My Canada, 93/150: The Callwood connections

When I began my journalism career, we junior reporters would be sternly warned that being in the media meant being a neutral observer in life, to prevent being accused of bias. I worked with older editors and reporters who would not even vote in an election, restricted by that principle. “You can’t march in the parade and cover it, too,” was the adage they tossed down.

Journalist, writer, and activist June Callwood either never heard that adage or, more likely, heard it, scoffed, and ignored it.

She began her career as a reporter at the Brantford Expositor, in the city where she had gone to high school, and later got a job in Toronto at the Globe and Mail. There she met sports writer Trent Frayne and they married. The newspaper did not welcome married women in the newsroom so she dodged the prohibition by continuing to write under her birth name: a women’s rights’ version of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.

She did leave daily journalism when their babies started arriving —four in total — but returned to her craft on a freelance basis, writing regularly for Maclean’s magazine and developing a specialty in ghost-writing autobiographies for the likes of American TV celebrity Barbara Walters. An article about her in the Globe and Mail pinpoints the start of her activism to times when her eldest son Barney, who lived in what was then the rougher, hippy neighbourhood of Yorkville, would sometimes bring home other young people he’d meet who were drug-addicted runaways. Callwood used her name and connections to create Digger’s House, the first of many shelters she urged into creation.

Callwood had no problem whatsoever with being a journalist and marching in the parade. She often was the one organizing the parade. As a later story about her in the Globe delicately put it, she was “a start-up manager par excellence, [but] probably not as temperamentally suited to the less tumultuous day-to-day maintenance role of keeping an organization on an even keel.” She butted heads, sometimes, with those who ran the organizations she founded, accused on occasion of cultural insensitivity when she wanted to forge headlong in her Callwoodian way.

Looking back over tributes written after her death in 2004, she earned monikers from “Canada’s Conscience” to “Saint June”. She’s credited with founding more than 50 social service initiatives that assist women and children (Jessie’s), people needing shelter (Casey House, a hospice for people with AIDS), and freedom of speech needing protecting (PEN Canada, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and Feminists Against Censorship). She used her connections and considerable powers of persuasion to convince people  there were needs they could help meet.

While I knew about June Callwood as a reader of her many works and viewer of her frequent TV media appearances, I met her when I was a journalism student and had to interview her about a complex story unfolding at a nearby university campus. While Callwood was incredibly tender about people who suffered, and what she accomplished in charity work in this country is monumental, she had a strong commitment to civil liberties and didn’t always side with the perceived “weak party” in an argument.

The story, as I remember it many years later, centred on a case against a researcher at one of Halifax’s universities. The complainant worked in the same department and felt harassed by the fact the researcher watched porn. He admitted to doing so as part of academic research and said he did this viewing away from where it would be visible to any passer-by. He felt no redress was necessary.

Callwood had publicly come to the researcher’s defence. I was assigned to do a story about this and boned up by reviewing scads of transcripts about the case and researching everything I could before interviewing her by telephone. After the story was published, Callwood contacted me to say I had done a fine job, and she was impressed with the thoroughness of my research and dispassionate approach to a hot-button story. I mentioned, in reply, that I hoped to meet her in person one day as I had applied for a summer internship at the Globe and Mail, where she had  started her career, and where she still contributed columns or articles.

To this day, I swear somehow June Callwood did her magic and got me my professional start as a writer: certainly, her mentioning me to Shirley Sharzar, the Globe’s then associate managing editor in charge of hiring recent journalism graduates for the summer staff program, did no harm. I got the Globe summer gig.

One day, a few weeks after I started working there, Callwood came to the newsroom. I was as nervous as I’ve ever been, but decided I should probably try to walk up to her, introduce myself, and thank her. I approached her, said my name, and her eyes widened, along with her arms. “Kelley Teahen!” she said in a loud voice that caused heads to pop up in cubicles across the newsroom. “At last!” She threw her arms around me in a big hug. “Who’s that intern insect being hugged by la Callwood?” you could see the cartoon thought bubbles, floating in the air above the senior reporters’ heads.

That was, in essence, pure June Callwood. She would throw her arms wide open. She would take in people, and causes. She connected, cajoled, and created. And Canada is a far better, more caring place, for her generous embrace.

Main photo: Jim St. James with June Callwood at a gala dinner honouring her in 1987, which raised money for Casey House. He was the subject of Callwood’s book: Jim: A Life With AIDS. Photo: Mike Slaughter, Toronto Star Photographic Archives, Toronto Public Library.

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