May the spirit of “56 Sparks Street” guide us to a better place!

“And if they didn’t leave, would it be out of the question to imagine Lotta fearlessly starting her own private protest, right there in the middle of all those big rigs and burly protesters?”

Yesterday, after a massive 3-week protest and occupation in downtown Ottawa, an equally massive police operation cleared Wellington Street of protesters and vehicles.

In addition, protesters were moved out of the Sparks Street pedestrian mall. Yes, that same pedestrian mall housing perhaps Canada’s most famous address: 56 Sparks Street. Made famous by Canadian humanitarian Lotta Hitschmanova.

Lotta was a WWII refugee to Canada who literally changed the social landscape of her adopted homeland. Continue reading

Clyde Sanger’s 1969 profile of Lotta Hitschmanova

I have just come across a 1969 book that Clyde Sanger wrote two decades before his biography of Lotta Hitschmanova: “Half a Loaf: Canada’s Semi-Role Among Developing Countries” (The Ryerson Press).

One chapter highlights USC Canada’s work in Korea, in which Clyde provides an insightful profile of Dr. Lotta, excerpted below.

And as you can see, Lotta bucked the trend of other agencies sending Canadian “experts” overseas; it was a source of pride for her that all of USC’s programs were run by locally-engaged staff in partner countries. Continue reading

Remembering Clyde Sanger (1928-2022), Lotta’s Biographer

Fans of humanitarian Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova will be saddened to learn that her biographer, Clyde Sanger, passed away in Ottawa on January 20, in his 94th year.

Sincere condolences to Clyde’s family and many friends and colleagues around the world.

In their lengthy tribute to Clyde, Carleton University notes that “The world has lost a great writer, professor of journalism and champion for Africa and the global South.”

I share this deep sense of loss, but also celebrate Clyde as a mentor and friend, spanning more than four decades. Continue reading

How about this iconic trio for our next Canadian $5 bill?

It was 2 years ago (January 2020) that a call went out to nominate iconic Canadians to appear on our next $5 banknote, and it was 14 months ago (November 2020) that a shortlist of 8 candidates was released.

Selecting a single individual, as was the case for Viola Desmond and the $10 banknote, can be a very challenging task, with so many worthy candidates.

So to help move things along, I’d like to offer the following suggestion to Finance Minister Chrystia Freedland and her advisers at the Bank of Canada and the Department of Finance:

To select Terry Fox, Lotta Hitschmanova and Isapo-muxika (Crowfoot) to appear together on our next $5 banknote.

Continue reading

Lotta and the Unitarian Connection – Part II

Each November 28, thousands of Canadians celebrate the birthday of beloved humanitarian, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990). This year, there is a second celebration, as the Canadian Unitarian Council celebrates its own 60th anniversary this week. The two celebrations have much in common.

In Part I of the “Lotta Unitarian” story, I asked the question how a World War II refugee, born into a Jewish family in Prague, Czechoslovakia, could became such a revered figure (a “saint”) for Unitarians in Canada?

Here’s a recap of the “Lotta Unitarian story,” as sketched in by Lotta’s biographer, Clyde Sanger: Continue reading

No Stamp for Lotta!

Dear fans of celebrated humanitarian, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova, CC (1909-1990), I have some disappointing news to share.

A couple of years ago, I started a “Let’s put Lotta on a Stamp” petition that has now grown to include 1,420 signatories. In June of 2020, I made a proposal to the Stamp Advisory Committee of Canada Post as follows:

That Canada Post create an ongoing “Refugees to Canada Who Made a Difference” commemorative stamp series, launching this series in 2022 with a stamp honouring Dr. Lotta.

Today I have received an official response from Canada Post thanking me for my proposal and announcing Canada Post’s 2022 Stamp Program. Continue reading

“My Dad was Dr. Lotta’s travel agent, and life-long friend!”

Today we welcome guest blogger, Jennifer Keane, who shares her reminiscences of her family’s connection with celebrated humanitarian, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990).

Vancouver Province – June 29, 1959 – Fisk family moves to Tokyo

“I had the great good fortune to spend important years, 1959 to 1962, of my life in Tokyo. My father, Fred Fisk, was manager of the Tokyo office of Canadian Pacific Airlines.

“Lotte Hitschmanova visited Tokyo during this time, likely en route to Korea. My father met Lotte early in our stay, perhaps 1960, helped her arrange her travel and became a devoted friend. Continue reading

“My Dad was Dr. Lotta’s Physician”

Today we welcome guest blogger Calla Fireman, who shares her story (originally published in the Ottawa Citizen) about her family connection with celebrated humanitarian, Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990).

The story concerns her father, Dr. Harold H. Fireman (1919-2020).

Dr. Fireman was born and raised in Toronto, graduated from the University of Toronto Medical School in 1942, spent over 4 years with the Canadian Air Force as a medical advisor mostly in Newfoundland, before returning to a long and successful career in Internal Medicine in Ottawa.

“I’ve enjoyed reading about Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova as I have a family connection to her. My father, Dr. Harold H. Fireman, was Lotta’s physician in Ottawa for many years. Continue reading

“My Mom was Dr. Lotta’s Caregiver”

Today we welcome guest blogger, Sharon Wells, who shares her touching memories of the time when her mom was Lotta Hitschmanova’s caregiver during the years (1983-1990) she was tragically afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease.

Continue reading

Remembering Lotta on International Women’s Day

Hear Lotta’s voice again: “Development often starts with a woman. Support leadership programs for women through the USC, 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa.”

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a time here in Canada to celebrate the achievements and lasting legacy of remarkable women like Lotta Hitschmanova (1909-1990), currently one of the eight nominees to appear on the new Canadian $5 bill.

Lotta’s story is heart-wrenching: Born in 1909, she grew up in a Jewish family in Prague. A journalist by profession, and an outspoken critic of the Nazis she had to flee her Czech homeland in 1938. For four years she was forced to wander about Europe, eventually finding her way to Marseilles, where she worked with refugee support groups.

She lost both parents in the Holocaust, and in 1942, after a 46-day voyage on a converted banana boat, she arrived penniless in Montreal – “with an unpronounceable name, [feeling] completely lost.”

In the depths of her personal tragedy, she could have given up. Instead, just three years later, in 1945, she founded the organization to whose humanitarian mission she would dedicate the rest of her life: the Unitarian Service Committee (USC Canada, now called SeedChange).

Something sparked her, deep inside. She was driven by an indefatigable energy to make the world a better place, and inspired thousands of Canadian supporters to join her in this crusade.

Half the year she was travelling. She personally visited all the USC programs overseas: first in post WWII Europe, then the middle East, Asia and in the 60s and 70s, newly-independent countries of Africa. And she made a gruelling, annual tour across Canada, to share stories with volunteers and donors on how the money was being spent overseas.

She had many nicknames, including the Soldier of Peace, for she always wore a distinctive army nurse’s style uniform wherever she went.

She was sometimes called the Atomic Mosquito. She never took “no” for an answer, and by her sincerity and the force of her personality, she was able to gain the support of people from all walks of life: homemakers, farmers, civil servants, newspaper publishers and even prime ministers.

Quite remarkably, as a refugee to Canada, Lotta became the most prominent woman of her generation! Her TV and radio PSAs in the 60s and 70s were legendary and made USC’s Ottawa office at 56 Sparks Street the best known address in the country.

But more than that, she pushed hard for women’s development around the world, decades before this became a common approach of international development agencies.

In particular, she felt strongly about young women and girls. Once their basic food, shelter and clothing needs were satisfied, Lotta and USC were at the forefront of ensuring that they were offered meaningful educational opportunities, skills training and leadership training.

She also mobilized and empowered a whole generation of Canadian women (including my own grandmother Mary Rain in Winnipeg), who joined her cause and indeed made it all possible, through the thousands of volunteer hours that they put in for USC.

Here is how Lotta’s biographer, Clyde Sanger, so aptly put it:

“Before many other agencies, [Dr. Lotta] was particularly concerned with the improvement of the position of women….

“I doubt that Dr. Lotta would ever have described herself as a feminist at any stage of her life….

“But it is intriguing that the staff she worked with in Ottawa for 25 years were all female, that most of the USC representatives she chose in Asia were women…and that a surprisingly high number of project leaders were also women.

“As well, the USC branches and working groups across Canada were mostly women, while men cheerfully headed for the background and basement where the packing cases were. It is not that men found it difficult to work with such a strong-willed ascetic woman….

“Rather, it seems to have been an instinctive desire on her part to bring out the leadership qualities she knew were in so many talented women she met, and an intuition that their ideas on human development would match her own.”

Thank you Lotta, for your inspirational and ground-breaking leadership, and Happy International Women’s Day!

David Rain