage, Kathy’s mother Eileen speaks to the student social workers from McGill gathered at her kitchen table:


“You’re being taught to tell us, preach to us, how to fix our problems,” Mom says, “instead of asking us, the real experts…. Don’t tell me how to fix my problem – first we need to find a common ground….We need to find a common language.”

After all Eileen’s agitation, passion, and community organizing, it’s sad to think that her dream of a common language is as elusive as ever. At the very least, this memoir is a powerful tribute to her and a reminder of how difficult and essential is the work of speaking, and listening.


Anna Leventhal is a writer living in Montreal











The journey of writing my first book: Part 1

I’ve learned a lot during this long journey of writing my first book and finally having it published. And there have been lots of surprises along the way. For example, I thought the hardest part would be…well, actually writing the book.

Boy, was I wrong.

The world of publishing holds many of its own unique challenges and, as I’ve recently learned, writing the book is actually only the first step. Once you finish bleeding all over the page, next you need to find an agent, followed by a publisher.

Oh, and then the real funs starts, the most important stage of all:  finding your readers. Because of course, without readers, what’s the point? I’m not one of those writers who writes just for myself. Yes, I know there are plenty of writers who do just that, saying they aren’t necessarily interested in a wider audience for their work. They write simply for the pure joy of…ahem, writing.

I admit, I write to be read. I need to feel connected to a reader. I need to believe that someone, somewhere, is eventually going to read my words. And although my ideal reader is one who also likes, hell, maybe even loves what I’ve written, it isn’t a necessity for me to write.

I just need to be read.


“With a Closed Fist” is at the printers!

My publisher will be getting my book back from the printers on October 27th! Whew. I was getting a little worried that it wouldn’t be printed in time before the book’s launch in Montreal on November 4th!

For anyone who already pre-ordered the book from Amazon or Chapters online, I’m sorry for the delay. I know it was claiming the book would be available on the 1st of October, but now it’s more like the end of October. So thank you to everyone for all of your patience, I really appreciate it.

I can’t wait to finally hold that baby in my hands. It really does feel a little like giving birth.

Okay, having giving birth to actual real babies at least a couple of times, that’s not quite true, heh. But still….