June Callwood on her 91st Birthday

Yesterday, June 2nd, was June Callwood Children’s Day in Ontario. It would have been June’s 91st birthday. In 2008, the year after she died, the Ontario government proclaimed the date to honour one of Canada’s most outstanding citizens. A prolific writer, a social activist par excellence, and a passionate advocate for ending child poverty, June Callwood was a true hero to all who knew her. As Catherine Porter wrote in the Toronto Star last Saturday, June Callwood Day is “a day to imagine a better world and make a plan to achieve that. It’s a day to be unexpectedly kind to strangers.” That is what June Callwood did in her lifetime, and that is her legacy.

Inspired by her example, Keep the Promise, a coalition of volunteers and organizations across Canada, is helping children and young people remind the public and politicians that over one million kids in Canada still have inadequate housing, not enough to eat, and are going to school tired and hungry. This despite the 1989 unanimous motion of the House of Commons to end child poverty in Canada, a motion repeated yet again in January 2015. Yesterday the coalition held a celebration and a call to action to further the campaign in this federal election year. They did so at June Callwood Park, located south of Fort York in downtown Toronto.

June Callwood founded or co-founded over 50 (imagine 50!) organizations and programs, including Digger House for street kids at risk, Nellie’s for abused women, Maggie’s for prostitutes, Jessie’s for teenage mothers, and Casey House, the hospice for people with AIDS named after June’s son who was killed in a motorcycle accident by a drunk driver. She also was involved in a “pop-up daycare centre” in a shopping mall where locals could leave their children with professional providers at no cost, with PEN Canada which supports writers around the world persecuted or imprisoned for their freedom of expression, and with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

I came to know June Callwood at Justice for Children (now the community legal services clinic Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law) in 1978 when I was hired as their first General Counsel and Executive Director. She was a co-founder and on the Board of Directors. Very quickly I became a fan and she became my role model for a wonderfully productive life.

I learned that she did her writing in the morning every day, from six until noon. Her study was next to the open kitchen in the heart of her Etobicoke home. Windows on all sides flooded the area with natural light. There she wrote while raising four children, working for the Globe and Mail and, over her life-time, producing some 30 books (including ghost-writing the autobiographies of many famous people such as Barbara Walters and Otto Preminger). Writing was her craft, and she made it a daily priority.

Then, at noon, she climbed into her little sports car and went off to meet her friends for lunch and to engage in the social justice activities which were her passion. The rest of the day she was a volunteer: committed, energetic, thoughtful, optimistic, strategic, and infinitely generous with her time (and with the rolls of loonies she carried in her pocket to engage with street people whom she met). I remember how much I appreciated her visits to our office. She would pop in, catch up on what was going on, make helpful suggestions or provide useful referrals, then be off to another organization under her wing.

What was striking about her was her personal integrity, her optimism, and her ability to bring out the best in everyone. Not only was she compassionate, she always had a vision of how things could be better, and the capacity to communicate inspiration. Of all the books she wrote, my favourite is Twelve Weeks in Spring: The Inspiring Story of Margaret and her Team (originally published by Lester & Orpen Dennys in 1986, then by Key Porter Books in 2003, and still available through third-party sellers on Amazon.ca). Margaret Frazer was a 68-year-old single, retired social activist who had no family locally when she learned she was dying of terminal cancer. June’s book describes how 60 people (many only acquaintances or even strangers) came together as a team to care for Margaret in her home. Rather than a lonely death in the hospital, her life ended in a “defiant blossoming of vitality and love” which is the hallmark of good palliative care. June described the experience as “an impressive example of… the human tribe functioning at its best.”

Her narrative is as relevant today as it was in the mid-80s and more than warrants a reprint. Her book became the inspiration for a similar “circle of care” which gathered around Catherine Scott, my close friend and another life-long Toronto community activist, who died of cancer in 2004. When June Callwood herself became ill with cancer, we were galvanized by her decision to refuse treatment and to live life fully, as long as she could, without medical interventions. Who can forget her grace and courage when, in a last CBC-TV interview shortly before her death, she chose to answer the question of her belief in God with, “I believe in kindness.”?

When she died, thousands of people walked in a quiet evening vigil from Jessie’s to Casey House. We had all been part of June’s circle of care over a lifetime of activism. That there is a June Callwood Day is so right, marking the person and her ongoing message.

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  1. L Myers

    The artful, urban, smart June Callwood Park is open. And it’s beautiful. At 636 Fleet Street, in Toronto (above Lakeshore and a couple of blocks west of Bathurst), it is a lovely tribute to June Callwood and a representation of some of her beliefs. And it does all of that in her favourite colour: pink!

    A misty reflecting water feature, a small forest maze, an artist’s sound-installation (controlled by cloud-movements!). Simply breathtaking. It’s small and it’s perfect. The park’s overall ground design was based on a digital sound-print of that last, brave quote: “I believe in kindness.”

    I recommend a visit. Follow that sound-print like a path. And, maybe, like a recommendation.

    • Marion

      Thanks for the great description of the park, Lori. I saw it for the first time yesterday and did not understand the significance of the design. I look forward to a return visit.

  2. Marlene

    Thanks for the wonderful remembrance of June Callwood and her impact. I first contacted June when I was about 15 (in the 60s) to ask her to speak at a youth conference at the Unitarian Church in Toronto – on alienation. (I didn’t even know what alienation was at that time, but that was the theme and I’d been asked to contact her, perhaps because of her advocacy on behalf of youth in Yorkville.) Of course she agreed and was a wonderfully enlightening and engaging speaker for us. Then when you invited me to join Justice for Children, I met up with June again and was amazed by her energy, insight and capacity to promote/maintain a collegial mood and tone in meetings. Like you, I was moved (and encouraged) by Twelve Weeks in Spring. You’ll have to take me to the Park the next time I’m in Toronto!

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