In search of the devine

In Features /

By Liz Nyburg

Liz Devine listens to a representative from the Village Green apartments in the gay neighbourhood near Ryerson. “People tell me, ‘I don’t report car break-ins any more because I’m afraid of police, their attitude.’ People lock themselves in their apartments now.” Then Devine, 41, lean, tall, in black jeans and oxfords listens to Sergeant John Tinkler’s response. “Talk to the superintendent … take his badge number. You can make life miserable for that officer.”

Devine is chairing the annual meeting of the volunteer Church-Wellesley Police Advisory Committee, which discusses over community concerns at 519 Community Centre. “There may be reasons why people are reluctant to report, like their cultural background, their experience,” she says. The 30 or so neighbours who sit in the large, bare upstairs meeting room, are worried about gay-bashing, break-and-enters, prostitution, and the amalgamation of two police divisions. Devine reminds them about 519’s Victim Assistance Program. “Members of this committee would also be happy to facilitate if people are reluctant to come forward.”

Listen and wait, then let in some daylight: Ryerson’s Skills Development Manager is used to calming storms.

Devine’s mother, Darlene, married maintenance mechanic Tony Devine at age 18. When Devine was 13, her parents separated. By the time of the separation, her mother was a full-time student in her third year at York University, studying psychology and living in residence. Tony refused to let Darlene see their three kids at their Weston home, so Darlene visited their schools at lunch hour. Then Tony moved out, leaving Devine and her sibling(s) with Darlene, refusing to pay support. Darlene moved back in and sold real estate to support herself. Devine remembers staying in their big house, which had two roomers and basement tenants, to baby-sit her younger brother Bob, sister Zanne and an excitable collie with new puppies.

“Liz stepped in — tried to be mother, father, housewife, cook, disciplinarian, the whole shebang … I went as insane as a nine-year-old can, I think,” remembers Zanne. “I’m afraid she was the recipient of my acting out. It was probably a painful time for her.”

The Weston house had a big sectional sofa in the old dining room and high school kids were always welcome for coffee when Devine played hostess. But at age 16 she let home after landing a job as a Metropolitan Police dispatcher. When she was 21 Devine rode her beloved Honda CX motorcycle to San Francisco, then up the west coast and home again.

She enrolled into Ryerson’s Hospitality and Tourism Management program. Devine says she wanted a course the would give her a foundation in business and training to be an entrepreneur. While in school she was elected v.p. internal operations for Ryerson Students’ Union. After graduating in 1985, Devine worked as a tourism researcher, Ryerson Women’s Centre co-ordinator, restaurant owner and manager of the Women’s Common Club of Toronto. She came back to manage operations for RyeSAC in 1989. She oversaw the running of the pub, copyservice, the student centre development committees and also computerized the student government’s operations. After the 1995 spring elections installed a student union president hostile to many of the areas Devine was managing, she began looking for other work.

By Christmas, she was working for Student Services on a six month contract, part of which involved Devine negotiating the handover of Oakham House to RyeSAC’s management.

This lead to her current full-time position as manager of skills development for student services: managing career centre developing student appeals, and volunteer services like peer support and tutor registry programs.

In addition to managing the five staffers at the Ryerson Career Centre, plus a dozen student workers, Devine chairs the Program Funding Allocation Committee which gives out grants to student leadership projects. Devine averages one evening meeting a week, on top of nine-hour days, each with four or five conferences. The workload sees her spend the occasional quiet weekend in her office writing reports.

Last summer Devine spearheaded a group of students, staff and alumni who changed RyePride, Ryerson’s gay and lesbian organization, into a full student service. RyePride Co-coordinator Jenn Kuo believed the club’s workload was way beyond that of a normal RyeSAC club. “We were doing outreach, sourcing, peer counseling,” says Kuo. “It’s been developing each year for the last five or six years,” says Devine. The proposal that Kuo originally took to Devine asked for a full-time staff co-coordinator and two or three student workers. Devine helped raise public recognition of the Ryerson community’s dependence on a club with irregular funding. That effort resulted in RyePride ending up with 15 hours’ pay per week for two coordinators and a $20,000 budget.

“She’s very good working with students,” says Paul Felstein, a Ryerson AIM graduate who has worked with the hold student union and RyeSAC in various forms since 1991. Now, Devine and Felstein often go for a drink after work and he asks her advice. He manages strategic initiatives at CIBC. “I have to deal with a lot of senior people, then present to junior people something that I’m not 100 per cent sure about. Liz will say, ‘Let’s look at the benefits of this. You don’t want to piss everybody off.’”

Devine learned her diplomacy by trail, and when she was young, by error. All her siblings had to learn to take professional phone messages because their mother’s home number was on her business card. Then someone started making crank calls and the police advised them to blast a whistle into the receiver. One time a mortgage broker called at 7:50 a.m. and a teenaged Devine, ever responsible, took a deep breath and whistled her loudest.

These days, her friends and colleagues praise her judgment. James Dubro is a journalist and member of the Church-Wellesley Police Advisory Committee. He remembers how Devine had to work with cops terrified of contradicting each other publicly, balanced against one Queer Nation activist who liked to call cops fascist pigs.

Devine treats all her responsibilities with equal seriousness. Police Superintendent James Parkin remembers her sweating her butt off one hot Gay Pride Day, successfully organizing fewer parade marshals than she had been promised.

Devine says those strong feelings of responsibility got her through her parents’ divorce. She looked at the bigger picture, realizing the whole family was in crisis. They had to appear to be doing well, and not just surviving because “in the late 60s divorced families weren’t very high on the list, socially.”

Neither were lesbians in the ‘70s, but Devine came out calmly to her mother when she was 19, on night over coffee, in a hospital, while Zanne was having an emergency appendectomy. “Like I didn’t have enough to think about,” her mother says now with a laugh. She doesn’t think she handled the news as well as her daughter. “I said, ‘Oh you just had bad experiences with boys.’”

Back at the 519 meeting, someone asks Devine if she’d like to be nominated to the committee for another term. “No, thank you.” She smiles. Weeks later she explains that her father died in October and there was related business to take care of. But she also felt it was time for the committee to open up to new members. At least the neighbours should know their input was welcome. The new members are nominated and acclaimed. Devine suggests a December meeting. (She had to miss it to attend the RyeSAC Christmas party.) “I would entertain a motion” — she catches herself, not wanting to intimidate the anxious neighbours — “oh, well, we’re not really that formal.”

There are a few more questions about strip searches and deputations. Devine stands and rocks from foot to foot waiting for the speakers to finish, and ends on a peaceful note. “Thank you all for your thoughtful and insightful questions.”

“Everybody has their own yardstick for measuring people,” says Superintendent Parking. “I always ask myself: Would I enjoy a canoe trip with this person?” After a few years of working with Devine, Parking says, “She’d be great on a canoe trip. And I don’t even know if she knows how to paddle a canoe.”

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