Martin Withenshaw has been nominated for a Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Medal twice.
It may be a fitting tribute for a man who has three jobs and spends his time outside the office working with a laundry list of community groups, including the Building First Coalition, a business-to-business partnership that works with employers to retain and hire persons with disabilities, Pride London Festival and Youth Opportunities Unlimited.
The project manager at the Elgin Middlesex Oxford Workforce Planning and Development Board was one of hundreds of Jubilee medal nominees and recipients feted at a reception at the Hilton downtown Wednesday evening (Feb. 6).
“Being nominated by two different people that don’t even really know each other for what I’ve been doing in the community is quite amazing,” he said. “It’s a great honour to recognized that I’m making a difference in the community.”
He recalled watching a documentary on the pride movement in Toronto on OUT TV, which included the first pride march in Toronto in the late 1960s, which he took part in.
“I go back many, many years,” he said. “What was scary was who knew that down the road that would (be considered) part of history. I’m watching the whole thing: Oh my God, that’s the parade, Oh My God, Oh My God – and they cut me off!”
Under his direction, the board of the London Pride Festival moved their annual festival to Victoria Park, surely a venue more befitting a group in the Forest City than the parking lot of a grocery store.
Last year, premier-designate Kathleen Wynne took part in the parade and has indicated that she would attend in 2013. That appearance would make her the first sitting premier to take part. Also last year Premier Dalton McGuinty sent a letter of support for the first time.
“To have been part of that … that was the first time they got to Queen’s Park and made a speech,” he said. “And they had a megaphone (not professional sound equipment). Going from that to being in Victoria Park in London, having the mayor and three cabinet ministers there, that’s phenomenal. That’s a big, big difference.
“It’s like Harvey Milk said: It’s not about gay rights, it’s about equal rights.”
With a number of city councillors standing alongside, London Mayor Joe Fontana addressed the crowd briefly and thanked them for their tireless and often thankless work in making London a better place to live.
City council stirred up some controversy when they voted to accept their own Jubilee medal nomination. Fontana reportedly fanned the flames by nominating a former municipal politician convicted of corruption for offering to pay councillors to vote in favour of a development. Councillor Denise Brown didn't help the matter either by nominating her own son for a medal, a move she later regretted.
Fontana told London Community News 30 years in politics had thickened his skin to such “small” matters, though he admitted he has been “discouraged” by some of the negative press the medal nominations have generated.
“I may get discouraged because I hear this and I hear that negative thing, and I think I said during my State of the City address, I look forward thinking and I am motivated each and every day,” he said. “That’s what keeps me going. Believe me, because people have got ideas, they’ve got energy, they want to do the same thing I want to do and that’s build one of the best cities in the country.”
City Councillor Harold Usher refused to comment to London Community News, saying he didn’t want any of “this negative stuff” to affect his nominees.
Saidat Abari-Vandenberg attended the reception as a nominee, recognized for her work as a motivational anti-bullying and inclusion presenter at elementary and secondary schools across the province.
She learned of her nomination last month.
“I’m excited,” she said. “I’m so focused on what I’m doing that I’m like ‘Oh really, cool, what is it?’ I think there are so many other people that deserve to be awarded it’s just my privilege to be able to help them.”
She was told her nomination was in recognition of her work in the community.
Earlier that very day, Saidat was at Kensal Park French Immersion Public School on Springbank Drive as part of the first “Me to We Day” featuring Spencer West, who climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro and raised $500,000 for clean drinking water in Kenya despite having lost both of his legs at age five.
The school raised $1,500 the same cause and over $700 for the London Food Bank.
“It’s not about you, it’s about making a difference,” she said. “So I’m honoured to get this award but it takes so many people to do this. Every day we work with kids about bullying and self-esteem and I feel like there are so many other people who are so deserving.”