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Dr. Meyer Brownstone

By GERRY POSNER With all of the talent produced from within Manitoba’s Jewish community (and it is considerable), surely included in this list - perhaps at the very top, would likely be one of the greatest social activists of them all: Dr. Meyer Brownstone.

To read about his life is to read about a man who has devoted almost all of his now 96 years to help underprivileged individuals around the world. He is one person about whom one can say, though he would never say it himself, that he has made a difference to this planet.


Born in 1922 to Charlie and Olia Brownstone, cousin to most of the Brownstones in Manitoba, also to the Henteleff and Isaacovitch families, Meyer was raised in an environment filled with an unyielding passion for the underdog and underprivileged. He came by it honestly, as both his parents championed the cause of those who suffered. But, poverty was a reality for the young Meyer Brownstone and that fact obviously had an imprint on him. Yet, what was probably even more significant to the young Brownstone was a gold mining job he took in Red Lake, Ontario where he came in contact with real hard working men, also where he had his first exposure to unions and anti-union activity. Meyer though was able to enrol in university eventually and earn a Masters degree in Agricultural Economics at the University of Minnesota.


In 1946, he received a call which would forever change his life. Meyer moved to Regina to work on the Planning Board of the Province of Saskatchewan at the age of 25. He was then married to his first wife Raizie, with whom he had three children: Arnie, Lisa and Keri. Meyer stayed in Regina for 17 years, playing a major role in the planning and implementation of Canada’s first medical care scheme which, at the time was highly controversial and politically charged. During those 17 years he was a senior civil servant in the then CCF-NDP Saskatchewan government. Meyer also served as director of a monumental Royal Commission on Agriculture and Rural Life, later moving on to become the Deputy Minister of Municipal Affairs, where he began the process of negotiating the method of restructuring local governments. During his tenure in Saskatchewan, he was also given leave to attend Harvard, where he obtained his doctorate in Political Science, Public Administration and Economics... all this from a North End Winnipeg boy.


It was during his tenure in Saskatchewan that Meyer was dispatched to Jamaica as a UN expert to review the local government system there. When the Liberals defeated teh CCF at the polls in Saskatchewan, Meyer joined the Department of Political Economy at the University of Toronto. Simultaneously, he was appointed to be research supervisor for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in Ottawa. Those two gigs took some juggling. If that were not enough for this public servant, he was soon asked to go for six months to the newly formed East African republic of Tanzania as a member of a Political Commission on Decentralization, working in the office of the then-president, Julius Nyerere, one of the most prominent African leaders at the time. His short stint there helped shape Brownstone’s future, as he became committed to the struggles of third world nations. In fact, this ultimately led him to the next and most important part of his life as the head of OXFAM in Canada in 1975. During this period, Meyer was also appointed to York University as a founding professor in the new and pathbreaking Faculty of Environmental Studies (where he continued for seven years) while still continuing his responsibilities at the University of Toronto. And hard as it is to believe, in his 25 years at the U. of T., Meyer did not take a single sabbatical leave.


But, not to be overlooked in his career was his involvement right here in Manitoba where he served as a consultant in 1971-72 to the late Saul Cherniack, who was the minister in the Ed Schreyer NDPgovernment responsible for establishing what was known as “Unicity.”


But, it was Oxfam that really cemented the Brownstone persona. That experience, working with so many people in underprivileged areas, moulded the man. Crucial to his line of thinking was - and still is, the notion that the best way for any government to function is to be immediately connected with people and in a very decentralized manner. At Oxfam, Meyer was deeply involved at first in conflicts in Central America, particularly in Honduras and El Salvador, and in missions to Nicaragua. Later, Meyer played a key role in a number of international observer missions in South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique and Eritrea. In fact, Meyer was the head of a Canadian team that included Ed Broadbent, Iona Campagnola and the late Flora MacDonald and which monitored the pre-election period in South Africa when Nelson Mandela came to power. Meyer had the signal honour of being the only NGO observer to witness Mandela voting for the first time in his life and then congratulate him on behalf of the Canadian people, all of which was recorded by the South African Broadcasting Commission.


Thus, Meyer was in 1986 an obvious choice to be awarded the prestigious Pearson Prize Medal, established in 1978 by the United Nations Association in Canada to honour the name of former Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson. That selection was made by a jury of eminent Canadians and Meyer is one of only 30 recipients to receive the prize to date. He is in good company with such other notable recipients as Lloyd Axworthy, Stephen Lewis, General Romeo Dallaire and Ursula Franklin, for example.
Meyer has been through many battles and yet, at age 96, I detected no willingness to slow down in his pursuit of justice and a better life for the less fortunate... a remarkable man indeed.