Better Winnipeg: Leadership award winner makes time for many things

WINNIPEG — Jeannette Montufar was barely a teenager when she left her home of Guatemala.

The move to Winnipeg with her family was a huge turning point in Montufar’s life.

One of her first memories is of the jarring temperature difference, having arrived on a cold November day.

“When we left Guatemala it was 20 degrees Celsius. We came to -35 degree weather with windchill. It just felt unreal,” says Montufar.

“You come to a new country and you don’t know what the future is going to hold.”

What the bright 14-year-old did know was that education was important and she studied hard to learn English, and eventually became a civil engineer.

Today, Montufar is a civil engineering professor at the University of Manitoba. One of her areas of expertise is active transportation — how to improve it and make it safer for pedestrians.

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“We’re designing for pedestrians assuming that they walk much faster than they do,” explains Montufar.

“If we want to make a safe crossing for them, especially older people, we need to give them more time to cross.”

Montufar’s research uncovered that pedestrians are crossing much slower than the allotted time, not only in Winnipeg but in cities across Canada. She gathered data nation-wide. The Transportation Association of Canada adopted her findings and now jurisdictions across the country have had to retime their signals.

“In the old system, the assumption was that people were walking 1.2 metres per second.  But the new system is saying older people are walking .9 metres per second.”

Montufar has also made time for another passion. Two years ago she created the Hummingbird Fund to help women pursue post-secondary education.

“I believe everyone has the right to post secondary education,” she says.

The fund is intended for women with very limited resources, including single mothers, refugees and new immigrants.

Montufar says she started looking into what some of the gaps were between men and women when it came to salary and what she found was that a difference in the level of education was a common thread.

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Since starting up the fund, Montufar has raised over $25,000. Some of the money has come from events like a luncheon held in honour of International Women’s Day.

“Education is one of the big first steps,” says Hazrah Khan, one of the Hummingbird Fund’s supporters.

Khan was born in Trinidad and moved to Winnipeg 47 years ago.

“We’ve received so much in Canada. We were able to reach our dream and I see this as our opportunity to give back.”

Montufar says the Hummingbird was chosen as the name of the fund because of the hardworking, persistent nature, like the women she hopes to support in the coming years.

“These are women that if they don’t work extremely hard they won’t survive, but they are surviving.”

Montufar also makes pottery and writes poetry.

Despite all that she has going on, Montufar says raising her teenage daughter is what she thinks about most often and hopes that she too embraces Montufar’s biggest message about life and giving back.

“The gift of life is given to a select few and it would be a shame to go through life without making a difference.”

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Montufar hopes to grow the Hummingbird Fund so that it can provide a  regular scholarship of $40,000 over five years for its recipients.

Montufar is the winner of the first ever Shaw Media Global News Women in Leadership Award, handed out on April 14 and the 32nd Annual Volunteer Awards Dinner.

Better Winnipeg is a weekly feature that focuses on people and events that make Winnipeg better. If you have suggestions for stories, send them to