Remembering Jan Armstrong, a rabble-rouser from the start

Photo: Alan Lennon

All her life, Jan Armstrong was a strong voice fighting for equality and fairness, and she backed her words up with action. She was also a very dear friend. Jan Armstrong died on August 20, 2014 at 64. 

Jan's contribution to rabble.ca was invaluable. She served on the rabble.ca Board of Directors from 2006 to 2009, one of the people who kept the rabble.ca site running.

She was born in Ottawa, educated at Glebe Collegiate and earned a bachelor's degree in Canadian History from Glendon College. After graduating, she spent several years as a Federal government employee administering assistance programs for museums and art galleries across Canada. She later did the same for training programs for unemployed workers, with a focus on women, youth and disabled workers.

Jan got involved with her union, the Canada Employment and Immigration Union, while she was working with training programs. She began as shop steward, and later held regional positions in the early days of women's committees and women's conferences. She ended her career as a national representative for the Canada Employment and Immigration Union, a component of the Public Service Alliance of Canada. Jan's specialty was helping members to get workplace accommodation when they needed it. She was known as a tireless fighter for the workplace accommodations to which workers are entitled.

Jan lost both of her parents as a young adult and faced her first fight with cancer shortly after that. Instead of being crushed by these misfortunes, she became even more the optimist, forging an ever stronger connection with her brother Hugh and her sister-in-law Pat as well as her nieces Jill and Sarah. These were the family connections that sustained her throughout her life.

Jan always maintained a deep connection with a diverse crowd of friends in Ottawa. It sometimes baffled her Toronto circle of friends -- what is a 'tacky gift exchange' anyway? Why did they have one every year? Whatever that celebration, Jan took home the prize for "tackiest gift" most years.

Jan moved to Toronto for love. She met her husband Alan Lennon at a union convention in Halifax in 1987. After a brief long distance relationship, they decided they were made for each other and made a home together in Toronto, along with Jan's two truly evil cats. Jan had the deep compassion, dogged determination and gourmet cooking skills that Alan loved all wrapped up in a very attractive, strong woman. In Alan, Jan saw a kind, equally determined social activist and a great Dad. Jan and Alan had found the magic. They married in April 1990. The magic stayed with them over the next 24 years.

Jan and Alan remained committed activists, participating in innumerable campaigns and actions for social justice.

rabble.ca was especially dear to Jan's heart. She was at the founding launch in 2001 and facilitated the Public Service Alliance of Canada's role as one of the site's Founding Folk. She also supported rabble.ca with money and by bringing people to all the fundraising events. Jan was full of ideas for the rabble.ca mailings, and often even brought free stamps. As a member of the board she contributed ideas and encouragement, especially around ever-present issues of fundraising.

When the Alliance Party led by Stockwell Day said they would support a referendum on any issue if three per cent of the electorate requested it, reaction in the media was swift. Rick Mercer started a petition, suggesting that Stockwell Day change his name to Doris. Jan and her son Graeme suggested that we use the momentum of his petition to create a fun campaign for rabble. We asked people to donate to a pool to guess the date of Stockwell's name change. It was one of rabble.ca's early successful fundraising campaigns.

Jan had fun at rabble.ca but she did not shy away from hard work. She also spent hours on tasks such as building contact lists and wading through grant proposals. She encouraged Graeme to become involved in the technical side of the site. Together they made a strong contribution to the growth and integrity of rabble.

Everyone at rabble who knew Jan will remember how much fun she was. She was the heart of every party, arriving with generous servings of wine and cheese. She was also generous with her praise and her laughter. She had an intelligent, dry sense of humour but that didn't prevent her from being delighted by good slapstick. Her enjoyment of life was totally contagious. I don't even like Mr. Bean, but I remember being on the floor laughing while watching Mr. Bean with her. She was just plain fun to be around. 

The last few years of Jan's life were tough. She lost most of her eyesight and had to deal with the many changes and challenges that accompany cancer treatment. She was amazing through it all. When a white cane became her constant companion, she jokingly named it Francois, and I swear Francois had a little bit of her beloved Paris in him.

We've lost one of the lovely sparks that makes the social justice movement shine with hope. So many of us will miss her so much.

But Jan was an optimist and an enjoyer of life. She agreed with Emma Goldman's statement "A revolution without dancing is not a revolution worth having." Jan would not have sat still, focusing on the loss and sadness. She would have hired a band and started the dance. 

As the first Web Mistress, Jane Will oversaw the initial launch of rabble.ca. She was a member of the board for several years and helped rabble to survive the startup period. She worked with five of rabble's editors and remains friends with many babblers and rabble-rousers.

Photo: Alan Lennon

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