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June Callwood

by Ann Farrell | August 10, 2004

June Callwood didn’t know whether she would see her 81st birthday because she had inoperable cancer. (She died April 14, 2007, at the age of 82.)

Not that she let her cancer prevent her from “getting things done” – whether it was at Jessie’s Centre for teenaged mothers or Casey House AIDS hospice, both of which she founded. Or, in the last years of her life, an effort to banish child poverty.

She also wanted to look after Trent Frayne, her husband of more than 60 years, who has cancer as well.

For the longest time, June Callwood dismissed her situation, saying: “I’m very healthy despite the bit of cancer I’ve got. I've always had a lot of energy and enthusiasm. When I get home, it's a safe place and that’s very important for everyone – to go home to a stressful marriage would have defeated me completely.”

For herself, she wanted the end to be before she might need help. This woman who spent a lifetime caring for others – especially those in distress – was loath to find herself without the power to help herself. It was not to be. She died in the Princess Margaret Hospital.

Most people who knew Callwood acknowledge that a soft heart for those in need masked a toughness that came into play when she set out to alter their situation. The soft heart she was evidently born with, the toughness was something that life was to teach her.

Until she was ten, Callwood was raised in Belle River, a small village near Windsor, Ontario. It was one of those places where everyone knew everyone else and many of them were related, They acted like one big family. “So there was no possibility of challenging authority, every adult knew you and could boss you around. Also, if anyone was in trouble you had to help; anyone who didn't bring along a casserole was considered not very nice.”

Callwood was a bright child and already in high school at age 11 – three years younger than anyone else in her class – something that was emotionally difficult for her. Then the family moved to Kitchener and, at 14, her father left the family.

Two years later, she had to quit school because there was not enough money for her to continue. She learned early that if she wanted to get things done, the responsibility was hers. However, at that time it was her own vulnerability, not that of others, that concerned her.

“We were desperately poor, moving at night from one house to another, the sheriff taking our furniture. It taught me about people on the margins and how proud you are, not telling people about your problems. I didn't want anyone to know that we hadn’t eaten for two days. Wearing other people’s clothes, it’s embarrassing in a small town because they've seen it before on someone else.”

Another major influence on Callwood’s childhood was Catholicism. She admitted it instilled guilt feelings in her that she never completely shook, despite leaving the faith in her teens. “I feel terrible if I don’t do something,” she said. Because of this, her feelings tended to focus on what she hadn't achieved, rather than on what she had.

Nevertheless, she believed in the importance of children being exposed to some form of religion, even if they abandon it later. “I couldn’t imagine being raised without a faith,” she said. Her children were sent off to a nearby United Church Sunday school, which they later quit, saying at the time they felt “liberated.” However, son Casey refused to attend Sunday school and was ordered instead to read the Bible, although Callwood admitted the experiment was not a success, as he grew up without a religion.

Her achievements as a writer – in addition to her work in all branches of media, she wrote 30 books – first began on The Grumbler, her high school newspaper. Soon, she also contributed a weekly column about high school news to the Kitchener Waterloo Record. She modestly admitted that she must have “shown some skill at writing” because, at 16, she was hired at $7 for a six-day week to write for the Brantford Expositor. Half of this small sum she handed over to her mother as rent.

It was good experience – it was there that she learned the basics of community writing, covering city hall, the board of education and the courts.

While still only a teenager, this modest beginning turned out to be Callwood’s springboard to a Toronto daily, The Globe and Mail. She attributed this jump to the fact that many male reporters were away serving in the World War Two. However, she was soon to find out that her previous experience was insufficient for the more sophisticated reporting standards of a national daily. But she found her colleagues supportive, showing her how to write “leads” and helping her make the transition. “I just gradually learned how to write,” she said.

Some may find it surprising that Callwood claimed the reason for her colleagues’ helpfulness was the fact she wasn’t “an uppity person.”

She and sports writer Trent Frayne married one year later, when she was 19.

Years, later, the couple tragically lost one of their four children, Casey, who died at the hand of a drunk driver at age 20. Perhaps that is a reason why one of Callwood’s great pleasures in life was to visit Jessie’s and hold some of the babies in her arms.

At the Globe, she built on her early experiences of poverty. “It made me more of an investigative reporter, finding out there were people as hungry as I had been,” Callwood commented. As she became increasingly aware of what needed to be done, she set about trying to fix things. “Everything about it turned out to be credible. There was never any doubt about the money, there was never any doubt about the need, never any doubt about how it was to be delivered. It worked out so that the next one I would try to do had a lot going for it, a trustworthy thing. If I was the one trying to do it, it had a certain credibility.”

Callwood always approached her projects as a journalist, as a researcher. “After finding the best people who know the most about it, it’s not abstract, people are right there. You get them together and all sit down for a year of meetings, to discuss what's the best thing to do. We all decide, we all agree on it. I just go and get government money and get it going.” An over-simplification if ever there was one, but that’s how Callwood saw things, and got them done.

It will come as no surprise that what Callwood yearned for most, sometimes, was solitude. At the time this piece was published in 2004, she still hoped she could drive to Florida – fast was always her preference – in her new sports car. It was a gift her family gave her for her 80th birthday.

When she spent time in Florida, she would pack a lunch, sit by the ocean with a book, or just with her thoughts and “soon feel like a million dollars. I refresh quickly.”

Otherwise, she hated unpunctuality – seeing it as a form of betrayal.

Callwood felt betrayed about other, bigger, things in her life, including the sense of betrayal she felt when charges of racism were leveled against her at Nellie’s – a shelter for battered and homeless women and their children that she founded. In 2004, she still considered the accusation unjustified.

This was the life of one of Canada’s foremost activists, who – right to the end – was intent on pursuing any worthy cause that came her way.

She has been called a “National Treasure” (she acted as an interviewer on this VisionTV show, and compiled these interviews into a book, June Callwwood's National Treasures).

Among the achievements listed on her 14-page resume are:

  • her awards of no less than three Orders of Canada (Member in 1978, Officer in 1986, Companion in 2001),
  • a certificate as a licensed glider pilot,
  • a founding member of the Writers’ Union of Canada, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws,
  • not forgetting the Judy Garland Bowling League Cup.

She didn’t think dying was the worst thing that could happen.

There was no funeral. Callwood did not want one.

At 7:45 pm on April 17, 2007, a candlelit memorial procession will be held in Toronto. It will travel between Jessie’s Centre for Teenagers, and Casey House, two of the facilities she helped found.

more to consider

On of the things that shone about June Callwood was her unshakable belief that you can make good things happen – she saw the end, not the messy path that gets you to the destination. That was a great gift, both for her personally and for those in the broader community. Many of us don’t start something because what we see, what we worry about are the problems. With a vision and a community that shares the vision, the destination is reachable.

The link between June’s vocation as a writer and her other vocation as a community activist was a lively one. Writing gave her a profile, which in turn helped her community work. With her writer’s voice, she could add authority to her community voice (perhaps it works the other way around too). There was always the risk, too, that she could use her writing to “whistleblow” if things stood in the way of the community work.

We live in a society that really respects writers. Writers have access to media space that many community groups and activists cannot easily gain because they are outsiders. June was an insider in this sense. Although June would likely have been effective no matter what her paid work was, being a successful writer added to her strength.

resources for this story
  • June Callwood is featured in Celebrating Women’s Achievments as an activist.
  • Life and Times, a CBC-TV programme, has featured a profile of June Callwood.
  • The Writers Union highlights some of June Callwood’s books.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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