Betty Kobayashi Issenman: Author. Researcher. Activist. Mother. Born Jan. 12, 1921, in Winnipeg; died March 10, 2020, in Bedford, N.S., of kidney failure, aged 99.
Betty was the second child of a Scottish mother and Japanese father. Her mother was abusive and when her parents separated when she was 12, she described it as the happiest day of her life. She and her older sister, Mary, went to live with their father, often taking care of themselves while he was away on business, while her younger brother, Gordon, remained with their mother.
Betty enrolled at McGill University at age 15, having skipped two grades in school. She received her BA in 1940 and her diploma in social work two years later. As an activist, she was invited to join the Young Communist League at a time when not just anyone would be accepted as a member.
When left-wing performers came to Montreal, they would be hosted by local comrades, and Betty was able to meet luminaries such as Langston Hughes, Paul Robeson and later, Pete Seeger.
When the Second World War broke out, Betty wanted to serve her country and applied to join the army. As a social worker, she would have entered as an officer, but was rejected on the grounds that soldiers would never agree to salute a Japanese person. She was devastated.
She met her future husband, Arnold Issenman, on the day of his first wedding, as she was delivering papers to a fellow party member. After he returned from serving overseas and getting a divorce, Betty and Arnold married in 1947. Their daughters Joanne, Ellen and Peggy were born over the next decade.
Betty wanted to instill a social conscience in her children. Bedtime stories included books such as Animals That Work Together, family singsongs featured We Shall Not Be Moved and Union Maid, and it was suggested that a portion of their weekly allowance should go to the poor. Their multicultural heritage (Arnold was Jewish) was something to be celebrated, and nursery school was at Montreal’s Negro Community Centre.
It wasn’t easy being a Communist in Quebec in the 1950s. Under the provisions of the Padlock Law, any premises being used to spread “Communist propaganda” could be closed down. In 1951, four burly members of the Red Squad arrived to confiscate books from their home, taking mainly those with red covers, as well as an heirloom Gaelic Bible. Betty, Arnold and most of their friends left the Communist Party in 1956 when Stalin’s crimes were revealed. They remained politically active, supporting many of the same causes – social justice, anti-racism, feminism – and becoming early members of Amnesty International.
When her daughters were older, Betty began volunteering at the McCord Museum. While cataloguing, she came upon numerous items of Arctic clothing without much information. She realized that the collection of Inuit clothing had never been properly researched and she developed a passionate interest. For her research, Betty and Arnold flew to the Far North often as they both had their pilot’s licences. In 25 years of study, she published dozens of articles, gave lectures and organized exhibitions. Her 1997 book, Sinews of Survival, is considered a seminal text on the subject. For her accomplishments, she was named to the Order of Canada in 2002.
Betty was always a softly spoken but determined person, rejoicing in the company of friends and family. Her New Year’s Eve Peking duck was legendary. As a grandmother, she showed her more playful side and devised The Naughty Book with her granddaughter, with photos of Katie climbing into the dryer and sitting with her feet up on her mother’s desk. The only time Betty’s demeanour slipped was when beavers caused flooding and destroyed saplings at her beloved Laurentian cottage. Incensed, she described the beavers with a strong expletive – jaws dropped all round.
Joanne Soroka is Betty’s daughter.
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