Remembering feminist writer and activist Catherine Macleod

Catherine Macleod at a launch for her book, Waking Up in the Men's Room. Photo: Vincenzo Pietropaolo

Between The Lines author Catherine Macleod died on March 8, 2021, International Women’s Day. The poet and playwright, feminist activist and labour organizer was the author of Waking Up in the Men’s Room: A Memoir, published by BTL in 1998.

The following year we published the first of several books by prominent photographer Vincenzo Pietropaolo. Catherine wrote the introduction to Vince’s Celebration of Resistance: Ontario’s Days of Action, the photographic legacy of a three-year campaign against a poor-bashing government intent on privileging all that is private. The Mike Harris regime had launched a determined assault on the public good.

For Catherine, the 1995-1998 demonstrations in which she played a central organizing role were a journey of democracy, a string of stories.

“It is said that the very first storytellers were those who invented the constellations,” she wrote. “These storytellers did not invent the stars, nor did they change them. What they did was change the way that people perceived the night.”

In 1986 Catherine co-founded Toronto’s Mayworks Festival of Working People and the Arts. Born into poverty in Glasgow, she maintained a lifelong commitment to promoting social justice, women’s rights, and working-class culture.

Attracted by the counterculture and a burgeoning arts scene, she moved to Toronto from Kincardine in the late sixties. When a boyfriend who was in law school advised her not to attend university because a “bourgeois education would spoil a working-class girl like her,” she immediately enrolled at the University of Toronto in 1971, taking the first Women’s Studies course on the road to her BA. She was among the women who co-founded the Canadian Women’s Educational Press, later the Women’s Press.

Catherine knew the power of the narrative. That underlined her contribution to Celebration of Resistance. “We cannot talk of stories,” she wrote in her introduction, “without talking about power.”

The union-organized demonstrations that included the biggest protests in Toronto history, could not help but attract attention. I’ll never forget the time I told her of my disappointment when a street protest we’d attended was small, ignored by the media.

“But we saw each other,” she replied.

An innate wisdom and happy self-awareness underpinned Catherine’s relentless focus on the bright side. A key asset for any organizer.

For her, Ontario’s Days of Action – and the labour movement itself – demonstrate the way people see their individual and collective selves. “They help us see ourselves as part of a cohesive community. They show what private citizens can look like when they act in public.”

Catherine Macleod leaves her husband Martin Quinn, her son Grayson Taylor, her adopted daughter Katheryne Schulz, her stepson Joe Quinn, and two grandchildren.

Kingston writer Jamie Swift is the author of a dozen books, most recently The Vimy Trap, or How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Great War (with Ian McKay), finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing and the Canadian Historical Association Prize for the Best Scholarly Book in Canadian History. He has held the Michener Foundation fellowship for public service journalism and was a longtime documentary producer for CBC-Radio’s “Ideas.” In addition to the writing life, he is a social justice advocate. He taught “Critical Perspectives on Business” at the Smith School of Business, Queen’s University for many years.