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Canada's Conscience

Canadian journalist and humanitarian June Callwood was an activist who focused on social justice issues. She has written 30 books (including ghost-written autobiographies of Barbara Walters and Otto Preminger), 1,500 magazine articles, and 500 newspaper columns. She was the host of the television shows "In Touch" and "National Treasures", and "Caregiving with June Callwood". She helped establish dozens of organizations to promote the arts, human rights, civil liberties and social welfare. She received 20 honourary doctorates, is a Companion of the Order of Canada, and has a street, a park and Ontario's award for volunteerism named after her.

June was born in a small town in Ontario in 1924, to Harold, a plumber and entrepreneur, and his wife Gladys. She had one younger sister, Jane. June was an intelligent and precocious child, and skipped from first and second grade, so that she was three years younger than her classmates all through school. Somewhat isolated because of this age difference, she became an avid reader. A child during the Depression, the family struggled: her father left in search of employment, her mother made ends meet by taking in sewing, and the girls were often hungry. Young June became interested in writing while in high school, winning a short story contest, and then getting a job at the local paper while sixteen. At 18 she was given a job answering mail at the Toronto Star, but was fired two weeks later for sending a smart-ass reply to a letter of complaint.

At 18 she was hired by the Globe and Mail as a general assignment reporter (on the strength of a trial assignment a male colleague wrote for her - she was paralyzed by nerves), and lived with her mother and sister, who had moved to Toronto so Jane could attend high school. She married fellow Globe reporter Trent Frayne in 1944, but kept her own name so that two reporters on the paper would not have the same byline. She later characterized Trent as "a rock" who she could always count on, in comparison to her ne'er-do-well father. Her first child Jill was born one year after the marriage, her son Brant three years later. June had quit her job while pregnant but soon turned to freelance writing, selling her articles to prominent magazines like Macleans and Chatelaine; she also got her pilot's license. Her third child Jesse was born in 1951, and during this period the family moved into a modest home in Toronto where June lived until her death.

Things changed for June in the 1960s. First, she found herself immobilized by depression, but after seeking therapy, was able to publish a book about the experience, Love, Hate, Fear & Anger (1964). Then, she was introduced to poor runaway kids that her son Barney brought home from Yorkville, now a toney shopping district but in those days a hippie hangout. The kids reminded her of those hopeless souls she had seen during the Depression riding freight trains, and she was determined to help them, eventually founding Digger House (named after the communalist Diggers), a hostel for homeless kids for which she initially paid the rent. Honing her skills as a fundraiser, she helped found Nellie's (named for Nellie McClung, an early feminist), a shelter for abused women; and Jessie's, a home for teen moms. But she had little patience for often fractious board meetings, and left Nellie's after being accused of racism.

In 1961 June unexpectedly found herself pregnant again, and she and her husband were thrilled with this unexpected new child, Casey. Their joy turned to devastation when he was killed, twenty years later, by a driver on the wrong side of the 401 highway. She cared for a friend who was dying of cancer, then in 2003 was diagnosed with the disease herself, though for herself she declined aggressive treatment. Out of these experiences with death and dying came the idea for establishing a palliative care hospice for people dying of AIDS, and so Casey House Hospice was born, the first of its kind in Canada.

In 2003 her cancer had returned; given 6 months live, she stretched it out to four, and died in 2007, aged 82. During her last interview, some months before her death, she said, "I’m okay, I’m 82 years old for heaven’s sake. Dust to dust is the way it ought to be. The death of the young is inexcusable."

For lots more on June Callwood, visit the CBC archives at http://archives.cbc.ca/IDD-1-69-1393/life_society/june_callwood/

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