Rosemary Brown: Opening Doors
“We must open the doors and we must see to it they remain open so that others can pass through” — Rosemary Brown1
The year was 1975. Russian cosmonauts shook hands with American astronauts after the US Apollo connected with the Soviet Soyuz 9.2 The CN Tower became the largest free-standing structure in the world, while construction was still being completed.3 While all of these events were monumental, there was another important, yet much quieter challenge being fought for ordinary citizens. In Winnipeg, Rosemary Brown, a woman of colour, was vying for the leadership of the New Democratic Party. Brown pushed the race to a fourth ballot and came in a close second behind the winner Ed Broadbent. Facing discrimination on two fronts, Brown challenged stigmas and opened doors simply by daring to do what no woman of colour had done before. Although her leadership bid was not the only admirable action taken by Brown, it illustrates how she worked tirelessly to break down social barriers and make Canada a better place, for all.
Born in 1930 in Jamaica, Brown immigrated to Canada in 1951 to study social work at McGill University. After completing studies at McGill, she moved to Vancouver to study at the University of British Columbia. There, she encountered racism and sexism first hand.4 When applying for jobs or looking for housing, she was often denied because she was a black woman. However, this discrimination was not the only thing that led her to fight for minority rights. During her early years in Vancouver, Brown joined two political organizations that shaped her views and fed her determination for equality. The British Columbia Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and Voice of Women were organizations that pushed against traditional gender and race roles.5 These two groups lit a fire in Rosemary Brown that would lead her to fight for equality through political office.
Brown entered politics in 1972 by being elected as an MLA for the New Democratic Party. A historic achievement, Brown was the first black woman elected to public office anywhere in Canada.6 Her daring act to step into an arena usually reserved for white men challenged the social expectations of the time. While winning the election was a major achievement, Rosemary Brown didn’t stop there. Once elected, Brown made two key pushes for the rights of women. First, she fought to remove sexism from textbooks used in BC schools. Second, she pushed for legislation to end discrimination based on sex or marital status. Both of these actions demonstrate a commitment to women’s rights for all women. Brown used her political office to attempt reform at all levels of society, from the sexist attitudes taught to children to how women were treated in everyday life.
After leaving politics in 1986, Brown continued her fight for women’s rights through her work with various advocacy groups. Chief among these was MATCH International, a foundation started by two other Canadian women to help fight gender inequality in developing countries. After serving as CEO of MATCH, Brown went on to become chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission from 1993 to 1996.7 These two roles illustrate Brown’s dedication to furthering human rights and ending inequality. This dedication did not go unnoticed. Brown was appointed to the Order of Canada in 1996 and received the United Nation’s Human Rights Fellowship in 1973 for her commitment to breaking down social barriers and promoting equality.8
Brown moved Canadian society forward by challenging expectations for women of colour and advocating for all women during her time in office. These actions helped create a Canada that was more diverse and inclusive. Her life was dedicated to providing more freedoms for women and paving the way for others to continue the fight. She made it possible for other women to push back against social norms and continue the fight for women’s rights. Rosemary Brown fought for equality not only through her career as a legislator but also in her advocacy work. Brown’s actions throughout her life helped move Canada toward a more accepting and open society, making it possible for women to “pass through” doors that were once closed.
1 Kovachis, Selena. “Get Inspired by These Quotes from Amazing Canadian Women.” Canadian Living, 6 Mar. 2017, www.canadianliving.com/life-and-relationships/community-and-current-events/mediagallery/get-inspired-by-these-quotes-from-amazing-canadian-women.
2 Pearson, Steve. “What Happened in 1975 Important News and Events, Key Technology and Popular Culture.” What Happened in 2006 Inc. Pop Culture, Prices and Events, www.thepeoplehistory.com/1975.html.
3 Mclean, Jane. “15 Reasons the CN Tower Is One of Toronto's Coolest Landmarks.” TripSavvy, TripSavvy, 17 Jan. 2018, www.tripsavvy.com/cn-tower-fascinating-facts-1481769.
4 Snyder, Lorraine. “Rosemary Brown.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 28 Feb. 2014, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/rosemary-brown.
6 Bollwitt, Rebecca. “Awesome Women in Vancouver History: Rosemary Brown.” Vancouver Blog Miss604, 7 Mar. 2018, miss604.com/2018/03/awesome-women-in-vancouver-history-rosemary-brown.html.
7 Snyder, Lorraine. “Rosemary Brown.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 28 Feb. 2014, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/rosemary-brown.
8 “Rosemary Brown.” Library and Archives of Canada, www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1343-e.html.
“Builders of Canada: Rosemary Brown.” CPAC, Laurie Few, www.cpac.ca/en/programs/builders-of-canada/episodes/50189845.
“Rosemary Brown.” Legislative Assembly of British Colombia, www.leg.bc.ca/wotv/pages/featured-women/rosemary-brown.aspx.
“Rosemary Brown.” Library and Archives of Canada, www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/women/030001-1343-e.html.
Bellett, Gerry. “B.C. Heroes: Rosemary Brown.” Www.canada.com, Postmedia Network Inc. 2018. All Rights Reserved., 3 Mar. 2011, www.canada.com/entertainment/television/tv-listings/heroes rosemary brown/4367987/story.html.
Bollwitt, Rebecca. “Awesome Women in Vancouver History: Rosemary Brown.” Vancouver Blog Miss604, 7 Mar. 2018, miss604.com/2018/03/awesome-women-in-vancouver-history-rosemary-brown.html.
Ito, Gail Arlene. “Brown, Rosemary (1930-2003).” The Black Past: Remembered and Reclaimed, blackpast.org/gah/brown-rosemary-1930-2003.
Kovachis, Selena. “Get Inspired by These Quotes from Amazing Canadian Women.” Canadian Living, 6 Mar. 2017, www.canadianliving.com/life-and-relationships/community-and-current-events/mediagallery/get-inspired-by-these-quotes-from-amazing-canadian-women.
Mclean, Jane. “15 Reasons the CN Tower Is One of Toronto's Coolest Landmarks.” TripSavvy, TripSavvy, 17 Jan. 2018, www.tripsavvy.com/cn-tower-fascinating-facts-1481769.
Pearson, Steve. “What Happened in 1975 Important News and Events, Key Technology and Popular Culture.” What Happened in 2006 Inc. Pop Culture, Prices and Events, www.thepeoplehistory.com/1975.html.
Snyder, Lorraine. “Rosemary Brown.” The Canadian Encyclopedia, 28 Feb. 2014, www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/rosemary-brown.