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Canada Oxfam chair was committed to ‘moving things forward’

Meyer Brownstone was a former head of Oxfam and an election monitor in South Africa for the historic election of Nelson Mandela.

Courtesy of the Family

A north Winnipeg boy who never lost his sense of local community, Meyer Brownstone became a citizen of the world, acting as an official observer in South Africa when Nelson Mandela voted in the election that made him president.

Recruited for Saskatchewan’s civil service under the new government of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF, the forerunner of the NDP), Mr. Brownstone worked under Tommy Douglas to implement medicare.

The results were not as grand as proposed – pharmacare as well as optical and dental care were to have been covered – and there was push back against the legislation, with a doctors’ strike.

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Nevertheless, Saskatchewan’s example spread to every province and territory and beyond.

In 1971-72, Mr. Brownstone was a consultant to the NDP government of premier (later governor-general) Edward Schreyer on the establishment of a single Winnipeg “Unicity” out of an assortment of towns and municipalities. While Mr. Brownstone proposed a citizen’s advisory council, a more run-of-the-mill amalgamation occurred, without a participatory element.

“In everything he touched, he had a far bigger vision than was implemented and that was both good and bad,” Lisa Brownstone said of her father, who died in Toronto on April 3 from influenza and pneumonia.

His son, Keir Brownstone, a manager at Toronto Community Housing, musician and longtime volunteer for community organizations, tells The Globe and Mail: “He wasn’t naive about having half his ideas shot down. He didn’t bemoan the fact that parts of South Africa’s leadership ended up being corrupt. He was still moving things forward.”

Meyer Brownstone was born June 6, 1922, to Charles Ishaye Brownstone and Olia Roseman in Winnipeg’s North End. He was the second of the couple’s four children. His parents were poor refugees from the fringes of the then–Russian Empire who had arrived shortly before the First World War.

The family was a mix of religious and secular socialist Jews. His uncle Benjamin Brownstone was a cantor and teacher at Winnipeg’s I. L. Peretz Folk School, which young Mr. Brownstone also attended. The boy shared with his uncle a love of music and took violin lessons. Mr. Brownstone also lived for a time with his grandfather, Aaron Moshe Brownstone.

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Mr. Brownstone was an athletic child, according to his brother Yehoshuah “Sheiky” Brownstone, though a mischievous one: “He gained early experience sprinting while trying to escape our father, and he was rarely caught.”

Charles was absent for most of Mr. Brownstone’s youth. The marriage was rocky and the household income precarious. Charles sold his business to pay off a brother’s gambling debt, Sheiky says, then moved around Saskatchewan working as an egg-candler, occasionally sending money to his wife.

Meanwhile, Olia supported the family, working as a seamstress, putting up lodgers and often caring for people with dementia, troubled children and, later, Holocaust survivors.

Sheiky recalls their house was also host to academics, opera singers and actors – an intellectually stimulating mix that taught Mr. Brownstone how to deal with diverse personalities.

As he grew up, Mr. Brownstone picked up odd jobs and became involved with campaigns for leftist candidates.

He worked on the farm of an uncle in St. Vital (now Winnipeg), until his uncle fired him for trying to organize the workers, primarily Ukrainian women, into a union. After graduating from St. John’s High in Winnipeg, he worked in the gold mines at Red Lake, in northwest Ontario, to fund a BSc in agriculture from the University of Manitoba, which he earned in 1944.

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At the mines, he encountered strong anti-union sentiment and associated with mainly Finnish and Italian workers who gave him further insight into labour conditions.

While at the University of Manitoba, he took an officer’s course with the Canadian Army, but the war ended before he was deployed.

In the fall of 1945, Mr. Brownstone started a master’s in agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota. Soon after, he married Raizie Tenenbaum, who had also been active in Jewish youth organizations in Winnipeg.

Upon graduating, he was offered two positions, according to Lisa: “one with what would become a huge American agribusiness, the other with the CCF.” The second one, to be on Saskatchewan’s Economic Advisory and Planning Board, came at the suggestion of Winnipeg politician David Orlikow and Mr. Brownstone leapt at the offer.

George Cadbury, of the famed Quaker chocolatier family, was chair of the board, essentially a think tank and talent pool for the new government. Mr. Cadbury would later recruit Mr. Brownstone to work with Oxfam Canada.

Mr. Brownstone wore many hats: economist, researcher, expert on municipal issues and speechwriter. He was involved in work on co-operatives, the electrical grid and other matters before medicare became a central focus.

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He then spent a year at Harvard University working on his doctorate under John Kenneth Galbraith. His dissertation was on government policy regarding agricultural income, but he frequently fielded questions about Saskatchewan’s introduction of medicare.

In 1962, after completing his PhD, Mr. Brownstone moved to Jamaica for a brief stint to serve as a UN adviser to the newly independent Commonwealth country, then returned to resume his role as deputy minister of urban affairs.

After the fall of the NDP to the Liberals in the Saskatchewan election of 1964, Mr. Brownstone moved with his family to Ottawa to serve on Lester Pearson’s Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism. The commission set the stage for the bilingual Canada we know today.

Soon after, Mr. Brownstone became a political-science educator at the University of Toronto, and after working on both jobs for a time, relocated to the Ontario capital. One of the founding educators in York University’s Faculty of Environmental Studies in 1968, Mr. Brownstone later returned to the University of Toronto.

After local and national involvement with Oxfam Canada, Mr. Brownstone became chair of the NGO, a position he held from 1975 to 1992. There was some rancour when he took over the reins, as the organization shifted “from giving people fish to teaching them how to fish and giving them a pole,” as Lisa puts it.

Through Oxfam and other organizations, Mr. Brownstone acted as a conflict and election observer in Africa and Central America, among other humanitarian roles. This was the work Mr. Brownstone was most proud of and the work that would win him the Pearson Medal of Peace in 1986, as Mr. Brownstone increasingly withdrew from politics and concentrated on development and community issues.

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Leo Panitch, professor emeritus of political economy at York University and Mr. Brownstone’s friend, admired his intellectual rigour, and that, unlike many leftists of the time, “he never got taken in by Stalin.” Mr. Brownstone’s increasing fatigue with politics was largely because “centralization robbed people of the capacity to do things themselves,” while his involvement with Oxfam allowed for direct community involvement.

Mr. Brownstone and his first wife separated in the early 1970s, divorcing in 1994. They had been drifting apart for some time and Mr. Brownstone subsequently married Diana Moeser, a health-care activist and administrator, who had been one of his students.

Mr. Brownstone’s most direct engagement at the community level came about through his work in Latin America, primarily surrounding the Salvadoran civil war and its overflow into Honduras. He became personally involved with many of the displaced people and on one occasion, locals could not bear to tell him that a girl who he had played with on his last visit had died of dysentery.

The documentary On the Road to Virtue chronicles Mr. Brownstone’s work in Central America using his photos from the time. The filmmaker, Peter Conrad, said Mr. Brownstone “remembered each photo, the names and the stories of everyone. He wasn’t just a good photographer, there was also a strong personal connection to each picture.” At the same time, Mr. Brownstone insisted he not be the focus of the film.

Similarly, people offered more than once to nominate Mr. Brownstone for the Order of Canada, but he refused.

In 1994, Mr. Brownstone went to South Africa to help set up and monitor South Africa’s first post-apartheid elections and was there when human-rights activist Mandela, who would be elected president, cast his vote.

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Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, who was also in South Africa at the time, said Mr. Brownstone had “an almost innate commitment to social democracy.”

Despite his much-stamped passport, Mr. Brownstone never did any sightseeing, Keir says. “It was as if he thought tourism would be morally wrong.”

After his retirement and especially after Ms. Moeser’s untimely death in 2013, Mr. Brownstone relied more on family, but gave as good as he got. A loving father and grandfather who never raised his voice, he took interest in his children’s activities and encouraged them in sports. His children nevertheless felt that they had “shared their father with the world,” Lisa said. “In his later years, we got our dad back.”

“His relationship with each grandchild was unique and special,” said his son Arni Brownstone, a curator at the Royal Ontario Museum. He delighted in tutoring his grandchildren and made every effort to be present for their milestones.

Mr. Brownstone kept working until the end, maintaining contact with friends from his many jobs and travels and staying an active member of local groups such as the Toronto Library Board, Rooftops Canada and Windfall (now Brands for Canada), where Mr. Brownstone replaced his son Keir as chair.

In his last year, he was working with his brother Sheiky to translate and edit an unpublished Yiddish-language novel their uncle Ezekiel Brownstone had written about the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.

“He could have kept working had he lived longer,” Keir said, “but he left nothing unresolved.” Mr. Brownstone likely caught the flu while attending a Tafelmusik performance of the St. Matthew Passion, and on his deathbed he still praised the quality of the concert.

Mr. Brownstone leaves his first wife, Raizie (née Tenenbaum), and their children Arni, Lisa and Keir Brownstone; his brother, Dr. Sheiky Brownstone; grandchildren and great-grandchildren; step-family with Diane Moeser; and a large extended family.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this obituary gave an incorrect name for Meyer Brownstone's uncle Benjamin Brownstone. This version has been corrected.
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