TORONTO — The United Jewish People’s Order and the Winchevsky Centre relaunched the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund for Children at a recent fundraiser held at the centre.
The fund awards grants to children and youths whose families are negatively affected as a result of their parents’ social and political activism.
Pitawanakwat, an Ojibwa, died in 1995, and had worked for seven years in Regina with the federal government. She was fired after lodging complaints of sexual harassment and racial discrimination in 1984.
She eventually won a 10-year legal battle, but died of breast cancer before the fund, originally part of the Rosenberg Fund for Children (RFC), was initiated.
The RFC was founded by Robert Meeropol, the youngest son of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, who were convicted of passing nuclear weapons secrets to the Soviet Union and, in 1953, were the first American civilians executed for espionage.
The Pitawanakwat fund became a separate entity co-ordinated by Pitawanakwat’s daughter Robyn, and Naomi Binder Wall, until 2005, when they could no longer maintain it.
Speaking at the fundraiser, Meeropol, who has retired as executive director of the RFC – his daughter Jennifer has taken over, – but still works there, said he is “delighted that UJPO and the Winchevsky Centre has taken the fund under their wing. I see this match as a perfect one.”
He said that Mary Pitawanakwat first contacted him in the early 1990s when she was looking for support for her teenage children.
“We were limited to [funding people in] the United States, but rather than turn her down, we did something about our guidelines. One of our guiding principles is that if someone gets in trouble because they are pursuing social justice, we should support them.”
He said that when Pitawanakwat won her suit, she came to his New York office and gave them $1,000. “That had never happened before.”
Meeropol said that the RFC and the Mary Pitawanakwat Fund help “courageous people by helping their families. Those with children have a special stake in the future, and they do what they do to benefit their children, and so their children’s future will be brighter.”
Bob Hughes, president of the Saskatchewan Coalition Against Racism, and Pitawanakwat’s partner, said that Meeropol came to Toronto in 1998 for a fundraiser for the RFC, with funds earmarked for the Pitawanakwat fund.
“We raised $4,000, and it was [Meeropol’s] idea to keep the money in Canada and set up a separate fund in Mary’s name,” Hughes said.
“We couldn’t maintain that fund, but we are relaunching with Winchevsky’s support.”
Binder Wall, who again will be co-ordinating the fund with Robyn Pitawanakwat, said that the Rosenberg case still has relevance today. “Their case still reverberates.”