June Callwood, Writer and Social Activist: June 2, 1924 – April 14, 2007
(Excerpted from Sandra Martin’s Working the Dead Beat:50 Lives that Changed Canada, which has been longlisted for the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction)
After she was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2003, June Callwood talked about gliding over Georgian Bay, contemplating all the pain she had experienced in her life and wondering whether there was “anything spiritual” that could help ease her misery.
“And I thought, floating up there, ‘This is what it’s all about. It’s kindness. Not top-down kindness, giving a toonie to a street person and treating them like a slot machine, but stopping and talk- ing to them. If people can behave well to each other, that’s all that there is,’” she told Globe journalist John Allemang. An atheist, she took that philosophy of kindness, which was as close as she could come to a religious belief, and sprinkled it liberally as she carried on her personal campaign against injustice, even as cancer rampaged through her body.
Life itself inspired her activism. Her mother and father were inept as parents, so she learned early on “to take care of myself and live in my imagination, and as soon as I could find books, I was reading them.” Words became magic for Callwood. She used them to persuade, denounce, and describe. They were the source of her livelihood, her prodigious influence in effecting social change, and her solace.
She also had two grandfathers “who were crazy about me,” so she didn’t mind her parents’ lack of attention, because she was loved and praised. “I grew up thinking people take care of one another and you have to do that to be a good person; you have to be available to help others. And I also grew up fearless, so that helped.”
Her self-confidence took perennial tumbles when it came to her vocation. “Fear of failure is huge with me in writing. I have never written something I thought was good enough,” she said in an interview five months before she died on April 14, 2007. Of all the books she wrote, she never attempted a memoir.
“I’m not very introspective,” she explained. “I don’t think there are a lot of complications about me.” Besides, she was never sure she could write about her life without colouring her memories, and the reporter in her wouldn’t allow that.