Cleta Brown vividly remembers the “joyful” night her mother, Rosemary Brown, became the first Black woman elected to a provincial legislature in Canada.
She was a young girl at the time, but recalls the explosion of tears and applause as the results came in on Aug. 30, 1972.
“I remember delirium, just a lot of shouting and clapping and crying,” said Brown, standing in the Vancouver park named after her trailblazing mother. “Exuberance.”
New Democrat Rosemary Brown won in Vancouver-Burrard 50 years ago — a landmark moment for women and racialized people in Canadian politics. She was re-elected three times.
According to her daughter, Rosemary faced many obstacles in her path to success, including some suggestions at the time that running for office was “going above her station.”
As a feminist, university counsellor, social worker and Jamaican immigrant, however, Rosemary was determined to improve the lives of women and minority groups in Canada.
“She always said she thought she was going to win, but you don’t know. It was a new thing,” Brown recalled. “I think it was an incredible achievement … she really burst through the ceiling.”
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In the legislature, Rosemary spearheaded many efforts to improve the social and working conditions for marginalized peoples, including legislation to prohibit gender-based discrimination. In 1975, she ran for leadership of the federal New Democrats and came second in the race after Ed Broadbent.
Prior to life in politics, she had helped found the B.C. Association for the Advancement of Coloured People and the Vancouver Status of Women Council, where she served as ombudswoman.
After politics, Rosemary became chief commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, a professor of women’s studies at Simon Fraser University, and a celebrated author and public speaker. She also helped create the Canadian Women’s Foundation, became CEO of the MATCH International Women’s Fund.
“I feel incredibly proud of her achievements,” her daughter said. “I really feel proud of the fact that she was such an inspiration to so many people and changed the landscape.”
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For many years, Brown said women and people of colour would approach her mother on the street to tell her how much she had inspired them.
Rosemary died in Vancouver in 2003, with 15 honourary doctorates, the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia, and several other accolades to her name, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. In 2009, she was immortalized on a stamp that pictured her in front of the B.C. legislature in Victoria.
“She was pretty amazing,” Brown said. “I think (her) legacy is inclusion in terms of who can be at the table and who should be at the table.”
It’s an important legacy to celebrate, she added, both to appreciate “what we have in the present,” and avoid “making old mistakes in the future.”
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Brown is now following in her mother’s footsteps, running for office in B.C.’s municipal election in the fall. She is seeking a Vancouver council seat under the TEAM banner, and running on campaign values she hopes her mother would appreciate: transparency, human rights and democracy.
“I hear her voice. I just feel so lucky, so blessed to have been Rosemary’s daughter. I hope she can be proud of me,” she told Global News.
The municipal election is on Oct. 15.
With files from Global News’ Jordan Armstrong
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