It was the late Rosemary Brown who said if she were ever to write a book about Canada and its people the first line would read: “Canadians are a compassionate and tolerant people – at least that’s what they tell me.” Things may have changed a little for the better since the first black woman to be elected to a senior parliamentary body in Canada made that statement close to 20-years ago. But not that much.
Rosemary ended her struggle for equal rights for women in April 2003 when her voice of reason was silenced by a heart attack. Some 13-years later Canadians continue to see themselves as members of a compassionate and tolerant nation – and there are all too few Rosemary Brown replacements to remind us, as she constantly reminded us, of our deficiencies in that regard.
In a speech on sexism and racism delivered February 1, 1990, at the University of Ottawa, Rosemary said racism and sexism were two words “which I keep hoping, quite frankly, will disappear from practice and certainly from discussion – but it doesn’t seem as though that’s about to happen. So far they have defied the passage of time and every method which has been utilized to eliminate them.”
Sixteen years later they continue to defy the passage of time. It is true in recent years many women have climbed a shade higher on the equality chart, but there’s still a long way to go before women, all women, stand fully recognized as equal with men. It is important to remember Rosemary’s call for equal rights was just that with the heavy emphasis on “equal” and not just for women but for all human beings.
As a member of the BC Legislature 1972- 1982 she gave as good as she got in the bear pit called the Legislative Chamber. She expected no mercy in the cut and thrust of the take-no-prisoners debates that rattled the Bellville Street precinct close to 45-years ago. She stood her ground even when facing the chain-saw rampages of Don Phillips – the MLA television reporter Andy Stephen nicknamed the “leather lunged, silver tongued, orator from the Big Sky country of the Peace.”
It was during a Rosemary speech decrying the state of health care in northern BC (and yes, it’s still a problem) while debating a vote of non-confidence in Premier Bill Bennett, that the prince of hecklers Phillips snapped: “You’ve never been north of Hope!”. Rosemary responded with a courteous “Did the minister say I’d never been north of Hope?” and Bob McClelland, chimed in: “You’ve never been north of Madam Runge’s”.
Madame Runge’s was a ladies’ fashion boutique in Vancouver. Rosemary, always elegantly dressed without making extravagant fashion statements, was outraged that a serious debate on health care problems in the north should become a discussion of her wardrobe.
“What nonsense,” she replied. “You are never correct about anything. That’s the reason we have (this) vote of non-confidence in the Premier, because he (like you) is so round about. He’s incompetent. You’re all incompetent – with the exception of the minister of human resources – who is (both) incompetent and ambitious. That’s the only thing that makes a difference from the rest of you….”
Then she zeroed in on Phillips referring to him as “the old roto-rooter himself called in to try and stall the debate” and adding a final zap she asked the assembly “you know what a roto-rooter does, don’t you?”
The Speaker thought her words improper and suggested she withdraw. Rosemary demurely did, but with a flickering grin of no regrets replied – “ (actually) I like the minister’s talent to be a roto-rooter …but it is an indication of how desperate they are over there when he stands up….and (is) suddenly talking about decorum….a topic of which he has no knowledge, no understanding.”
No one was safe when Rosemary rose in her wrath. When another minister rose to defend his Premier she dismissed him as a “limping minister offering lame duck support” having “the nerve to stand up on the floor of this House and throw up a smokescreen to clothe that Emperor of his who is never present….that unseen guest who floats in and out of here….floating like a bee and stinging like a butterfly….”
Highways Minister Alex Fraser tried a diversion: “Are you going to run federally?” he shouted at Rosemary: “Not as long as you’re here, baby. I’ve got to keep an eye on you,” came the taught reply.
Rival politicians were not the only ones to feel a Rosemary sting. In an interview on television I once launched a question so long and involved even I couldn’t remember what I was asking. Rosemary, who always knew exactly where tv cameras were pointing, looked through the lens into a million living rooms and sweetly responded: “Mr. Hume I’ll be kind. I won’t ask you to repeat the question.” I remained silent for the rest of the show.
Rosemary Browne, a rare woman who deserves to be remembered – not just by women for whom she fought so hard but by everyone who dreams of the day when the words sexism and racism will be erased from memory to be replaced by compassion and tolerance: and the age-old claim that all men and women are created equal can become reality.