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activist Rosemary Brown

by Penney Kome | June 2, 2000

“Conservative women and women on the right continually told me that I didn’t speak for them,” said Rosemary Brown in her memoirs, “however, I did work for them.”

“I have never lost sight of the fact that I was the women’s candidate, that they nominated me, worked for me, and elected me.”

Born and raised in Jamaica, in a household of strong, educated, political women, Rosemary came to Canada in 1950 to study at McGill University. There, she soon encountered Canadian racism: No Canadian girl wanted to be her roommate, and only other West Indians or a few white friends would speak to her in the dining hall. Prospective landlords and employers shunned her when she went job hunting and apartment hunting in Montreal after her second year at university.

Racism was also apparent when she moved to Vancouver in mid-1955 to marry Bill Brown, and worked to support him while he finished his medical degree. The Browns joined the British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (BCAAP), and then the Voice of Women. Rosemary remained active in those groups as she birthed and reared their first two children. In the early 1960s, restless at home, Rosemary found a calling in social work, which led her to weekly appearances on a national television program called “People in Conflict.”

By 1967, Rosemary Brown had three children, a Masters of Social Work, a hysterectomy and an unyielding depression. Somebody gave her a copy of Betty Friedan’s book The Feminine Mystique. “Suddenly it was all there,” she recalled, “the story of my life ... The fact that I was not alone reassured me and mobilized me.”

Yet she felt conflict, externally and internally – white women did not seem to understand racism, and people of colour did not consider sexism a major issue. She explained her perspective in a 1973 speech, saying in part, “... to be Black and female in a society which is both racist and sexist is to be in the unique position of having nowhere to go but up!”

With that spirit to buoy her, Brown grasped opportunities that others found daunting. She took on the position of volunteer Vancouver Ombudswoman as, “the challenge I had been waiting for all my life.” She entered provincial politics in 1972 because she was on the Board of the Vancouver Status of Women, and VSW was urging women to run.

The first time she was approached to be a political candidate, Brown laughed. She thought no riding association would nominate her – a Black woman – not even the New Democratic Party! But they did. In 1972, she accepted the job and ran, for the sake of raising awareness and defeating the Social Credit, with no expectation of winning. But she did. She became the Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) for Vancouver-Burrard, the first Black woman elected to the B.C. legislature, and went on to serve as an MLA for 14 years.

Joy MacPhail, leader of the B.C. NDP, said at Rosemary’s funeral, “During her time in office, Rosemary created a committee to eliminate sexism in textbooks and educational curricula. She also introduced legislation that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sex or marital status. Through her efforts, there was a marked increase in the number of women represented on boards, commissions and directorates.”

However, Rosemary’s commitment to social justice did not begin and end with her work in the Legislature. Prior to politics, Rosemary was a founding member of the Vancouver Status of Women Council, and a founding member of the Vancouver Crisis Centre. After politics, Rosemary served as the CEO of MATCH International, a development agency to promote women’s issues on a global basis.

In 1974, the federal NDP Women’s Committee decided that the party needed a woman candidate in the leadership race. Once again, Rosemary Brown accepted the challenge, and ran for the sake of highlighting women’s issues. Her candidacy – the first woman of any colour to contest the leadership of a national party – raised awareness and uplifted women’s hearts as well. She used the slogan, “Brown is Beautiful” and, out of five candidates, she finished second in a tight race.

By 1988, Rosemary Brown was ready for a change. She announced she would not stand again for MLA. The next year, she took a job in Ottawa, as CEO for MATCH International, a development agency run by and for women. MATCH quickly became Rosemary Brown’s central work. She was CEO for 3 years, then special ambassador, then president.

“My heart is with international development now,” Brown said, “trying to work with women’s groups trying to make changes where they are.” No matter how much progress Canadian women make towards equality, she believed, “if you are surrounded by other countries where women have not achieved the same, then your achievements are at risk.”

Her work with MATCH overshadowed all other work she’d done since leaving politics. From 1993 to 1996, Brown served as Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and always found the job challenging. She was constantly in demand as a public speaker, perhaps because she rehearsed important speeches for up to a week in advance. She maintained her membership in the B.C. NDP, paying her dues and keeping in touch. But the MATCH work brought her too much satisfaction to give up.

Asked what advice she would give a woman who is about to enter politics, Brown replied, “Women should enter politics to bring about change. It’s a tough arena and an unpleasant one, the sacrifices called for can be only justified on the grounds that we are indeed making the world, or our community, a better place that it is.”

The turning of the new century brought Brown her seventh grandchild and her third attempt at retirement, she said from her Vancouver home. “Thank goodness there are lots of young people to do the things we used to do.” She and Bill were married for 48 years. “It hasn’t always been easy,” she said, “but I think that once the commitment is there, you just keep redesigning it so it fits.” Then again, she laughed, “a stubborn streak helps, on both parts.”

On Rosemary’s death, Anne Clarke wrote:

Rosemary Brown. She will be missed not only within the feminist movement, but much more within the Black community. She was our voice for equality, she was a pioneer and paved the way for many of us as she dealt with unnamed prejudice at McGill University at a time when there were very few Blacks, which she documented in “On Being Brown”. She instilled a sense of belonging to Canada for many of us who came after her as we reveled and were proud of her accomplishments of firsts. She was the first Black woman to tackle the barriers and climb over the fences to accomplish what she believed in as her equal place in Canada.

On a personal note, her kindness and thoughtfulness and her ability to just “hang” out in the company of her friends and keeping her the roots of who she was – strong and steadfast will be her lasting legacy to us – Canadian Black Feminists and community activists. She will never be forgotten. It is ironic, because this past weekend at a conference on the Intersections of Diversity, in Niagara Falls, and in the “company of our sisters” we were reminiscing about her in our room on Friday night. She taught me how to be “graceful under fire” and rise above the narrow mindedness of racism that continues to plague many of us. It was certainly a privilege to have known her on so many different levels. Yes, she will be sorely missed and she will never be far from our thoughts.

Judy Rebick’s wrote on

Brown Was Beautiful
It was the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Vancouver Status of Women and Rosemary Brown was reminiscing about the early days of the women’s movement.

“We were so naïve in those days,” she told the packed audience. “We thought if we just explained the problems women were facing to the politicians, things would change.” Other pioneer feminists told me they were never that naïve but the thing about Rosemary was that she always believed that change would come if only people would understand the need for it. She had that rare kind of positive spirit. That’s why it’s so hard to believe she is gone.

The first black woman to serve in a legislature in Canada, Rosemary was an MLA in British Columbia in 1972. When women were still a rarity in politics, Rosemary served for fourteen years. In 1975, she took on the battle for leadership of the federal New Democratic Party, the first woman to ever run for the leadership of a party. She came insecond after four ballots on a wave of feminist organizing that would change that party in a profound way. Rosemary just didn’t accept any barriers. Her slogan was “Brown is Beautiful.”

In a biography of Brown published by CoolWomen, the origins of her feminism are explained:

By 1967, Rosemary Brown had three children, a Masters of Social Work, a hysterectomy and an unyielding depression. Somebody gave her a copy of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. “Suddenly it was all there,” she recalled,“the story of my life ... The fact that I was not alone reassured me and mobilized me.” Yet she felt conflict, externally and internally; white women did not seem to understand racism, and people of colour did not consider sexism a major issue. She explained her perspective in a 1973 speech, saying in part, “... to be Black and female in a society which is both racist and sexist is to be in the unique position of having nowhere to go but up!”

About ten years ago, when the women’s movement was suffering from divisions caused by racism, I went to talk to Rosemary to get more insight into what was happening. From the outside, it seemed that as a black woman Rosemary had always been integrated into the leadership of the women’s movement. Was racism a problem she faced inside the women’s movement? I asked.

Rosemary spent a long time telling me stories of the racism she faced over the years in the women’s movement. It was often subtle but always present. The fact that the early women’s movement is always described as white and middle class when she and other women of colour and aboriginal women played a key role in those early days was a sign of their invisibility.

That the first woman to run for the leadership of a political party in Canada was a black woman should be a matter of pride for the feminist movement – for the entire country – but it is rarely even mentioned. Every school child in the United States knows the name of Rosa Parks, but how many know in Canada the name of Rosemary Brown?

MICHELE LANDSBERG, Toronto Star | June 15, 2003:

Farewell to a political kung fu fighter

Sometimes a person’s life is so rich and various in accomplishment,friendships, small kindnesses and far-flung commitments that only when that life is ended do all the pieces finally slide into one coherent picture.

It’s like that with Rosemary Brown, who died unexpectedly in her sleep on April 26 at the age of 72. The pieces of her life make a fantastic mosaic that seems to grow brighter as we all begin to grasp the depth and breadth of her contribution.

“Like a kung fu movie, we are leaping and kicking and fighting on all fronts,” she once joked to a meeting of women in Accra, Ghana. “We cannot sever any of our parts, place them on the back burner. We have to join all fights, all struggles at the same time.”

That aptly sums up her philosophy that individual success is no solution to injustice, that “either the whole group swims, or we all drown.” She saw that racism, sexism and economic injustice are intertwined.

Rosemary Brown was the first black woman elected to any Canadian legislature, served her Vancouver ridings for 14 years, and spent her life in a vibrant, untiring struggle for social justice.

The tributes to her began in Vancouver and are rolling across the country like a campaign train.

She was the toughly determined executive director and then board president of MATCH International, a feminist aid organization, where she was beloved. MATCH workers are reading, with tear-blurred eyes, messages of condolence that are pouring in from humble workers in Mali, civil servants in Sri Lanka, African leaders, Jamaican diplomats.

Naturally, there will be tears, but also gorgeous music, much eloquence and roars of laughter when Toronto celebrates the life of Rosemary Brown as a special tribute on Monday night.

The laughter will be fitting, because Rosemary (I have to call her that – she was a friend) was a feminist activist and social democrat who could counter opposition with inspired wit. That twinkle in her eye, the broad grin and proud carriage, and the eloquence she earnestly practiced in a word-besotted childhood, stood her in good stead.

She grew up in an affluent matriarchy in Jamaica – a stable, distinguished family headed by her highly political and progressive grandmother. It was a family mad for education and politics, a family that cherished its children, kept them safe and charged them with ideals and ambition.

Her secure and happy childhood gave Rosemary a high-spirited love of music, dancing, opera, friendship and snazzy clothes that easily combined with lifelong political activism.

“To be black and female in a society which is both racist and sexist,” she once quipped, “is to be in a unique position of having no place to go but up.”

Up she went.

She headed the Ontario Human Rights Commission, helped found half a dozen organizations for minority and women’s equality, taught [at Simon Fraser University et al], spoke publicly, made an early and astonishingly strong run for the leadership of the New Democratic Party in 1975, and combined all this with marriage to a psychiatrist, raising three children and loving seven grandchildren.

Perhaps it was her work for MATCH that was the project closest to her heart. A uniquely Canadian organization, it raises money to fund projects initiated and led by feminists in the developing world. Founded by two volunteers in 1975, MATCH now helps 650 groups around the globe.

Thanks to MATCH, Senegalese fisherwomen buy fish-smoking ovens, Jamaican activists perform anti-violence street theatre, women in Mali campaign against female genital mutilation, Tanzanian women lawyers start a legal aid clinic, Sri Lankans open a shelter for assaulted women, Indian women teach anti-violence sensitivity to police and judges, Caribbean women train others for political leadership, and Andean women in Peru record their oral histories.

It’s life-changing and life-saving stuff, all done on a typical women’s shoestring budget. Rosemary never hesitated to twist her friends’ arms – charmingly, but insistently – to share some of their wealth with MATCH’s grantees. I’m ashamed, thinking of her, that I’ve forgotten to write my cheque to MATCH recently. I’ll do that in her memory and, because MATCH will be struggling without her in these hard times, I hope others will be moved to honour her the same way.

To celebrate Rosemary’s life, with the help of Alexa McDonough, the Nathaniel Dett Chorale, Tabby Johnson, Joy Dancers, the consul-general of Jamaica and many others, be at Trinity St. Paul’s Church, 427 Bloor St. W., on Monday evening at 7 p.m.

To keep Rosemary Brown’s work streaming through the world, send a donation now to MATCH International ...

more to consider

Rosemary Brown still remembers that Florence Bird introduced the 1970 report of the Royal Commission on the Status of Women with a promise that the Commission’s 167 recommendations would be implemented and not gather dust. In her view, the people working on those recommendations have never stopped. “Every area of life is now affected and perceived through the lens of what it does to disadvantaged people,” she says, “Nothing earlier permeated our whole societal thinking the way that this movement has.” And in her work with international development, she sees the same thing happening all around the world, in the Muslim countries too. “Anyone who says this movement is dying,” she says, “betrays their own ignorance.”

Rosemary Brown learned about racism first, and learned about sexism later. Yet she believes that discrimination against women is the deeper discrimination. She is proud to call herself a feminist. At the same time, she says, “Unless the women’s liberation movement identifies with and locks into the liberation movements of all oppressed groups, it will never achieve its goals.” In another place, she says simply, “Unless all of us are free, none of us will be free.”

resources for this story
  • For Jackson: A Time Capsule from His Two Grandmothers will have its Canadian broadcast premiere on Friday, May 9, 2004, 10 pm EST (7pm PST) on Vision TV
A co-production of LRS Productions and the National Film Board of Canada, this 1-hour documentary features the late politician and activist Rosemary Brown. The film was completed on the day of her untimely death April 26, 2003.

This moving portrait incorporates interviews, family footage and archival materials to recount history through two grandmothers, Rosemary Brown (1930-2003) and Ruth Horricks-Sujir (born 1925). The documentary is intended as a time capsule for Jackson, their 7-year-old grandson.

Rosemary Brown had an extensive record of public service. She was the first Black woman elected to public office in Canada (in the BC legislature, starting in 1972) and later served as Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. She received the Order of Canada and the Order of Jamaica.

Written and directed by Leila Sujir, For Jackson: A Time Capsule from His Two Grandmothers reveals history through the stories of these remarkable women whose lives demonstrate how two brave individuals contributed in a time of great social change.

This film was produced by Leila Sujir for LRS Productions and Germaine Ying Gee Wong for the National Film Board of Canada.To purchase NFB releases or for more information, visit the website, or call 1-800-267-7710.

  • Women of Influence: Women and Canadian Politics, by PENNEY, Doubleday Canada | 1985
  • Being Brown: A Very Public Life by ROSEMARY BROWN, Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto | 1989
  • It Takes A Leader: Follow Your Inspiration, Scholastic Press | 1999
  • Toeing the Lines: Women and Party Politics in English Canada, by SYLVIA BASHEVKIN, university of Toronto Press | 1985
  • Women and Canadian Public Policy, by JANINE BRODIE, Harcourt, Brace and Company
  • From Nelson-Thomson Learning Political Science website: “A total of 62 of the 301 MPs elected to the House of Commons in 1997 were women, but this constitutes only 21% of all MPs. Overall, 24.4% of candidates in the 1997 election were women, compared with 22% in 1993. In 1993, 53 women were elected, which represented only 18% of the 295 MPs at that time.”

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.