June Callwood, the journalist and social activist dubbed by the CBC as “Canada’s Conscience,” succumbed to cancer this morning at 82.
Callwood is entrenched in Toronto’s history as one of our most important and powerful social crusaders. She co-founded AIDS hospice Casey House (named for her late son) and more than fifty other social organizations, including the Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation, PEN Canada and Yorkville’s Digger House youth hostel. Raised amidst early family instability and a battler of depression and multiple personal tragedies, Callwood was also an important voice for women, founding Nellie’s Hostel for Women and the activist group Feminists Against Censorship. A striking Toronto Star photo [see gallery] shows Callwood staring defiantly from a paddy wagon, arrested for attempting to stop police violence during a Yorkville riot in 1968.
June Callwood established a name for herself when she moved from Brantford to Toronto in 1942 and secured a job writing for The Globe and Mail. She retained her maiden name at The Globe upon her marriage two years later because the newspaper refused to employ married women. Callwood’s journalistic career extended to stints at the CBC and Vision TV, and as a ghostwriter for Otto Preminger, Dr. Charles Mayo and Barbara Walters, as well as authoring her own books. Among other accolades, she has been awarded the Order of Canada (Companion), the Order of Ontario, the Jane Jacobs Lifetime Achievement Award, the Toronto Arts Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and held more than fifteen honourary doctorates.
When announcing in 2004 that she had terminal cancer, Callwood declared that she would not undergo treatment, instead allowing the disease to take its natural course. As an atheist, she had faith in the example set by one’s actions and seemed openly at peace with her impending exit. In recent years, she became a glider pilot and was honoured when both a Toronto park and street were named for her in 2006.
June Callwood was a legend to our city, dedicating her life to social activism and journalistic excellence, and her work will reverberate through Toronto for decades. Terminal cancer put a period at the end of the story, but what a story it was.
Thank you, June Callwood, from all of us who have been disadvantaged, discriminated against, hurt, and victimized by social injustice. Thank you from all of us—Torontonians, Ontarians, Canadians—who now benefit from the work you did and the faith you held for a truly progressive society.
Callwood is survived by her husband, daughter, two sons, and five grandchildren.
Photo: Chris Nicolls, Saturday Night Magazine.