Obit: Sylva Gelber (1910-2003)

Sylva Gelber, who gained national prominence in the late ‘60s as director of the Women’s Bureau in the federal department of labour, was an outspoken advocate of women’s rights who helped to introduce equal pay legislation, maternity leave and women’s pension benefits into Canadian society.

Known for her wit, humour and a love of music, stylish clothes and fast cars, she led a colourful life that included early stints in theatre and radio and 15 years as a medical social worker and government administrator in British-mandate Palestine, an experience she chronicled in No Balm in Gilead, an award-winning 1989 memoir.

The last-surviving of five distinguished children of Louis and Sara Gelber, a wealthy wool merchant and his wife of Toronto, Ms. Gelber died in Ottawa last month at the age of 93.

“She was an inspirational figure,” said radio journalist Elizabeth Gray. “She always made herself available to people like me who wanted to interview her at the drop of a hat. She was always clear and lucid and gutsy and very funny. She had a great sense of humour and was very feisty.”

“She was a fantastic feminist leader with a marvelous touch on issues,” said former journalist and provincial MPP, Evelyn Gigantes. “She never did just the blunt diatribe. She was always well researched and she made her points with wit.”

As an official with the national department of health and welfare, Ms. Gelber helped to establish universal medicare in the ‘50s. She also served as Canada’s representative on the UN Commission for the Status of Women and other international conferences in the ‘70s. But it was through her role as head of the women’s bureau from 1969 to 1976 that she made her greatest mark on Canadian society.

In that period of heightened social protest and change, she rose like cream to the top as she unceasingly prodded the medical establishment, universities, trade unions, large corporations and the government to tear down barriers that traditionally kept women from many professions.

She could always be counted on to turn a good phrase and to use statistics creatively. Women, she noted in 1969, held more than a third of all university graduate degrees in Canada but only 12.6 per cent of the managerial posts in industry. “It would seem that we educate our women only to make use of their high qualifications for clerical jobs,” she lamented, noting that 70 per cent of the clerical work force was female.

“Ask Sylva Gelber anything about the status of working women in Canada and she’ll give you an answer,” the Montreal Gazette observed. “No hemming or hawing or ‘approximately’ qualifiers. Just facts and figures, accurately stored in a filing cabinet mind and dispensed with her own brand of humour in a husky voice.”

A passionate proponent of fair and equal opportunities for women, she once explained that she never learned to type so as to exclude herself from the secretarial realm. She believed fervently that legislation was an important first step in combating discrimination, erasing prejudices, and initiating positive social change.

“You don’t tell people that they may not feel antagonisms,” she explained to the Globe and Mail 30 years ago. “But you can tell them that they may not show antagonisms, that they are anti-social acts. You don’t change attitudes in the beginning but you do change behavior. And in time, habits of behavior become attitudes.”

Known for her trademark red shoes, scarves, hats, handbags and lipstick, she was also partial to small sports cars, invariably red, which she drove “like a bat out of hell,” according to colleagues like Nola Landucci, who worked for her in the Women’s Bureau.

A talented singer and musician, she was famous in Ottawa, as she had been in Jerusalem, for the “Negro spirituals” she sometimes sang at social gatherings and on the radio; after retiring, she set up a home studio and recorded nearly a dozen albums of herself performing spirituals as well as Gershwin, Cole Porter and other popular tunes. She usually carried a tiny harmonica in her handbag in case the need arose for an impromptu song. Another expression of her love of music is the Sylva Gelber Music Foundation, established 23 years ago, through which the Canada Council awards an annual prize of at least $15,000 to one or more young classical musicians; currently endowed with $500,000, the foundation is expected “to increase by several orders of magnitude” under the terms of her will, according to administrator Tim Plumptre.

Born in Toronto in 1910, Sylva Malka Gelber attended Havergal Ladies College while her four brothers attended Upper Canada College; their parents, having experienced pogroms in Eastern Europe, were intent on integrating their children into wider Canadian society. “In sending me to this private school, my mother had hoped that I might learn to conform to the refinements which hitherto had seemed to elude me,” she explained in No Balm in Gilead, while admitting that she “showed little inclination to accept the role of a young, well-bred lady.” As Havergal’s only Jewish student, she never saw the inside of another student’s home and continued to mix socially “within the bosom of the Jewish community.”

After unhappy semesters at both the University of Toronto and Columbia University in New York, she was attracted to New York’s theatrical demi-monde, which she might have penetrated more deeply except that she was abruptly recalled home after the stock market crash of 1929. Two years later she directed and starred in a production of The Dybbuk at Hart House in Toronto; the play, considered part of the classic Jewish repertoire, focuses on a young woman who is possessed by a demon. Hector Charlesworth, theatre critic for Saturday Night, remarked that she “not only staged the play with impressive settings but acted the role of the girl Leah with remarkable skill, sincerity and power.”

Hoping to stem her daughter’s worrisome bohemianism, Sylva’s mother consented to her proposal to go to Palestine for a year, where she might at least meet a nice Jewish young man. (It didn’t happen: Ms. Gelber never married.) Soon learning Hebrew and some Arabic, she fell into the orbit of an influential Zionist pioneer, Hadassah founder Henrietta Szold, who put her to work as a medical social worker; she later served as a welfare case worker and probation officer. “During the last decade and a half of her life, Miss Szold’s friendship and counsel provided me with unfailing moral support, even on occasions when she did not wholly share my unorthodox view,” she would write.

In 1942 she joined the Palestinian administration as an “inspectress” of labour and was astounded to learn that several male colleagues with identical duties had been hired at higher rates of pay because they were men. “It was a measure of my innocence that I never knew that such a practice was usual,” she noted. But there were far more serious difficulties to contend with in Jerusalem in the closing years of the British mandate, an era punctuated by bombings by both Arab and Jewish extremists; days after her office was bombed in late 1947, she returned to Canada for good. She would later recall her amazement at seeing lush Canadian lawns, which possessed a greenness that seemed “quite out of this world” to her.

Ms. Gelber became a member of the Order of Canada in 1975, retired in 1978, and — yes — purchased a typewriter to begin typing her memoirs soon thereafter. She participated energetically in the Canadian Institute of International Affairs as well as in a Wednesday luncheon club for former cabinet ministers and civil servants. She received honourary degrees from Queen’s, Memorial, Trent, Guelph and Mount St. Vincent universities.

She was predeceased by her four brothers: Lionel, a Rhodes scholar, historian and foreign policy advisor to John Diefenbaker, who established an annual $15,000 non-fiction prize; Marvin, a former Liberal MP for York South and past president of the Art Gallery of Ontario; Arthur, a businessman and well-known arts patron; and Shalome Michael, a rabbi in New York.

She died on Dec. 9, 2003, and is survived by four nieces and their families. “It’s the end of an era,” said niece Patty Rubin of Toronto. ♦

Originally published in the Globe and Mail, © 2004