Years ago when I was a wide-eyed reporter starting my journalism career, I met Jennifer Wade. My recollection of our meeting is dim, but I know it centred on social activism. How could it not? Since the early 1960s when Wade became involved in the civil rights movement in the U.S. state of Georgia, where she also taught writing at Emory University, Wade has devoted her life to human rights and social justice. Her work has included: co-founding the Vancouver chapter of Amnesty International in the early 1970s; sitting on the boards of the Elizabeth Fry Society and SOS Children's Villages; ongoing Amnesty cases including that of Leonard Pelletier, a Native American man serving what has now become a 37-year-prison term for two murders Amnesty believes he didn't commit; and the imprisonment of Dr. Wang Bingzhang, a founder of the Chinese overseas democracy movement who was convicted in 2002 of terrorism and espionage in a closed-door, one-day trial without legal representation. Bingzhang, who earned a PhD in pathology at McGill, also has the backing of Liberal MP Irwin Cotler who started a petition in 2010 to secure his release from a Chinese prison.
Her work didn't go unnoticed. In 1995, she was presented with the Renate Shearer Award for her "outstanding contribution to human rights in British Columbia." In 1996, the University of New Brunswick honoured her with a doctorate for her international justice work. She's also been investigated by the RCMP for her Amnesty and civil rights work.
Many years have passed since I first met Wade, but her passion for social justice hasn't wavered, though she's ready to slow down. At 76, she'd like to spend more time with her five grandchildren. And she admits to "arriving late and leaving early" at too many events, if not oversleeping and missing an event entirely. "I'm tired now and I want so much more time with my grandchildren and more time to just read and write." (If people are keen, she could use some help on the many cases she works on daily.)
I reconnected with Wade last week at Brock House where she helps to organize a lecture series. You can't help but remark on Wade's sparkling blue eyes, offset by pure white hair, when you first meet her. Wearing pearl earrings, a white shirt underneath a knitted mohair sweater she found half finished at a rummage sale, Wade is the quintessential grandma we'd probably all like to have - gentle, curious and with endless wisdom to dispense. Take Wade's philosophy on life: "We have to work for others to do whatever we can to make life better in small ways. It's in small ways I work all the time."
We sat in a quiet room and had a wide-ranging conversation that touched on the shocking story of the mistreatment of an aboriginal boy in government care in Prince George who was Tasered by police when he was 11. "How can this happen in Canada? There should be outrage about it," said Wade. "This is the place where we should be speaking out and speaking loudly. The [B.C.] government creates this family holiday and lets this boy fall through the cracks. It's astounding. Where were the people who were supposed to watch out for him?... As I get older, I think more about the children - children in North America are simply not a precious commodity."
Wade, who raised two sons and a foster daughter, still believes in building an SOS Children's Village in the Lower Mainland where orphaned children and children in care can live in a home-like environment where a "house parent" provides a continuity of care in the home and where siblings could stay together. "Canadian Family Villages is my name for it," she says. "They did build one in Surrey for kids who were not wanted elsewhere, but that's not the point of the Village. It was to prevent the kids from getting into trouble in the first place. It worked for kids after the war. We really have to start looking at something new. The whole system is failing and it's just getting more and more expensive."
(Since 1949 when medical student Hermann Gmeiner founded SOS Children's Villages Austrian after witnessing the suffering of orphaned and abandoned children after the Second World War, Villages can be found in 130 countries.)
An ongoing source of pride and pleasure for Wade is the Jennifer Wade and Family Endowment Fund, which provides scholarships and bursaries to former children-in-care, children of prisoners, children of immigrants and children who've undergone hardship to study at the post-secondary level. She calls the small awards ($300 to $400) "motivating scholarships" and strives to meet each recipient. Since 1996, 127 students have received money. "The very first recipient was a foster child," she says.
After our conversation, Wade sent an email that included a quote she shared with her grandchildren on Valentine's Day. I hope she doesn't mind if I share it here. In Antoine de Saint Exupéry's The Little Prince, the Fox says: "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one case see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye." Lucky grandkids. firstname.lastname@example.org twitter.com/HughesFiona