Judy Rebick – A Woman of Courage

 Born in Reno, Nevada then spending her early childhood in New York City, Rebick’s family moved to Canada when she was nine-years-old. An early supporter of left-wing political activism, she wrote for the McGill University paper, the McGill Daily, while completing her undergrad degree. She became involved in counter-culture activism and the bohemian lifestyle of the day both in Montreal and after moving back to New York City in 1968. Members of Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead once crashed in her apartment.

She was surprised and angered by the sexism exhibited by many male counter-culture leaders. Rebick courageously undertook a solo backpacking adventure through Europe and the Middle East where she saw even more blatant expressions of racial and aggressive gender discrimination.

Upon her return to Canada, Rebick was among those who led the Revolutionary Marxist Group and its successor, The Revolutionary Workers League. The Trotskyist groups were part of the New Left movement that argued about tactics but agreed that if Canadians were to enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from discrimination then democracy had to be reformed with power wrestled from the male, white, elite who controlled political parties, corporations, and the media.

Rebick’s activism led to her involvement with the Waffle, the radical-left caucus within the New Democratic Party. Founded in 1969, the Waffle argued that the party was wrong in abandoning its socialist beliefs in its attempt to attract more mainstream voters. Rebick argued that to protect Canadians against the powerful elite that ruled Canada and American influences that threatened its survival, the party should proudly advocate radical socialist ideas. Rebick ran for but failed to win the NDP’s presidency. In the 1987 Ontario provincial election, she advocated Waffle ideas as the NDP candidate in a Toronto riding but placed third.

Women’s right to control their own bodies through access to birth control and abortion was an important aspect of the Canadian women’s movement in the 1980s. Rebick earned public recognition for her work as a pro-choice spokesperson for the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics. In 1983 she and abortion advocate Dr. Henry Morgentaler were walking toward a new clinic that he was about to open in Montreal when an anti-abortion zealot sprung at Morgentaler with a pair of garden shears. Rebick quickly intervened, saving Morgentaler from harm.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Rebick was also the Canadian Hearing Society’s Special Projects Director. She later explained, “I made things happen. All my work is making changes. That’s what I do.”

Judy Rebick

(Photo: The Globe and Mail)

The National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) was formed in 1971. It is a federation of over 500 women’s groups with support from over 700 unions, churches, and grass-roots community organizations that became Canada’s most influential feminist lobby group. From 1990 to 1993, Rebick was the NAC’s president. Under her leadership, the NAC successfully pressured the government to bring about changes to improve the lives of women through legislation regarding what constituted consent in rape cases, pay equity, and greater access to abortion and rape-crisis centres. The NAC successfully fought against the Mulroney government’s Bill C-43 which sought to restrict a woman’s right to an abortion. Rebick also led the NAC’s support for the Mohawk of Kanesatake who, in what became known as the Oka Crisis, were protesting to stop the expropriation of their land. Under her leadership, the NAC stood against the Meech Lake Accord and then the Charlottetown Accord, arguing that the proposed constitutional amendments would decentralize power to the provinces and thereby threaten social programs, many of which help women.

The national exposure earned by her NAC presidency led to Rebick becoming a commentator on television and radio, a cohost of Face-Off, a CBC-TV news and debate program, and then on a program focusing on women’s issues called Straight from the Hip. In 2001, Rebick co-founded and, until 2005, was the editor of rabble.com, an influential multi-media web site that encouraged debate on a range of progressive social issues.

Meanwhile, Rebick contributed articles to a number of newspapers and magazines and was a sought-after public speaker. She wrote four books and co-wrote another including 2009’s Transforming Power in which she contended that old left-wing parties were no longer bringing about positive change. She applauded, “…a bottom-up, diverse, compassionate, collective approach to social change in which issues and communities were coming together and producing something new and powerful.”

The Sam Gindin Chair in Social Justice and Democracy at Ryerson University was created to provide “a hub of interaction between social justice activists and academics.” Judy Rebick was the first Sam Gindin Chair. Among her initiatives was a three-day sleep-over at Ontario’s legislature to bring attention to Indigenous efforts to protect their land from unfair and illegal corporate resource extraction. She created Ryerson’s Anti-Racism Taskforce, the Toronto Social Forum to fight for social justice in the city, and organized international conferences bringing political activists together from around the world.

In 2018, Rebick released a memoir entitled Heroes in my Head. She wrote that throughout her life she had suffered bouts of debilitating clinical depression and dissociative identity disorder which involved eleven distinct people living within her. Therapy revealed that the multiple personalities were her mind’s defensive reaction the suppressed memory of having been sexually abused by her father beginning when she was only five-years-old. She explained, “I thought [the book] would help other women to know that someone like me, who most people see as strong and competent, has suffered from male violence and mostly recovered. I also believe our notions of mental health are still quite problematic. We stigmatize, criminalize and marginalize people with mental health problems.”

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