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obituary

Brigitte Neumann.Courtesy of NSACSW

Passionate about creating an equal and inclusive society, Brigitte Neumann spent decades fighting to improve working conditions, safety and political opportunities for women.

“The women of Nova Scotia owe her a debt of gratitude,” said Kelly Regan, Liberal MLA for Bedford Basin. “So many women have been beneficiaries of her work.”

Ms. Neumann, who died at the age of 75 on Nov. 4 at the Halifax Infirmary following complications from a stroke, was the executive director of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women from 1996 to 2009. For eight years before that she served as director of the province’s Women’s Directorate, which was responsible for developing legislation and government programs relating to women.

Known as a direct, no-nonsense woman who worked hard and never backed down from a challenge, Ms. Neumann excelled at administration, organizing events and drawing people together to work collaboratively. She understood that her feminist work was part of a lengthy timeline that would continue long after she had exited the public arena.

“We stand on the shoulders of our mothers and grandmothers … we do that reflecting back on the women who lobbied long and hard to get us the vote, who worked hard to get us decent working conditions, who worked hard to get good family policies. We stand on their shoulders, and so will our daughters and granddaughters stand on ours,” Ms. Neumann said in a 2017 video celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Advisory Council, which has a mandate to bring issues affecting women to the provincial government’s attention.

Born in the town of Neuoetting in Bavaria, Germany, on June 7, 1946, Brigitte was the eldest of Hans and Emma Neumann’s three children. Conscripted during the Second World War, her father served as a medic in the air force. Life was difficult in postwar Germany; so, in 1955, the Neumanns immigrated to Canada. After arriving in Halifax by ship, they made their way to Orillia, Ont., and later to nearby Midland, where Brigitte spent her school years. Being German in a small town wasn’t easy. Neighbours assumed they were Nazi supporters and didn’t welcome them immediately into the community. Emma, who had trained as a banker, had difficulty finding work and often described being lonely during her early years in Canada. Hans found work as a painter, working for a lighting company.

“Immigrating to Canada, she saw the struggles her mother went through and [those of] other women,” said her niece, Anita Balsewicz.

Ms. Neumann with Marcie Shwery-Stanley. Ms. Neumann was the executive director of the Nova Scotia Advisory Council on the Status of Women from 1996 to 2009.Courtesy of the Family

After high school, Ms. Neumann moved to Toronto, where she studied sociology at the University of Toronto and later completed her master’s degree at York University. She worked for a time as a sociologist conducting research on a range of issues involving immigration, health services and community planning.

In the mid- to late 1980s, after a divorce, Ms. Neumann moved to Halifax with her son. She fell in love with the landscape and believed she could make a difference in the province through her work.

During her time with the Advisory Council, she worked tirelessly to achieve fair pay and pensions, reduce the high rates of violence against women in the province, help victims of sexual assault and promote women’s health and well being.

She was also part of the collaborative research project A Healthy Balance: A Community Alliance for Health Research on Women’s Unpaid Caregiving, which brought together more than 25 researchers to examine how women’s work affects health.

As a divorced single mother, she understood deeply the challenges of child-rearing while working full-time. In 2006, she was instrumental in bringing together more than 100 people at a forum to discuss caregiving and develop new strategies and policies.

“Once she set a goal, she very easily – with a lot of work and with a team – achieved it,” said Marcie Shwery-Stanley, a friend and disability advocate based in Sydney, N.S. “She wasn’t a person who would talk about something and not get it done.”

Ms. Neumann was a key player in creating a campaign school to encourage women to run for political office and to break down barriers faced by women pursuing leadership roles in politics. She believed more women had to enter the political arena for the achievement of true gender equality. Close to 20 years ago, Nova Scotia still had a long way to go. In 2003, she decried its distinction as the province with the fewest female politicians in the country, with only four of its 52 legislative seats held by women.

“We’re at the bottom of the barrel on this one,” she told the Halifax Chronicle Herald.

Long after she retired, she continued to encourage women to run for office, participated in campaign colleges, and offered counsel. She also served as president of the Nova Scotia Women’s Liberal Commission.

“She was just unflagging in her support of women in politics,” Ms. Regan said. “She was just one of those people you could count on.”

In 2009, Ms. Neumann helped to establish a bursary at Nova Scotia Community College, which she believed would be another catalyst to help women prosper. It has helped more than 100 women entering science, trades and technology complete their education.

At the housing co-op where she lived in Halifax, Ms. Neumann would often retreat to her reading chair. Nearby she had a stack of books about politics and women’s history. A practising Buddhist, she also enjoyed meditating.

“She was inspirational,” Ms. Balsewicz said. “She reminded me that there is no limit for women.”

Ms. Neumann leaves her son, Adrian; brothers, Hans Albert and Christian; niece, Anita; and nephew, David.