Saturday, April 14, 2007

June Callwood, National Treasure

June Callwood, Journalist, Activist, Feminist and advocate for society's poorest and most reviled, referred to widely as Canada's Conscience, died this morning at the age of 82.

I came to know of June when I arrived in Canada in 1971. By then she was not only one of the most prolific and versatile writers in the country but a social activist.

Her career spanned over a half a century. She'd worked at the Globe and Mail before having her first child, but in 1947 she took flying lessons from Violet Milstead, Canada's first woman bush pilot. She wrote a story about Milstead and sold it to Liberty magazine, which began her freelance writing career.

In the late 60's while covering the hippie movement in Toronto she noticed that the middle-class hippie kids went home to the comfort of their families, but those without support, "whose teeth were all rotting out of their heads and were shooting speed," were shunned by society.

In 1964 June was a founding member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, a non-profit, non-government law-reform group devoted to defending civil liberties and human rights.


In 1968, while covering the police bust of a hippie gathering Callwood reprimanded a policeman for abusing a young boy. She was arrested and shoved into a packed paddy wagon, and spent the night standing in a filthy jail cell, where she couldn't sit because everything was covered in excrement. She was devastated. "In my generation you didn't get arrested unless you were an awful person."

She said afterwards "I thought, if that's how they treat a middle-class, respectable, decent housewife in her 40's, how are they treating the poor and powerless? That politicized me; that did it," says Callwood.

June was a doer, not just a talker. In 1973 she helped found Nellie's, a non-profit women's organization which helped women and children in crisis. In 1972 she founded Jessie's Centre for Teenagers, a drop-in centre for teenage mothers. In 1988 she helped found the first hospice in Canada to provide support and palliative care for people with HIV/AIDS. And in 1983 she helped found PEN Canada, a group of writers defending freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

At the age of 53 she became host of a CBC Television program called In Touch, a show about "empathy." She was at ease with her age and her stage in life. Even under the glare of the harsh TV lights, she refused to wear makeup, or get a professional stage persona "makeover". She was just herself, explaining that it was a part of her philosophy of being truthful

She went on to host many TV programs. My favorite was a series called, June Callwood's National Treasures where she interviewed Canadians who had made a difference. No fawner over celebrityhood, she talked to guests about the big questions, their purpose in life, their feelings about pain, bereavement, tragedy, faith, passion, and death. It was compelling TV, and none have done it so well as June.

June's capacity to empathize may have stemmed from the personal tragedies in her life, including her own depression, her husband's alcoholism, one son's muscular dystrophy and her youngest son Casey's death at age 20 after he was struck by a drunk driver.

Before Casey's death, she said she had a constant happy hum in her head. "I haven't had that since he was killed." His ashes are buried under the apple tree outside Callwood's home. Casey House, a Toronto hospice for people with AIDS, is named after her youngest son.

June was a passionate, compassionate individual who died of cancer this morning. She was not afraid of death. She told a Rabbi friend who was sitting with her shortly before her death that she had just dreamed that he had opened the gates of the park to let the children in, and the old people out.

She was an inspiration to me, and I am so grateful to have been able to know her, even at a distance, through a screen and her words on the page. We should all be so wise, so kind, as June Callwood.

1 comment:

Kempton said...

Hello Deb,

Thanks for sharing your insight and memories of Ms. Callwood. I came to admire her very much after watching the various videos of her online. I was particularly touched by her last TV interview with George for CBC The Hour.

You had the great pleasure to have known her for 36 years. For me, I guess I am still deeply touched and affected by her even I've only "known" her after she passed away and only from online video footage.

She was a great lady and will be deeply missed by many Canadians.

Thanks for sharing,
Kempton