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Celebrating Women’s History Month: June Callwood

Throughout her life, June Callwood received 20 honorary degrees and also was named a Companion of the Order of Canada; in her memory, she had a street, a park, and an Ontario award for volunteerism named after her. When CSI decided to name a meeting room after her, was it just to tack onto the list of her existing honorariums? Of course not! It was to honour the fact that her life was full of social activism and fighting for what she believed in to make Toronto a better place for all. As we celebrate Women’s History Month, and as the second blog in our series of learning about the Canadian icons we’ve named spaces after, we’re highlighting Callwood’s life and many achievements. Header photo via CaseyHouse.ca.

a black and white headshot of June Callwood
June Callwood, photo via CBC

Born a century ago this year, Callwood recalled her childhood as one of poverty and struggle. Growing up in the Great Depression, and with a father who left her family when she was 13, Callwood said “I felt shut out, I had the feeling that I would never be on the inside. That feeling has never left me.” Just two years later, Callwood dropped out of high school and began working as a reporter, first for the Brantford Expositor, followed by a brief stint at the Toronto Star, and by age 18 she was hired at the Globe and Mail. It was at the Globe and Mail that Callwood met Trent (Bill) Frayne. “My dad was a rascal and I fell in love with him [Mr. Frayne] because he was a rock,” Callwood said. “He is an honourable man, he’s got integrity, he’ll never let you down”. The pair had four children together: Jill, Jesse, Brant, and Casey. Tragically, her son Casey was killed at 20 years old by a motorist driving the wrong way on Highway 401. 

It was Brant (known as Barney) who helped to initiate Callwood into a life of social activism. As a teenager, he spent time in Yorkville hanging out with the ‘hippie crowd’. When Callwood went with him, she was concerned by the number of young people living on the street without access to basic necessities. After trying and failing to get care for the homeless youth in the 1960s, Callwood founded Yorkville Digger House as a space for them to live. Over the next two decades, Callwood founded or was involved with a number of organizations (just a few of which are listed below): 

"The CCLA was founded in 1964. Its predecessor was the Association for Civil Liberties (ACL), which at its foundation had been intended to address national issues, but had become focused primarily on issues in Ontario. The ACL was led by Irving Himel, and in response to the bill, he gathered human rights leaders in Toronto, including Pierre Berton, June Callwood, Bora Laskin, Mark MacGuigan, Harry Arthurs, and John Keiller MacKay, and they formed the CCLA with Mackay as its honorary president. Since our founding, CCLA has been at the forefront of all civil liberties debates."

"Over 40 years ago, a group of women activists, one of whom was June Callwood, realized that in the city of Toronto there were only 40 beds available for homeless women and over 400 beds for homeless men. Moved to action by this inequity, Nellie’s shelter was founded in 1973 and 16 new beds became available for homeless women in the city of Toronto. The shelter was named after Nellie McClung, the pioneer feminist who challenged the Canadian Government in the Supreme Court of Canada to have women declared persons under the law."

"In 1982, June Callwood founded Jessie’s - The June Callwood Centre for Young Women (formerly Jessie’s Centre for Teenagers) in downtown Toronto at 154 Bathurst Street. Originally, the centre was run by only 4 staff and a few volunteers. In 1991, Jessie’s moved to our current location at 205 Parliament Street, a building containing 16 self-contained housing units. Today, with 20 staff members and 20 regular volunteers, we pursue a holistic and sustainable approach, recognizing the importance of economic and social conditions for health outcomes."

"Maggie's Toronto Sex Worker's Action Project is one of Canada's oldest by and for sex worker support organizations and one of the first sex worker organizations globally to receive government funding. Founded in 1986, Maggie's was established on the belief that sex work is real, legitimate and valuable work. We are not an exit organization and we believe that whether sex workers choose to stay or leave their industries, we all deserve to live with safety, dignity and respect. To improve our lives, sex workers must take the power to control our own destinies. That is why Maggie’s exists first and foremost as an organization run by and for sex workers, that is controlled by sex workers."

"Opened in 1988 during the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Casey House has a long and proud history in Toronto. Founded by a group of intrepid volunteers led by journalist and activist June Callwood, Casey House was Canada’s first stand-alone treatment facility for people living with HIV/AIDS, and Ontario’s first free-standing hospice."

Callwood was involved in a number of other organizations as well, including The Issue Is Choice, the Polish Journalists Aid Committee, Connecting Seniors of Canada, the Canadian Campaign for Prison System Improvements, the City of Toronto’s Children’s Network, and Women for Political Action. Her work was not without controversy, including accusations of racism at Pen Congress and Nellie’s.

Aside from her work establishing social justice groups, Callwood had a prolific career as a writer. She had her ongoing work with the Globe & Mail, and she also wrote articles for Macleans and Chatelain. Callwood’s ghostwriting career included a bestseller, “A Woman Doctor Looks at Life and Love” (1957), as well as books for Barbara Walters, Otto Preminger and Bob White. She authored at least 30 books throughout her life. Callwood also hosted two TV programs, “In Touch on CBC” (1975-78) and “Callwood’s National Treasures” (Vision TV 1991-96). 

After being diagnosed with cancer in September 2003, Callwood was given a life expectancy of six months. Defying the odds, she passed away on April 14, 2007 at age 82. Her last public appearance was at the annual awards ceremony for The Writers’ Trust. While being honored for distinguished contribution, Callwood shared this parting thought with the audience “If you see an injustice being committed, you aren’t an observer, you are a participant.” 

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