Margaret Hancock is the executive director of Family Service Toronto. In 1997, she became the first female warden of Hart House. Prior to this, she served as executive director of Toronto’s Choice in Health Reproductive Health Services. For six years, she worked for OXFAM Canada where she gained experience with international development issues in the Americas, South Africa and the Horn of Africa.
Hart House 1997–2007
- Best known for her commitment to general equity and social justice work at the House,
including the Positive Space campaign and food security issues
- Supported two students, Mike Morgan and Peter MacLeod to launch the Hart House Lecture in 2001, which was later renamed the Hancock Lecture in her honour
- Installed elevators to make Hart House accessible
- Reincorporated Hart House Theatre
- Opened Sammy’s in the Arbor Room
“Yes, I was the first female leader in Hart House but the challenges weren’t related to that. Certainly it was interesting being the first female warden. I know that mattered a lot to some people. It meant a lot to me; but I think what I’m most proud of is expanding the house in terms of other dimensions of inclusion, things like the social justice work I started, and I think continues to this day, finding a place for that, both on campus and in the house. The positive space work was also very exciting, and a bit challenging in a curious way at the beginning.
“The challenges were more related to inclusion in general and equity in general—a broad spectrum of inclusion—that’s where the challenges were. They were really more about people being resistant to change and openness, and it wasn’t necessarily the students. The students were by and large eager and keen, pushing for new ways to do things and new ideas. It was trying to change the culture, to persuade people who felt entitled to be in Hart House, and who didn’t want their routines or their place to change and were worried they might lose their place.
“One of the surprising challenges to me was around creating positive space. Hart House was a man’s world for such a long time, but it also was a gay world for a very long time. So, you’d think that there would be a little more receptivity to the concept of positive space, not just making it ‘ok,’ but saying, ‘There are all kinds of people in our world with all kinds of sexual orientations, and everyone is welcome here at Hart House.’ You’d think that would be easy to do, but it actually took a while, and it was hard.
“I don’t think it’s ever over. And new things are sprouting up. The situation of transgender people is perhaps the latest one. It’s interesting in terms of sexual orientation and the multiple ways that identity issues and identities can play themselves out in ways you couldn’t imagine 10 or 20 years ago. I think people get invested in a politically correct position, and that can often lead us to be very rigid in our view of what is—for lack of better words—good or bad. It can make us closed to trying new things, learning from other folks about new ways of thinking and being.
“I was really proud of the Hart House Lecture (now Hancock Lecture.) It was very exciting work, very fresh work, and a new way to work with students. It was initiated by two very gifted students, Peter MacLeod and Mike Morgan, and their vision endures to this day. Every year, I would invite students to come together to think about what was interesting to them intellectually, and who they wanted to hear from who wasn’t already a big name in the world, someone who was maybe flying just under the radar. We wanted to present this person to our world and to work with them. Students really had a remarkable experience working with incredible people like Pico Iyer and Alan Lightman. Producing the lecture books and the lectures themselves was very intellectually stimulating, and in terms of event production, filling the Great Hall with 500 people is a very exciting thing to do.”
Hart House Theatre
“The theatre was actually separate from Hart House. It ran autonomously. It was in the building, but it ran as an autonomous unit. Having had an illustrious history dor decades, by the 1990s, it was struggling to be something more than a rental venue, and it didn’t have a lot of presence. It didn’t have a big producing presence on campus, and so we had the opportunity to incorporate the theatre into the house in the same way that the debates committee, the art committee, the chorus, and all the committees had a place in the house. We had to figure out how to make it work from a business perspective, as well as from a cultural and artistic perspective. It was a pretty exciting period of time, to be trying to breathe life into an iconic place; and it’s very extraordinary that it really worked out with a whole series of wonderful productions under its belt. I was extremely proud of the theatre, reviving it and knowing that it’s thriving now, making it part of the house.”
When I came to Hart House, a number of people said, “what are you doing? Why are you going from being a community activist to Hart House?” I said, “Because there is a captive audience of 50,000 students to engage and stimulate. That’s fantastic, right?” Gently and slowly, I was able to weave social justice work into the fabric of the House. We were leaders in many dimensions of social justice work , everything from the very explicit social justice committee, the work on homelessness and the positive space work through to what Arlene Stein was doing in catering around food,food security and community kitchens. Students were eager to express their ideas and concerns about the world and it was very thrilling to create a supportive place in which they could find their voices.
When I made a decision to leave Hart House towards the end of my second five-year appointment, I was pleased to have accomplished a number of things for Hart House and I thought it was time for a change. I left the University and came to Family Service Toronto as the executive director. Coming back out into the community was exciting, to be on the ground again, to be leading an organization doing frontline social service work. We do advocacy on poverty, grass roots community development, and a lot of work on violence against women and elder abuse. We work with men who perpetrate violence against women. We do a lot of work with people with developmental disabilities. We have a $4 million social enterprise providing employee assistance benefits to many corporations as well as the University of Toronto.
It’s exciting to be back out in the world, but I do miss the art and the beauty of life at the university, beauty in all respects. Everywhere you go, every hour of your day at the university you’re exposed to paintings, sculptures, beautiful buildings, green grass, music often. You can drop in anywhere and be stimulated by those things as well as the constant exchange of ideas. When you’re out in the larger world and especially when you’re working in areas of poverty, you realize how precious it is to be able to touch and feel beauty and have the space to think great thoughts. We need to work to create a city for everyone which is as beautiful and stimulating as Hart House and its university community.