Gil Levine: The ultimate mensch

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Last week I received an e-mail from Gil Levine, a legendary union leader, founding member of CUPE and a wonderful man. He was writing to say that he was fatally ill. He died a few days later on Nov. 16 at the age of 85, still vigorous and politically active. He said "This is probably the hardest email I've ever sent, as I need to let you know that I am gravely ill." Still he wrote that e-mail, so like Gil to think of his legions, friends and comrades even as he and his family were struggling with this terrible news.

He asked us to reply to his family who would read him our e-mails. Sam Gindin who was Research Director at the CAW when Gil had the same position at CUPE replied to Gil's family to pass along how much "he achieved and especially how much he taught us -- not just what he said but what he always was. Whether passing on an idea or passing on a joke, whether indignant or cheering a small gain, Gil was always so present and even at this moment."

Gil was active in the trade union movement and the left and throughout the dark days of the 50s and early 60s. No doubt he was delighted to see a new generation of radicals emerge in the late 60s. Prominent Marxist intellectual Leo Panitch remembers a friend and a mentor:

"Politically, I especially admired his rank and file activity in the Ottawa Committee for Labour Action. That an overwhelmingly busy and prominent national figure in the Canadian labour movement would do this was indeed a truly rare example of socialist egalitarian commitment and comradeship. What an example, what a standard, Gil Levine always set."

Gil also mentored young people in CUPE. Morna Ballantyne who continues to be active both in the labour and women's movements was hired by Gil in CUPE's research department. "Gil Levine will live on in so many of us who grew up in CUPE under his watchful eye and guiding hand. He sharpened our vision, nurtured our passion, and gave us courage."

Canadian Dimension publisher Cy Gonick told me "Gil was a mentor to me as he was to many of us. I never saw Gil compromise on a matter of principle or avoid confrontation when it was needed. Gil was always strategizing."

I first met Gil when he asked me to speak at a CD fundraiser in Ottawa in the 1990s. He organized these gatherings of the Ottawa left every year for 22 years inviting a progressive leader to speak. After that, I was on his list and glad to be so.

In the month of October, I received several e-mails from Gil forwarding articles about the injustice of attacks on Goldstone whose report accused Israel of war crimes, the Montebello incident where an agent provocateur was outed by a video and reminding us about a PBS show with Joan Baez. A few months ago he sent a hilarious e-mail about growing up Jewish in the 1950s that included lines like "The only good advice that your Jewish mother gave you was: 'Go! You might meet somebody!' You grew up thinking it was normal for someone to shout 'Are you okay?' through the bathroom door when you were in there longer than 3 minutes."

He remained politically engaged as a unionist, a left-wing activist and a Jew critical of Israel right until the end. He was also a strong supporter of women's rights. Maybe it was because his wife of 62 years Helen has been an active feminist all her life but I don't think I ever met a man of Gil's generation more deeply committed to equality for women. Gil was at every rally or demonstration I went to in Ottawa. His warmth, passion, enthusiasm and open heart was something rare and wonderful especially in the often sectarian world of the unions and the left.

In remembering him his family wrote:

"He was happiest when he was fighting for change, winning rights for workers and organizing everybody...He mentored and befriended many and brought people together in remarkable ways. His work, his passion for social justice, his humour and his caring will never be forgotten. Gil wanted to live forever. In all of us who loved him, he will."

The tributes have been many. "Few people were as dedicated to Canada's working people as Gil Levine," said CUPE National President Paul Moist. "Gil has truly been the heart and soul of our union and its predecessor for over 50 years," added CUPE National Secretary-Treasurer Claude Genereux. Former CUPE 79 President Jeff Rose called him "a giant of the Canadian labour movement."

But my favourite tribute came from some friends of the family in an online condolence. "He was the penultimate mensch," they said. Mensch is a Yiddish word meaning a really good person. Actually I think he was the ultimate mensch. You can leave your memories of Gil too.

How can we best remember Gil? "His death leaves an enormous, unbearable hole that can only be filled by all of us doing what he did best -- creating opportunities to make a difference, getting people to think and act, connecting people and ideas, and living life to the fullest," Morna Ballantyne.

Judy Rebick is the author of Transforming Power: From the Personal to the Political and a blogger at rabble.ca.

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