Rev. Darryl G. Gray's prepared remarks on Beryl Wajsman and
the Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal
Beryl Wajsman has done a unique service to this community in merging the assets of social action organization and media power to raise conscience and consciousness on the challenges that befall our most vulnerable citizens. His work is not theory. It is roll up your sleeves, get on the streets and get down and dirty to help folks in trouble. Along the way he has achieved many firsts.
(l-r) Rev. Darryl G. Gray, BPW, Quebec Minister of Immigration
and CulturalCommunities Yolande James,
Mayor Gerald Tremblay
Bringing some twenty years of political and community activism to bear, including service with Irwin Cotler in human rights and as his exec in Parliament, Beryl started his Institute for Public Affairs of Montreal almost a decade ago and it has become one of Canada’s broadest social advocacy alliances, and one which was the first to bring together thousands of national business, labor, cultural community and social action leaders in common cause for the unempowered and disenfranchised at home and abroad.
As editor-in-chief of The Suburban newspapers, publisher of Barricades Magazine and The Métropolitain, the first bi-lingual Quebec journals of public affairs since 1842 and as host of Montreal’s 940 AM newsmagazine “The Last Angry Man” and guest commentator on CJAD , he has used the fourth estate to buttress the work of his advocacy and rally thousands to pressure elected officials on behalf of individual cases and causes. When he was warned that there was no precedent for combining social action and media, his response was “Then we’ll create one” and we have. I say we because I have been proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with Beryl as he has with me.
with Father John Walsh and City Councillor Mary Deros
On the agenda of social justice in this country, Beryl operates through direct intervention bringing real solutions to the problems of real people. He has fed the hungry. Helped house the homeless. Fought racism. And relieved suffering. He developed model plans for some of the first social housing units constructed in Montreal over the past eight years. Forming a unique corporate-labor partnership, he attacked the problem of hunger by strengthening the Quebec Food Bank Network by increasing its capacity by tens of tons every several months. This effort of Beryl’s and his Institute was written up in the national press.
with community activists led by Gemma Raeburn-Baynes at right
Beryl’s work extends beyond Quebec. The Institute insured a flow of resources to the "Lawyers Feed the Homeless" program in Toronto which serves 1500 people a week. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina I was privileged to work with him to establish the first partnership between the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a Canadian NGO which saw the Institute, in concert with Hal Newman’s Team EMS, organize dozens of para-medics – more than most nations - to help in the SCLC’s Delta Relief Project in the wake of that tragedy’s devastation.
On racism and civil rights, particularly against visible minorities, Beryl has lent his voice in leading demands for justice in numerous cases. Both in the media and in person with elected officials, he has been a vital ally in keeping the pressure on for answers in cases ranging from the death of Rohan Wilson, the killing of Mohammed Benis, the Montreal North riots and so many other instances where citizens of colour face benign neglect at best and extreme prejudice at worst.
In the past year alone he has organized Canada’s leading Conference on the Darfur Genocide for the benefit of Save Darfur Canada. Participants included a who’s who of civil society. I am proud to say that among those he brought here was Charles Steele, Jr., President of the SCLC. It was the first visit by a sitting SCLC President to Canada. I should add that years ago Beryl organized the first inter-faith demonstration on Darfur, appropriately at Montreal’s Holocaust Centre, in which I participated.
With Irwin Cotler, David Kilgour and Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Beryl organized a mass rally in Ottawa for Chinese human rights. His Institute personally made possible busloads of Tibetan-Canadians being able to go to Ottawa. This past October, the Institute helped activist lawyer Brigitte Garceau and her Garceau Foundation stage what may have been the first multi-artist multi-charity benefit concert that aided frontline organizations fighting for children’s healthcare, against the scourge of hunger, and for an end to homelessness.
He has used his Institute network and his media platforms to help individual cases, as well as collective causes, at home and abroad. Using the press, political contacts and a multi-faith group of clerics he brought together, Beryl worked successfully to get an innocent Montrealer, Saul Itzhayek, released from unjust imprisonment in India. I was once again happy to be engaged with Beryl and Irwin Cotler as well as civil liberties champion Julius Grey in this redemptive struggle. But it was Beryl who took on Canada’s foreign affairs establishment directly. He did the same on the provincial level when his ceaseless attacks on the Public Curator resulted in the freeing of Erna Dietrich from an illegal curatorship. Fighting the health department, Beryl’s work secured RAMQ funding for Ella Marchildon, a mother of five, who finally got live-saving surgery in Washington and is today back in her Montreal home. Without intervention, she would have died.
With all this, paramount on his agenda is the fight against racism. In whatever form it takes. Beryl has continued to defend with vigour and resolve all the victims of this soul-deadening killer. He has attacked the false piety of reasonable accommodation, demanded answers in the Courtney Bishop assault and confronted police over the Gemma Raeburn affair. All those who are the victims of nullification and interposition could have no better champion.
Beryl and his Institute have responded to many requests for help from social action groups such as Dans La Rue, the Committee for Justice for the Duplessis Orphans, Sister Andrée Menard's PROMIS Refugee Organization, Share the Warmth, le Carrefour des communautés du Québec and the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Centre. Working with support groups for seniors, he helped organize the first major Conference that shed light on the issue of financial abuse of the elderly.
Beryl’s views and writings have appeared in many publications ranging from Time Magazine, the National Post, The Montreal Gazette, The New York Forward and the Jerusalem Post. He is a frequent commentator on radio and television and has appeared on CNN, CTV, CBC and Global. He is also a guest host and commentator on CJAD.
Beryl has received the Robert F. Kennedy Community Service Award from the International Academy of Law and Mental Health, the Medal of Merit from the Association for the Welfare of the Soldiers of Israel and was named as one of the Présidents d'honneur of UNICEF Quebec’s 50th anniversary celebration.
But perhaps as important as all that is that Beryl Wajsman has been able to teach all those who have rallied to his standard and fought with him at the barricades, some very important lessons. All those he has touched, and who have been touched by him, have learned to view the world through the eyes of its victims. He has taught us that the vulnerable are no less human and that the unempowered no less worthy of our compassion. These have been his greatest gifts. And as much as anything, that is what we honor today.