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Mairuth Sarsfield at the United Nations in New York.
Mairuth Sarsfield at the United Nations in New York.

Obituary

Mairuth Sarsfield: From Little Burgundy to Expo 67 Add to ...

Mairuth Sarsfield’s remarkable life took her from the newsrooms of Montreal to the Canadian bestseller lists, by way of New York, Nairobi and Papua New Guinea. A black Canadian born in Montreal in 1930, 10 years before women in Quebec could even vote, she travelled the world as a diplomat and storyteller, breaking new ground along the way.

“There are always people who have come before, opening doors for the rest us,” says Ms. Sarsfield’s friend, broadcaster Rita Deverell. “Mairuth was a door-opener.”

Mairuth Sarsfield died May 7 in Toronto, following complications from stroke. She was 83.

Best known for her autobiographical 1997 novel No Crystal Stair, which was featured on the 2005 Canada Reads contest, Ms. Sarsfield was also a diplomat posted abroad for the Department of External Affairs, and a key figure at both Expo 67 in Montreal and Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan.

She was one of the co-ordinators of the Canadian pavilion in 1970, which led to some confusion among the Japanese hosts. At a ribbon-cutting ceremony, a Japanese official called for the Canadian delegate to step forward. “I’m here,” said Ms. Sarsfield. The Japanese official looked past the elegantly dressed 40-year-old black woman in front of him, and continued searching for the Canadian representative. Ms. Sarsfield, not entirely unfamiliar with this kind of behaviour, stepped forward to take the scissors.

Discrimination, which she overcame with quiet charm, was the background noise rather than the central furor of her life. When she published her first and only novel at the age of 66, some critics wondered why she hadn’t painted a bleaker picture of life in Little Burgundy, the black neighbourhood in Montreal that also produced Oscar Peterson (whose sister was Ms. Sarsfield’s piano teacher.)

As she told one interviewer, “Being black is a lot of fun – or can be. You don't have to bellyache to write a good book.” Yet the novel, about a widowed cleaner called Marion Willow trying to raise her two daughters, is full of quiet tension. Pippa, the eldest daughter (and Sarsfield stand-in) hides the library’s copy of Tom Sawyer because she doesn’t like how Mark Twain describes black characters. Men with college degrees are forced to become Pullman porters, the best job available to them.

Years after the book was published, Ms. Sarsfield would complain about a Museum of Civilization gala where white actors were hired to play railway porters; the historical inaccuracy rankled.

The novel almost disappeared. It was a word-of-mouth hit for Stoddart Publishing in 1997, but was a victim of the publisher’s collapse five years later. Stacks of the novel languished in a warehouse, until it was rescued and republished by Women’s Press in 2005.

“She was a force of nature,” remembers Jack Wayne, who was president of Women’s Press. “At the age of 75 in 2005, the year I worked most closely with her, she travelled widely and had many projects on the go. That year, she was interested in black pioneers in British Columbia, a movie project, and was always involved with her family.”

No Crystal Stair (the title is taken from the Langston Hughes poem Mother to Son) sold 18,000 copies after its rebirth, thanks largely to its spot in the 2005 Canada Reads competition. Olympic fencer Sherraine MacKay defended the novel, which she loved for its “compassion and hope, its inspired outlook on life, and its glimpse into the black community, which is so rarely talked about in Canada.”

For her part, Ms. Sarsfield marvelled at the pairing of No Crystal Stair and its champion: “She’s a white girl born in Alberta, and she loved the book.” Although Ms. MacKay defended the novel with fierce parries and thrusts, it was tossed out on the third day of the competition. (The winner was Frank Parker Day’s Rockbound, a novel about the lives of Nova Scotia fishermen in the years before the First World War.)

No Crystal Stair was set in Little Burgundy, where Mairuth was born on March 6, 1930. Her mother, Anne Packwood, a teacher and member of the Coloured Women’s Club, was determined that Mairuth and her sister, Lucille, would have as much exposure to music, art and museums as the family could afford. Mairuth’s father, Dan Vaughan, was not in the picture (there are family rumours that Mr. Vaughan had a second, secret family.)

After completing her degree at Sir George Williams College and McGill University, Ms. Sarsfield went on to study journalism at Columbia University. She spent some time working in advertising, and landed a plum job at Montreal’s exciting new TV current affairs show, The Hourglass. Her work as a broadcaster took her through the CBC, as a researcher and on-air host.

While working as a researcher, she was invited to work at Expo 67. She wrote the text accompanying The People Tree, a towering sculpture featuring faces of people from across the country. “All over the world, things were going wrong,” Ms. Sarsfield told an interviewer. “But Expo 67 was when Canada came of age. It was the first time young Canadians were on our own creatively – not imitating the United States.”

Ms. Sarsfield joined the civil service, and was posted as an information officer to the United Nations in New York. Above her desk was a sign: “Illegitimi non carborundum,” or, “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” Over the years she gained a master’s degree from the University of Ghana and was named Chevalier de l’Ordre nationale du Quebec.

By the mid-1980s, Ms. Sarsfield was back in the world of broadcasting as a governor at the CBC, the only black woman at the time to sit on the board. But she stepped down from that role when her daughter, Jennifer Hodge de Silva, a promising documentary filmmaker, became ill. Ms. Sarsfield had already lost her son, Jeremy, who crashed into a snowy lake in 1983; her daughter died of breast cancer six years later.

“It was devastating to her,” says Jennifer’s daughter, and Mairuth’s granddaughter, Zinzi de Silva. What kept her grandmother going, she says, was devotion to volunteer work (she was active in the international women’s development charity MATCH, and taught literacy to prisoners, among other pursuits) and her own career in writing and broadcasting. “What set my grandmother apart was her graceful hustle,” says Ms. de Silva. “She thought it didn’t matter where you came from, the dedication to work would lead you to greater opportunity.”

In 1975, Ms. Sarsfield, whose first marriage to academic Cullen Hodge had fallen apart, married for a second time, to Welsh RAF veteran Dominick Sarsfield. The wealthy flier had spotted her swimming in an Ottawa pool and returned poolside every day for a month until he spotted her again.

With her husband, who was the business director for the Canadian International Development Agency, she lived in Nairobi, where she worked for the Department of External Affairs, and in Papua New Guinea. The latter provided her with the setting of her second manuscript, I Murdered Margaret Mead, which Ms. Sarsfield never got around to publishing. She was too busy doing everything else.

Ms. Sarsfield leaves her husband, Dominick Sarsfield, her sister Lucille Cuevas, her son-in-law Paul de Silva and her granddaughter Zinzi de Silva.

Follow on Twitter: @lizrenzetti

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