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Where's there's a cause, there's Callwood

No one was excluded in the world of June Callwood. The celebrated journalist/activist with a "just fix it" attitude worked tirelessly for countless causes. She helped found over 50 social organizations including Nellie's women's shelter and Casey House, Canada's first AIDS hospice. Dubbed St. June, the woman with movie star good looks and an unwavering capacity for compassion, battled personal tragedy, depression and controversy in a long life that served as Canada's conscience.

June Callwood's social awakening came in her forties. It was the 1960s and she was fascinated by the freewheeling hippie movement in Toronto's Yorkville. But she noticed that after all the middle-class hippies went home there was a group left behind "whose teeth were all rotting out of their heads and they were shooting speed." These homeless youngsters were being shunned by society, Callwood tells radio host Ian Alexander.

They were clearly suffering and nobody seemed willing to help them. "That politicized me; that did it," says Callwood. So in 1966 she opened up a safe haven for them called Digger House in Toronto. It was the beginning of her devotion to social activism.
• In 1968, Callwood's involvement with Digger House landed her in jail. When she saw police officers abusing a couple of teenagers during a Yorkville riot, she tried to stop them. Callwood thought as a middle-aged housewife the police would listen to her. She was wrong. They arrested her and put her in a jail cell smeared with excrement. Callwood was devastated thinking she was ruined. "In my generation you didn't get arrested unless you were an awful person."

• It turned out Callwood's fears about her arrest were largely unfounded. A year later she was named B'nai Brith Woman of the Year. Her personal experience of being jailed propelled her to lobby for closing down parts of Toronto's Don Jail housing tiny windowless cells.
• Callwood met many of the drug-addicted teenagers through her 18-year-old son Brant. Callwood found herself housing and feeding some of the troubled teens Brant had befriended.

• In 1973, Callwood helped found Nellie's, a non-profit women's organization helping women and children in crisis. The centre was named after Nellie McClung, a leading figure in the fight for women's rights in Canada.
• Jessie's Centre for Teenagers, a drop-in centre for teenage mothers, was founded in 1982. It was named after Callwood's second daughter.

• Callwood helped found Casey House in 1988. It was the first hospice in Canada to provide support and palliative care for people with HIV/AIDS.
• Callwood was a founding member of PEN Canada (1983), a group of writers defending freedom of expression under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

• Callwood was a founding member of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (1964), a non-profit, non-government law-reform group defending civil liberties and human rights.
• Callwood picked Pachelbel's Canon as one of her favourites because of a happy snapshot the music conjures up. 
Medium: Radio
Program: Arts National
Broadcast Date: March 23, 1984
Guest(s): June Callwood
Interviewer: Ian Alexander
Duration: 3:13

Last updated: June 22, 2012

Page consulted on December 6, 2013

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