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June Callwood, Canada’s social conscience, dies at 82
Last Updated: Saturday, April 14, 2007 | 10:28 AM ET
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June Callwood, the remarkable Canadian journalist, humanitarian and social activist, died early Saturday after a long fight with cancer. She was 82.

She was first diagnosed with inoperable cancer in 2004, but refused treatment and continued to be active, most recently on the campaign to end child poverty, until a few months ago.

Author June Callwood, who wrote 30 books, was also known as a tireless social activist.
Callwood blazed trails for women's rights, gay rights and the rights of the underprivileged in a history of activism dating back to the 1960s.

The author of 30 books, she was also the founder of a breast-cancer support centre, Nellie's hostel for abused women, Jessie's centre for teenage mothers and the AIDS hospice Casey House.

"The Casey House community is deeply appreciative to the Frayne family for sharing their precious mother and wife with us for so many years," said Jaime Watt, chair of the hospice's board of directors, in a statement. "We send them our love and deepest condolences."

Callwood was a founding member of the Writers' Union of Canada, the Writers' Development Trust, Canadian PEN, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws, the president of a prostitutes' community organization and a bencher of the Law Society of Upper Canada.

A tireless campaigner who harangued politicians, wrote letters and organized lobby groups, Callwood fought poverty and injustice wherever she saw it.

'She wasn't called Saint June for nothing.'
—Sally Armstrong, friend and writer

"She was gentle to a fault ... She wasn't called Saint June for nothing," said friend and writer Sally Armstrong.

Always dressed chicly and known for driving a sporty car, Callwood approached social justice with a smile and joyful, optimistic demeanour. Even living with cancer didn't seem to get her down.

"As a companion, June is self-aware, witty, non-judgmental, sophisticated, informed, passionate, available and loyal — all those special qualities, leavened with her own brand of quirkiness and self-deprecating irony," friend Sylvia Fraser wrote in Toronto Life in March 2005.

Takes on journalism challenge

Born June 2, 1924, in Belle River, Ont., a French-speaking community near Windsor, Callwood remembered the deprivation of the Depression years and a father who left the family when she was 13.

She found her way into newspaper writing during the Second World War, initially at the Brantford Expositor and later at the Globe and Mail.

Callwood said being a journalist made her understand the importance of kindness.

(CBC) At the Globe, she met and married sportswriter Trent Frayne, and quit her job at age 20 when she had her first child.

She and Frayne had four children — Jill, Brant, Jennifer and Casey — losing the youngest, Casey, in 1982 in a motorcycle accident when he was 20.

After a period spent raising her children, Callwood began freelance writing, starting with a magazine piece on her flying instructor, a woman named Violet Millsted. She wrote for Chatelaine and Maclean's, tackling such subjects as the sexual abuse of children, birth control, test-tube babies and the battle of the sexes.

It was later, when her children were adolescent hippies, that Callwood began her social activism.

"What brought me on to it was during the '60s in Yorkville — that was my watershed," she said in an interview with CBC Radio.

A hippie at heart

Callwood said she was "entranced by the hippie movement," but noticed that when hippie kids from the Toronto suburbs went home there was an underclass of homeless, poor youth remaining in Yorkville.

"Everyone thought it was a middle-class kids' revolt. What was going underneath [was] that despair of thousands of teenagers who've never had anything and thought for one brief crazy moment that there was a place for them," she said.

Already a founding member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, she tried to get help and health care for the poor homeless youth, and saw doors slammed in their faces.

"That politicized me — that did it," she said. She founded a house, Yorkville Digger House, for them to live in.

In the summer of 1968, Callwood was arrested for protesting against police conduct in Yorkville. "I thought I was ruined," she recalled in an article in Saturday Night magazine.

"In my generation, you didn't get arrested unless you were an awful person. One year later, I was B'nai Brith Woman of the Year!"

Founded shelter, hostel for teens

A prominent voice against sexual violence and domestic abuse, she was founder of Nellie's Hostel for Women, a shelter for abused women in Toronto, serving as its first director in 1974. She also founded Jessie's Centre for pregnant teenagers.

She continued to write prolifically on feminist topics — penning Love, Hate, Fear and Anger (1964), Canadian Women and the Law (1974) and The Law Is Not for Women (1976).

Other books from this period include Emma: The True Story of Canada's Unlikely Spy, the story of a young Doukhobor woman from Saskatchewan convicted of spying for the Soviet Union and imprisoned in the late 1940s, and Twelve Weeks in Spring, about the last months of a friend named Margaret Fraser, who died at home with the help of a group of friends and volunteers.

"Someone in that group said to me that being with Margaret was like studying — we were boning up for our own deaths," she said in a 2004 interview with the Globe and Mail.

"It was a huge gift to us, in fact, because there's a great pleasure in providing palliative care, in surrendering your own ego totally in order to stay in tune with the person you're trying to help. You're not calling the shots for once. You're not doing anything except getting the ice cream."

Callwood's next big project was Casey House Hospice, for people dying of AIDS, which opened in 1988 at a time when there was little effective treatment for the disease.

Faced accusations of racism

With her direct, shoot-from-the-hip style, Callwood was described as better at founding organizations than at running them.

She was disparaged by public accusations of racism in the late 1980s, a period of extreme political correctness.

A conference she organized for the Canadian branch of PEN International was picketed by local black writers for excluding writers of colour, despite PEN's plan to bring in writers dedicated to freedom of speech from Ghana, South America and India.

The bad vibrations around the dispute spilled over into her term as a director of Nellie's, where an employee accused her of racism and the board boycotted a fundraiser it had asked her to organize.

There followed months of accusations in the press, with Callwood portrayed as an insensitive WASP, despite her years of activism and Métis background.

"Except for my son's death, nothing in life had hurt so much," she said in a Toronto Life article.

Callwood had two TV programs, In Touch on CBC (1975-78) and Callwood's National Treasures (Vision TV 1991-96), and also a column in the Globe and Mail that highlighted social issues.

She continued writing about AIDS in Jim: A Life With AIDS (1988) and Trail Without End: A Shocking Story of Women and Aids in 1995, the story of 20 women infected with the AIDS virus by the same lover. She also wrote Callwood's National Treasures, a book of portraits of great Canadians.

She has been an awards judge for Governor General's Literary Awards, National Newspaper Awards, 1976-83, and National Magazine Awards.

Callwood was made member of the Order of Canada in 1978 and officer in 1986, and has won numerous humanitarian awards and honorary university doctorates.

She points out that her effectiveness in leading change evolved from her energy and work, instead of privilege.

"I don't have power — I have influence," she said. "Power and privilege? It's an ability to help to change. My prominence is a trust."

A park in Toronto's Fort York neighbourhood has been named after her.

6,788 Posts

She was just on the Hour a few weeks ago. What an amazing woman.

3,086 Posts
She was a great woman. I read her articles in Chatelaine way back -- she (and Chatelaine) wasn't afraid to tackle difficult issues.
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