People That Matter
Iria Vieira (deceased)
A Voice for Toronto's Newcomers (2000)
Iria Vieira had just arrived in Toronto when she walked through the
doors of St. Christopher House in Kensington Market more than 30 years ago.
A recent emigrant from the Azores, she went to the neighbourhood house
looking for work and information. Instead she found a life-long
"I walked in and basically I started working right away," Iria said,
remembering the throng of fellow emigrants who were at St. Chris' looking
for answers in their own language. "There was such a big need for
translation and I had both languages, so I helped out."
From 1965 on, Iria Vieira dedicated her personal and
professional life to working with Toronto's newcomers, particularly those
in the Portuguese community.
"That's my whole history. It's communicate, communicate, communicate,"
Iria said, who worked as an au pair in England to improve her English.
"You help people develop their own skills so they can become a part of the
Like Jane Jacobs, Iria observed what was needed in the community and
took matters into her own hands. In between day jobs in restaurants and
hospitals, she accompanied people from St. Chris' to doctor's appointments
or government offices - acting as an advocate, translator and a friend.
Three years after Iria's arrival, the Toronto Board of Education's
Social Work Department hired her as an interpreter/ counsellor. "I worked
with parents and children, linking them with doctors, teachers,
psychologists 'It was a natural extension of my work at St. Chris'."
Meanwhile Iria was also volunteering on a project to assess the
communication needs of the Greek, Portuguese, Italian and Chinese
communities. The study resulted in the creation of four translation
services, including The Portuguese Free Interpreters' Service -- one of the
first of its kind in the city. Iria was one of its founding members.
St. Chris' was a catalyst for the community it serves and was always
at the centre of Iria's work, even after she moved out of the
neighbourhood in 1975. In 1989, Iria got involved in a project to reach out to widows in the
She inspired them to get involved in their community again and soon the
project was attracting women from a wide range of backgrounds. This was the
beginning of the Portuguese Women 55+ Support Group of Ontario (PW55+), the
first independent group of Portuguese-speaking women in the province.
Co-founded by Iria and women from Portuguese Social Services, PW55+ lobbies
on behalf of all seniors and supports senior women in their daily lives. In
1992, Iria and PW55+ began working on St. Chris' Elder Abuse Project, a
public education strategy that includes skits as one of its educational
When Iria retired from the Toronto School Board in 1996, after 30
years of service, she continued her volunteer work full-time as a Board member at St. Chris' and the President of PW55+.
"It's all about living together," Iria remarked about her work. "I don't
forget my roots, but I want to be part of the whole community. I want the
Portuguese community to be part of the mainstream community. That's my
goal: that we live together, not separate."
Sadly, Iria passed away in August 2005.