As It Happens

Meyer Brownstone, former chair of Oxfam Canada, dies at 96

Meyer Brownstone, a human rights activist and one of the architects of Canada's first public health insurance system, died Wednesday at the age of 96.

He was a 'champion of social justice and peace around the world,' says son Keir

Canadian activist Meyer Brownstone in Windhoek, Namibia, with Oxfam. (Archives & Research Collections, Carleton University Library)
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Meyer Brownstone, a human rights activist and one of the architects of Canada's first public health insurance system, died Wednesday at the age of 96.

The Winnipeg-born man spent his early career working as civil servant in Regina, where he helped the Saskatchewan government develop the country's first provincial hospital insurance program.

He also worked for the United Nations helping the newly-independent country of Jamaica establish its government, and as a professor at the University of Toronto and York University.

But he was probably best known as the longtime chair of Oxfam Canada, where he was an observer for conflicts, elections and refugee camps across Central and South America and Africa. For that work, he was awarded the UN Association in Canada's prestigious Pearson Peace Medal in 1986.

He leaves behind three adult children. 

His son Keir Brownstone spoke with As it Happens host Carol Off about his father's legacy. Here is part of their conversation.

Keir, first of all, I'm sorry for the loss of your father. 

It's a great loss for all of us. He was a real champion of social justice and peace around the world. 

Really one of the striking moments for which there is video or pictures is a moment with [former South African president and anti-apartheid leaderNelson Mandela. Do you want to describe that?

Dad had worked behind the scenes against apartheid for years.

He had worked as chair of Oxfam Canada as well, and had been witness to a number of elections around the world as an observer — and had asked to be part of the observation team for the election in South Africa.

And the video I have is ... quite a long video, and a lot of it is just cars coming down a dusty road into a town, and a bunch of people filing into the building. And the building was the schoolhouse, of course, where Mandela voted.

And then at the end of the video, he is standing at the ballot box and he's holding up the ballot.

And he turns to be congratulated, as, you know, the first black man to vote in free elections in South Africa. And as the camera pulls back and he's being congratulated, shaking hands, it's my dad.

Canadian activist Meyer Brownstone pictured in Colomancagua, Hondruas, in 1985. (Archives & Research Collections, Carleton University Library)

Where did he get the sense of that ... he wanted to champion the rights of others and the underdog?

Well, you know, he grew up in a poor home, but where his parents strived to ... bring success to their kids through education.

The community was a very strong Jewish community that believed in socialism and social justice. And my father — he was not a religious man, but socialism was definitely his faith.

He came by it honestly through very hard work. He worked in the gold mines of Red Lake, [Ont.,] to put himself through school. He worked at his uncle's farm when he was a kid ... which had many Ukrainian women tilling the fields, and my dad tried to organize them into a small labour union — much to the dismay of his uncle.

But, you know ... that was my dad.

Canadian activist Meyer Brownstone Dr. Libertine Amathila shares a moment with d Dr. Libertine Amathila of the South West Africa People’s Organisation. (Archives & Research Collections, Carleton University Library)

You, I'm sure, have so many memories and thoughts and some of them very, very public like that moment with Nelson Mandela. ... But what's the one image for you? What's the one memory that you carry?

Well, the one image for me is actually quite a bit more personal. We went back to Regina when I was in my early 20s. We had held onto the house there that ... I was born into.

And we went to get it ready for sale. And we spent the week painting the whole house — just, you know, me and dad. My sister was there. We painted the house we cleaned up the garden. We got it all ready.

And the very last day, in the afternoon, we realized that our work was done and that we were going to be leaving. And my dad and I looked at each other, and just broke out in tears. And we hugged each other, and we laughed. 

As I think of it now, it was partly because that was our home for many years, and our first home as a family for all of us.

But it was also, you know, a time and a place that my dad had lived in this amazing whirlwind of — you know, the NDP government, and Medicare and all the amazing things that they did.

My parents hosted the New Year's Eve party there every year. And it was it was famous, because everybody would come — you know, [former Saskatchewan premier] Al Blakeney and [former Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation president] Woodrow Lloyd, and just all of our friends and neighbours.

For my dad, that was probably looking back at the best time of his life.

Interview produced by Allie Jaynes. Q&A edited for length and clarity.

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