By Melodie McCullough
There’s a small wooden box on a shelf in Rosemary Ganley’s Peterborough apartment. Each day, she opens it and adds to it — scraps of paper on which she writes about things for which she is grateful.
Her husband, John Ganley, died three years ago after 52 years of marriage; two years ago she sold the family home after 48 years; and then in January, Jamaican Self-Help (JSH), the aid organization she founded with John, was forced to close its doors after 40 years.
So many changes in a short span. So many good-byes.
“I am very grateful for this phase of my life.”
Yet, Ganley, 79, has welcomed this time with acceptance, appreciation and new adventures, including writing a book.
“I am very grateful for this phase of my life. Everything is a phase.”
And, yes, this phase still includes time for protest marching, placard waving, standing up and speaking out about what matters.
Ganley grew up in Kirkland Lake, Ontario, in a progressive family, raised Catholic and thankful for it. Since the age of 18 she’s been a feminist, and a social justice activist for as long as she can remember. She headed to the University of Toronto to become a teacher, and it was at a student social justice conference in Montreal that she met John, also a keen social justice believer.
They married in 1961 and lived in Dorval for 10 years before John decided he wanted to switch careers from chartered accountancy to teaching. They moved to Peterborough in the 1970s when he was hired by PCVS. Over the years, Rosemary has taught English at Crestwood, Lakefield College, and St. Peter’s Secondary School.
It was John’s initiative in 1975 that led them to Kingston, Jamaica, with their three young boys.
“He said, ‘Peterborough is a wonderful city, but it’s not all there is in the world’,” explained Ganley.
At the time, the Canadian International Development Agency was placing teachers overseas at Canadian salaries, and it was his credentials in both accounting and teaching that got them his position in Kingston, Jamaica.
“We knew nothing about Jamaica. But we were there three years and we thrived,” she said.
Ganley also taught there, in a high school and community college. What she really enjoyed was teaching a night school course on feminist theology in the Catholic Church, long a passion of hers. She found the Church in the third world progressive and “very agreeable” to her.
Through Jamaican friends who volunteered in the slums, the couple got involved in anti-poverty work. Friends from Peterborough who had visited them came back home and began fund-raising, achieving $25,000 in the first year. It was the start of Jamaican Self-Help, a grass-roots Canadian aid organization which emphasized global education and a celebration of the rich Jamaican culture, while listening, sharing and relating as equals to the people it was helping, “letting Jamaicans tell us what they wanted”, said Ganley.
When Jamaican Self-Help closed, “I was heart-broken.”
Even while the family spent another three years away, this time teaching in Tanzania, JSH kept growing. In 1983 CIDA began matching donations. JSH had several years with an annual budget of $450,000, opened an office, and hired staff.
But former Prime Minister Stephen Harper destroyed it, said Ganley. He believed international development was best done by industry and capitalists. The matching funds ended, and without them, JSH could not carry on.
“I was heart-broken,” said Ganley, “because of all the good that is yet to be done.”
But she strongly believes it affected Peterborough in a huge way, creating an openness in the community and acceptance for ‘the other’, such as the Syrian refugees. From 1984 to 2013, it sent 1,000 students on awareness trips to Jamaica for service and learning.
“I consider myself a spiritual searcher …”
“Our lasting impact is those students, who are now mainly in Canada and have an attitude of global inclusion, which they learned. We took global education very seriously. I think we contributed to an attitude in Peterborough that has led to the election of Maryam Monsef. We’ll take some credit for that.”
There have also been 12 Ganley Lectures over the years — annual talks featuring experts on international development and social issues.
“Overall it’s been a privilege to be able to have intervened and be welcomed and have sustained friendsips,” she said. “We did see a lot of development. So while I’m sad that more good couldn’t be done, I’m grateful.”
Ganley has recently published her book — Jamaica Journal: the Story of a Canadian Family and a Grassroots Aid Organization.
She calls it her “legacy project”, and it’s a collection of columns and first-person accounts about life in Jamaica she wrote for various publications, beginning in 1975.
“I thought it was a story worth telling. I thought it might be helpful to other groups that make links with other parts of the world, and I wanted to honour all those who have been involved.”
Ganley has recently published a book — her “legacy project”.
She’s had a long parallel career as a writer and editor, notably with the Catholic New Times, an alternative independent newspaper, writing progressive, feminist social critiques. It folded in 2006.
At present she writes weekly columns for the Peterborough Examiner, which keeps her focused and gives one more layer of purpose to her life, she said.
“I want to write in the public, so-called secular press and try to infuse ethics and values without preaching.”
Ganley meditates, attends fitness classes, has a close network of female friends, prays daily, and likes to take on new projects — the latest is a keen interest in all things Russian.
Through the years, she says she’s been blessed with energy, a sense of humour, good health, and “I don’t get discouraged easily.” She found a small apartment in her old neighbourhood, and while none of her sons or eight grand-children live in the city, modern communication technology has been another great pleasure, allowing her to connect with her family, and friends from years gone by.
“Becoming a widow has not been as painful as I thought, because I had a really empowering spouse,” she said, “who was a good model.”
Instead of focusing on fear and denial of death and dying, she is now “preparing to complete life”.
“I consider myself a spiritual searcher, and I do take spiritual life seriously. I believe in a divine spark, not the patriarchal god we’ve been taught about. As a culture, we’d be very impoverished if we did away with the religious impulse.”
And after a life devoted to social justice work — most comfortably at the grass-roots level working alongside other committed people — she’s not done yet, because, simply put, “You look at the world and you say, ‘it’s not what it should be.'”
*Rosemary Ganley is a Red Pashmina Inc. Woman of Impact*