R.I.P. Lucia Kowaluk

I learned this morning that Montreal activist Lucia Kowaluk passed away on Friday. She was 84.

I first crossed paths with Lucia when I wrote for Montreal’s Hour Magazine, a weekly alternative newspaper. I wrote a lot about housing and homelessness and I remember her writing at least one congratulatory letter about something I’d reported on.

In 2008 we met in real life when she hired me as a part-time community development worker, organizing social events for a social housing project in NDG. She was on the board of that organization and was the main spokesperson for the hiring committee.

I learned later that she took pity on me and hired me because she felt I needed a job, not necessarily for my abilities. I’m proud and stubborn and felt pretty insulted when she told me that. An American by birth, she was always a straight talker.

We didn’t always get along. She couldn’t understand why I felt it was important to seek tenant permission before publicly posting photos from a tenant Christmas party. She didn’t like it when I failed to fill out paperwork detailing each and every encounter I had with tenants.

I only worked 16 hours a week and I found it impossible to visit the tenants in apartment buildings located all over NDG, deal with the office, meet with Lucia, field phone calls, write reports and attend board meetings, supervise McGill social work students who hosted a seniors’ lunch in the tenant centre etc. I found the job very trying because there were politics between staff in the office of the social housing non-profit organization and its board of directors. I was caught in the crossfire and I needed her help to cut through all sorts of frustrations. I couldn’t get into the 35 buildings I was supposed to serve because no one would give me keys. The office initially refused to tell tenants I was working for the organization and tenants didn’t know who I was. I had no credibility and door knocking in the apartment buildings didn’t work at first.

She listened to my complaints but I think she found me whiny. A trained social worker (I believe she taught social work at McGill), Lucia faced down developers when the La Cité project threatened heritage buildings in Montreal’s Milton-Park neighbourhood in the 1970s. The co-op she co-founded, the Milton-Park Housing Co-op, is now the largest housing co-op in North America. To name just a few of her many accomplishments in 50+ years of community involvement and activism: she campaigned for nuclear disarmament, managed homeless shelters, helped found Heritage Montreal, co-founded Montreal’s Urban Ecology Centre, founded alternative publishing house Black Rose Books with her partner, Dimitri Roussopoulos, and just plain got involved with every life she ever touched.

It’s no surprise to discover she was awarded the Order of Canada and the Order of Quebec in 2014. While we lost touch in 2010, I kept seeing her in the news. For instance, Lucia spoke out when Montreal Allouettes football games disrupted the peace and quiet of her neighbourhood. She recently fought to keep a developer from wrecking the Notman House Garden and asked the City of Montreal to turn sites such as the old Hôtel-Dieu hospital and its buildings into co-op and community housing.

She had strong opinions. I remember her expressing annoyance when the Urban Ecology Centre replaced native plants she’d lovingly procured with other, non-native plant species. If she didn’t like my attitude or the way I was doing something, she’d tell me. She told me to get a Kanuk winter coat and buy it in July when they have a sale. When I knew her she wore a purple men’s winter coat. She didn’t care about fashion, she wanted to be warm.

She was incredibly generous and loving as well. She gave tenants tickets to events she thought they’d be interested in. I remember attending a fundraiser for the Stephen Lewis Foundation’s Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign —she was one of their proud “grandmothers.” As I remember, every January she headed to Vancouver to see the son she’d adopted and proudly raised.

Most of all, she was unstoppable. As someone else said, she wouldn’t take no for an answer. She kept her eye on her goals and with steely determination, reached for them. We need more people like her. She will be missed.

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