Obituary: Brenna Rivier, an Ottawa community activist and musician whose life was defined by tikkun olam

Brenna Rivier

Brenna Rivier, an Ottawa musician, activist and dedicated community volunteer died Dec. 15, after a battle with cancer. She was 58.

Rivier grew up in Britannia, a neighbourhood far from the hub of Ottawa’s Jewish community, but she and her siblings credited their mother, Jean (née Berezofsky), with instilling the Jewish ideals of community service, and volunteering, engaging in an unwavering commitment to make the world a better place in which to live. As an adult, Brenna was not willing to compromise any of these values, and wore them like a badge of honour, as an example for all to follow.

The Rivier children attended Ottawa Modern Jewish School, an afternoon and Sunday morning school that embraced Jewish roots and cultural heritage. It was here that Brenna participated in community activities and programs. She recognized the impact that OMJS had on unaffiliated, non-traditional and interfaith families, and felt compelled to help the school in any way she could. She was a member of the board until her death.

Rivier also sat on the board of Jewish Family Services. Her passion for justice and support for those most vulnerable in the community was evident in every board meeting.

Another organization close to Rivier’s heart was Community Mediation Ottawa, which offers conflict resolution for the disenfranchised and find ways to assist clients through bureaucracy and to resolve problems that seem impossible to manage.

In the many tributes dedicated to Rivier’s life, the refrain is the same: a recognition of her asserting the power of community when times are tough and the necessity of giving back. This was her intrinsic belief in the power of connecting. As a gay woman, she experienced what it meant to be considered different and excluded. She never wanted anyone to feel these things. She attended the Pride parade every year, sometimes drumming throughout the parade route.

Small acts of kindness were an intrinsic part of Rivier’s life. Although she loved to walk, her niece Hayley recalled a day they used OC Transpo, and watched as her aunt held the exit door to help people disembark the busy bus along her route to work.

Rivier often used music as an instrument for social action. She was an accomplished percussionist, played a mean drum set and was part of many of Ottawa’s Folk Festivals including Women’s Voices and the Ottawa Folk Festival, and was affiliated with many fine artists and musicians. She was one of the founders of the Street of Rock children’s choir.

She took pride and delight in being known as the singing woman at her workplace, the Canada Revenue Agency, with elevators, hallways, washrooms and queues being among her favourite venues. Bringing smiles and laughter and making a difference in someone’s day was her passion.

Brenna lived in Ottawa’s Hintonburg neighbourhood for decades. She served as president of the community association and sat on the board of directors as the inner-city area was thoughtfully transformed to one now popular with young families.

Her friends were amazed that in spite of the cancer diagnosis and painful treatments, Rivier kept her wonderful sense of humour and her eyes on the community prize. Most recently, in October 2021, despite failing health, she took an active part in a demonstration at Tom Brown Park protesting the city’s plan to convert its ample green space to a parking lot.

As powerful as volunteering and activism was in Brenna’s life, her love of family was her greatest gift. She never missed an event featuring any of her family members. She celebrated every holiday and milestone together with her family. Her neighbours were her extended family and they reached out to care for her during her illness.

In an interview with, she shared her passion for volunteering at the annual Carleton Tavern Christmas Day dinner. Known for her wonderful laugh, she quipped: “Let’s face it, what else would I do on Christmas Day?”

Rivier is survived by sisters Marlene and Shelley. She remains an inspirational mother to Sadie, whose parental duties she shared with Marika.