“You need a spark, and boom, it happens,” says Judy Rebick
They flew in from Los Angeles and Tel Aviv and places in between, about 170 McGill Daily veterans and spouses, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of that venerable college newspaper.
Most were satisfied to renew personal ties and remember days of youthful commitments and abandon, to reminisce, reconnect, reflect.
Not Judy Rebick. She was busy Friday morning taking part in her regular gig on CBC radio’s highly rated Q media panel, with Toronto Star publisher John Cruickshank and Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente.
The subject was media coverage of the Occupy movement and of course Rebick had gone to check out the scene first hand.
Not the usual suspects, she noted—this was new and exciting—and catching fire worldwide.
Rebick was on the Daily staff from 1964-67 while studying for her bachelor’s in psychology. At 66, she is known across Canada as an activist, journalist, feminist leader, writer, new-media innovator, lecturer, current-affairs critic and indefatigable campaigner for a more just society.
How the salesman’s daughter became one of Canada’s best-known activists and social critics will be told in her soon-to-be-published autobiography, which she completed in eight months.
“When I say I’m going to do something, I always do it,” she noted. It will be her fourth book.
Rebick found a like-minded community at the Daily.
“The Daily became my life, a bunch of misfits who didn’t fit in anywhere else. We really all connected, and (1965-66 editor in chief) Patrick MacFadden was a big influence.
“So was (managing editor) Joy Fenston, because she was a woman editor and I could see there were women who were doing men’s jobs successfully.”
Rebick became involved with the New Left, democratization and free speech when a student editor was fired after he revealed that a professor had been doing research for the Pentagon. After a tough battle, spurred on by Rebick and others, Sandy Gage was reinstated.
“We went from a handful of radicals on the Daily to big demonstrations and mass meetings. It had a profound impact on me. It’s like we’re in that moment now: All of a sudden something happens, occupying a park on Wall St. sparks a global movement.
“You need a spark, and boom, it happens.”
In Toronto, Rebick freelanced for the CBC and the Star Weekly, where she wrote a story about the then-revolutionary act, now commonplace, of young people living together without being married.
“The idea then was that it was just hippies, weirdos and freaks that were radical—things were changing among ordinary people, the people next door.”
But she soon realized that the media, with its “drunks and hypocrites,” was not where she wanted to fulfill her ambitions.
After working as a researcher at York University, Rebick moved to New York City, where the 1960s “revolution” was flying off in many directions.
Yippies Abby Hoffman and Jerry Rubin were “crazy, unbelievably sexist,” a meeting of Students for a Democratic Society ended in a fistfight, and Caucasians were no longer welcome in the formerly bi-racial civil rights movement.
“I lived alone and became very streetsmart, never got into trouble, and partied all the time. But when the girl upstairs from me got murdered, I decided it was time to do some traveling.”
She went to India, through Turkey, Iran and Afghanistan.
“It was really, really rough. I got very sick in India, but after seeing all this poverty, especially in eastern Turkey, I had an epiphany. I decided, if I get better, I’m going to dedicate the rest of my life to changing the world.”
Back in Toronto, Rebick went to bat for a coalition called Grass Roots—youth services and drug treatment run by youth for transients.
This was the beginning of the crusading Judy Rebick, organizing and standing up for the powerless and downtrodden beyond the campus.
Rebick moved on to found Crunch, an unemployed-youth co-op. She became more political, rejected Canadian nationalism, studied Marxism, became a Trotskyist, worked for a hearing society in her “day job,” then in an aircraft factory, had a negative reaction to the chemicals there, and suffered a clinical depression.
She then quit the political group which, as often happens, was more involved in sectarian issues than political action.
The very next day, she recalled going to a founding meeting of the Ontario Coalition for Abortion Clinics when she was nominated to the co-ordinating committee. “I didn’t want to do it, but I did it.” And that cause took over her life.
When Rebick started supporting Dr. Henry Morgentaler, her leadership and communications skills again were noticed and she was invited to run for president of the National Action Committee for the Status of Women. Suddenly her words were making the front pages.
“Brian Mulroney organized these independent think-tanks around the Charlottetown Accord. I realized that ordinary people are so smart, so thoughtful, and they weren’t ideological. People would listen and change their minds, and it totally changed my politics.
“I realized I was an elitist. Even though I was far left, I thought I knew better than most people.”
This experience in 1992 got her interested in such non-Marxist concepts as participatory democracy and citizen engagement. She also pushed controversial affirmative action inside the women’s movement to set aside seats for people of colour and aboriginals.
She was catapulted into an academic career when she taught political science at University of Regina—courses in policy and women in politics, surprising since she did not have a master’s or PhD.
When Peter Gzowski needed a “Western voice” on his Morningside political panel on CBC radio, Rebick returned to journalism as a broadcaster.
“I knew a lot about federal politics, and my big mouth served me well.”
That gig led to her becoming the “left-wing” host of the CBC TV show Face Off, with right-wing journalist Claire Hoy. To maintain neutrality, Rebick had to give up her activism. She then hosted Straight From the Hip, a women’s afternoon talk show for CBC.
In spite of the neutrality requirement at CBC, “They let me MC the Days of Action rallies against (former Ontario premier Mike) Harris.”
She began writing an online column for CBC and contributed to various newspapers. After receiving a flood of emails when she opposed the war in Kosovo, she got the idea of starting the online Rabble.ca website, insisting that half the contributors should be under 30.
Rebick is not shy about her achievements and rhetorical prowess. “I can hold my own, or better, going head to head with prime ministers, so even academics respect my intellect.”
Judy Rebick is the the author of Transforming Power, From the Personal to the Political (Penguin), which anticipated the Occupy movement in calling for new forms of collection action.