From the 1950s to 1970s, humanitarian Dr. Lotta Hitschmanova was arguably the most recognizable woman in Canada, a groundbreaking female leader and role model working in a male dominated society. It comes as no surprise, then, that so many of her supporters were exceptional women in their own rights, who identified with Lotta in so many ways. Margaret Brunette, a vibrant 97-year old Vancouverite when I met her in 2010, was one of these.
She first became a supporter of Lotta and the Unitarian Service Committee (USC Canada) in 1954, and continued for more than 60 years, for the rest of her life. We talked about USC’s founder, Dr. Lotta and how, as Margaret put it, “one person can indeed start something significant.”
[NB: in 2019, USC Canada changed its name to SeedChange.]
In many ways, Margaret was a groundbreaker in her own right. She graduated from UBC in 1933, at a time when few women attended university. She went on to a fulfilling career as an adult educator and librarian at the Vancouver Public Library.
Margaret also carried on a family tradition as a lifelong champion of social causes. Her dad was an educator and well-known human rights activist, Dr Norman F Black, who advocated for the rights of Japanese Canadians during World War II. Margaret had vivid memories of the Depression years. Her dad was a member of Crosby United Church in the 1930s, and of 300 church members, only one, her dad, had a job. In Vancouver, people helped each other in those days.
Margaret was also inspired by her sister, Mary Miller. Mary had responded to one of Lotta’s appeals for more blankets, and though not a Unitarian herself, she became a driving force with the volunteer group at the Vancouver Unitarian church.
Margaret told me that she appreciated the way USC had evolved over the decades and was particularly passionate about USC’s “Seeds of Survival” program:
“It’s an insurance policy that protects their dignity, and gives them a chance against changes brought on by climate change. Farmers must take great pride in finally being recognized for the richness of their seeds and diversity.”
USC’s work in remote, isolated villages, she added, “also appeals to the Scot in me!”
I asked Margaret what her secret to longevity was. She told me that she has never been bored, and has always kept her mind active. Thus, at the age of 96, Margaret decided to visit her ancestral home for the first time, the remote Hebridean Isle of Lewis, in Scotland. “I needed a bit of an adventure,” she said with a mischievous smile.
In addition, Margaret told me that since she lived not far from UBC, she liked to rent out rooms to women grad students, and greatly enjoyed the intellectual stimulation that they brought into her home.
She supported many causes, not just Lotta and USC, and when she turned 100, the David Suzuki Foundation produced this short video tribute to Margaret.
Margaret told me that it was easier to be non-judgmental in her later years, and she found it life-enhancing to read stories of small steps being made by organizations like USC, David Suzuki Foundation, and many others that she supported.
She stayed active well into her 100s, and at the age of 104 was a guest speaker at a New Westminster Teachers Union event commemorating a ground-breaking 1921 teachers strike that her father had been involved in. The memories of the backlash that her family experienced from that strike, as well as the value of workers organizations, remained with Margaret for the rest of her life.
May the memory of Margaret Brunette be a blessing and an inspiration for generations to come.