Founder out as racism claimed

Founder out as racism claimed
Jean Kavanagh, The Vancouver Sun, 15 June 1992: A6

TORONTO – When writer and social activist June Callwood helped found Nellie’s Hostel 18 years ago, she was among the first Canadians reaching out to battered and homeless women.

Today, devastated by charges of racism from some of the organization’s newer members, Callwood has left Nellie’s board of directors and is dealing with pain she says is as paralysing as losing a loved one.

“Except for deaths in my family, this is the worst thing that has ever happened to me in my life,” she said in an interview.

Neither Callwood nor board members at Nellie’s, named after suffragette and 1920s Alberta legislator Nellie McClung, will discuss details of the accusations and ensuing arguments. But they and others working in race relations say the case isn’t an isolated one.

“I think I came to symbolize something and I think I was an unwary target. I’m used to collaborative efforts and people working together,” Callwood said of the group’s collective structure.

“I just did not know what was going on (in the group’s non-white women’s caucus). I wasn’t silent, which is what a lot of white women are doing now,” she said.

Following an argument at a board meeting, Callwood remembered saying in effect: “Are you the same woman we’ve helped and done things for? How can you feel this way?

“That was seen as trying to silence her,” Callwood said. “That was inflammatory in the situation, but it wasn’t racist.”

At a later meeting, arguments resumed and Callwood was called a racist.

“I left and that’s the last I’ve seen of the board,” she said.

Callwood formally resigned last month, which was the pinnacle of months of dissension at Nellie’s over power sharing, said board president Chiyedo Fukushima.

“June’s episode is not really the issue,” said Fukushima. “Issues of representation and sharing power are going on across Metro (Toronto) with the (social) services.”

Discussion over equitable racial representation because of Canada’s changing social fabric is gripping many organizations that provide social services, said Jeniffer Walcott of Toronto’s United Way, which offers seminars and resources on race and multicultural issues.

“As a funding organization we’re interested in the issue to help agencies better reflect the community, not just to have tokenism,” she said.

Callwood is a pioneer in social agencies for women, children and AIDS sufferers, honorary lifetime director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and a recipient of the Order of Canada. It’s been hard for many who see her as epitomizing liberal social values to accept the charges against her.

Judy Rebick – president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, which represents some 500 women’s groups – said her organization has gone through similar disputes as non-white women become more involved and force change.

“It’s a matter of white women not being defensive,” she said. “There’s an attitude that white women know what’s best for all women and that’s not necessarily so,” Rebick said.

It’s systemic racism, she said.

“Not so much that an individual is a racist or sexist but it reflects how whites dominate society as men dominate society.”

Carolann Wright of the Women of Color Coalition, which intervened in the Nellie’s incident, agrees with Rebick although she says there were some particular concerns with Callwood.

“She was not the problem but part of the problem. You can’t set the parameters of 10 years ago and say that’s still going to work.”

Nellie’s, which provides refuge, medical care, legal advice and counselling for about 500 women a year, is holding workshops and discussions for the board and staff on how to deal with the issue.

Callwood is hurt she’s not part of the process but thinks Nellie’s will survive.

“Temporarily this is a very disconcerting time, but at the end of the road I think it will result in a stronger organization.” (The Canadian Press)