Thursday, January 29, 2009

Postal honour for a woman who put her own stamp on Canada

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 28, 2009


It was during a budget debate on agricultural estimates, of all things, when Rosemary Brown was interrupted by a woman's voice from the government benches.

“I wonder why that member doesn't go back to Jamaica!”

The ensuing bedlam included cries of “shame!” and “racist!” amid calls for order. In the shorthand of Hansard, the shouting from both sides was reduced to a decorous single word – “Interjections.”

As New Democrats and Socreds exchanged accusations, Patricia Jordan, who spoke the offending words, denied having uttered a slur.

Such was the reception afforded Ms. Brown after more than a quarter-century in this land, a time during which she had distinguished herself by earning two university degrees, winning election to become the first black woman to sit in any Canadian legislature, and by leading the first serious national party leadership campaign by a woman under the cheeky slogan, “Brown is beautiful.”

Even three decades after the raucous exchange in the B.C. Legislature on the afternoon of June 28, 1977, Ms. Brown's response to so provocative a taunt stands out for its understated eloquence.

“I am a Canadian,” she said.

“This is my country,” she added.

On Tuesday, her adopted land will honour the late activist by releasing a postage stamp with her image to mark Black History Month.

The stamp depicts Ms. Brown posed with arms crossed in front of the legislative building, inside which she was once told to return to the island of her birth.

She shares the postal honour with Abraham Doras Shadd, an American-born, 19th-century shoemaker and anti-slavery campaigner who aided escaping slaves as a “conductor” and “station master” on the Underground Railroad. He moved to North Buxton in Southern Ontario in 1851 and was elected to the Raleigh Township council eight years later, becoming the first black person to hold public office in Canada.

In philatelic lingo, the two form a pair of non-denominational permanent commemorative stamps. The post office is issuing two million panes of 16 stamps (that's eight each of Ms. Brown and Mr. Shadd on every pane).

Canada Post's program for the year includes stamps featuring ringette, five-pin bowling, roadside attractions, Bryan Adams, Stompin' Tom Connors, the centenary of the Montreal Canadiens, the Newfoundland pony, the International Year of Astronomy, and rhododendrons. With all due respect to Mr. Adams and his music, photography and charitable contributions, Ms. Brown will be by far the most remarkable British Columbian to grace an envelope this year.

Born in Jamaica in 1930, Rosemary Wedderburn lost her father at a young age and was raised by a grandmother of means. She left home to attend McGill University in Montreal, where she discovered a bigotry that was “polite, denied and accepted.” No classmate was willing to share a dormitory room with her, and she later found difficulty in renting a room and finding work.

After marrying Dr. William Brown, she moved to the West Coast, where she earned a master's degree and worked as a social worker. In 1972, she won election in the dual-member riding of Vancouver-Burrard along with fellow social worker and New Democrat Norman Levi. Despite her dynamic personality and riveting speaking style, Ms. Brown was not invited by premier Dave Barrett into the province's first NDP cabinet.

Her demands for the creation of a women's ministry went unheeded by her male colleagues, although they did agree to fund rape crisis centres and battered-women's shelters.

Being a backbencher allowed her to run for the national party leadership in 1975, during which she shocked the NDP establishment by lasting until a fourth-ballot showdown against Ed Broadbent. The campaign made her a national figure.

The Barrett government was crushed at the polls that December, although Ms. Brown and Mr. Levi narrowly managed to hang onto their seats. The victorious Social Credit Party soon after had the electoral boundaries redrawn, eliminating their Vancouver riding. Ms. Brown managed to win re-election in nearby Burnaby.

A feminist and an advocate for visible minorities and the working poor, who count among themselves many women, Ms. Brown later became chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission. She died in 2003, aged 72.

In recent years, awards have been created that carry her name. In 2005, a park in the Vancouver neighbourhood of Kitsilano was named for her. As well, a park near the Decarie Square shopping mall in Montreal bears her name. (Just around the corner are Rue Tommy-Douglas and Rue David-Lewis, the latter named after the NDP leader she came so close to succeeding.)

The green space has a playground, picnic tables and a bocce court. When it was renamed two years ago, Montreal Mayor GĂ©rald Tremblay said he hoped Parc Rosemary Brown Park would be a place of “openness, democracy and solidarity.”

This province has a rich lore of black history, a story well told in Crawford Killian's Go Do Some Great Thing, which was released in a revised edition in November. Among the earliest settlers was a prosperous merchant named Mifflin Gibbs, who was elected to town council in Victoria. He also financed the Victoria Pioneer Rifles, British Columbia's first militia unit. Imagine the sight greeting American prospectors coming north to seek their fortune in the gold fields – a militia of free black men. This land would be different than that to the south.

The highlight of Ms. Brown's legislative career came three months after the “return to Jamaica” gibe. She pledged to do whatever possible to delay the Socreds' proposed elimination of a community welfare office. In her 1989 memoir, Being Brown, she described preparations for a filibuster: “I immediately focused on three things: Strengthening my legs so that I could stand for long periods of time, strengthening my voice so that it would survive long periods of speaking and increasing the ability of my bladder to retain fluid.”

She managed to talk for nearly 16 hours over five days of the sitting of the legislature, a performance unmatched in recent annals.

Putting Rosemary Brown on a stamp is about the only way she could ever be licked.

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