David Birnbaum’s choice of words was anything but parliamentary, but then he was paying homage to a person who has never shrunk from speaking truth to power.
“Shit-disturber” is how the D’Arcy McGee MNA affectionately described Beverly Spanier, the Maimonides Geriatric Centre resident who in real time told the world exactly what it was like to live in a Quebec long-term care institution ravaged by COVID and how she felt those in charge were failing.
Throughout the worst days of the pandemic the 76-year-old retired teacher was an eloquent voice for the most vulnerable and often forgotten victims, not caring if administrators or bureaucrats took umbrage or allowing her own health issues, including a mercifully mild bout with COVID, to hold her back.
Spanier is one of three recipients of the 2021 D’Arcy McGee National Assembly Citizenship Medal, which recognizes extraordinary longtime service to the local community.
This year, coincidentally, all of them are outspoken Jewish women and first-generation Canadians. Joining Connecticut-born Spanier are Israeli native Ella Amir, executive director for 31 years of AMI-Quebec, a support and advocacy group for people experiencing mental illness, and the late Ruth Kovac, a longtime Côte St. Luc city councillor and English-rights activist, who was born in Amsterdam.
“It raised a couple of eyebrows in officialdom when Beverly was nominated, but that makes me all the more proud of it,” said Birnbaum at the virtual presentation ceremony. “Cage-rattling may be involved, but that’s how community advocacy and democracy work best… Beverly was tenacious and unyielding in her quest for answers that could comfort and reassure her fellow residents and their families.”
Nominations may be submitted by anyone, with the final selection made by a jury of the 2020 laureates: David Lisbona, Jean-Sébastien Patrice and Sima Paris.
Spanier, who grew up during the civil rights movement, has always been a warrior for justice, whether as a teacher at Wagar High School in Côte St. Luc, union representative, or volunteer at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim where she led auxiliary services for the disabled for three decades.
In her acceptance remarks, Spanier, who has lived at Maimonides since 2015, made clear she is not about to rest on her laurels. “The voices of those in chronic care need to be heard. COVID may be under control, but everything is not fine. There is a lot more to do to improve the lives of my fellow residents.” Top of her list is the staff shortage and the need for more medical care.
Amir focused on another inadequacy in the health system: recognition of caregivers’ needs.
“The entire family is affected when a member has a mental illness. Not only are they shunned, but there is an implicit message that they are at fault,” she said.
“We should value the critical role of caregivers with the support and resources to sustain their own health and wellness.”
And, she added, society must become “more compassionate and less judgmental if we are to lighten the burden carried by so many.”
The most moving tribute was given by Ruth Kovac’s husband of 47 years, Peter.
Kovac was a city councillor from 1990 until her death in October 2019 of cancer at age 69. Née Zilversmit, she was the daughter of Holocaust survivors.
“Ruth was a proud Dutchwoman, but she appreciated Canada and was fiercely patriotic. She paid it forward through her community volunteerism and philanthropy,” said Peter.
She believed that maintaining one’s heritage and language strengthened this country, and that is why she fought so hard and long for anglophone rights in the province, he said. (Birnbaum admitted they didn’t agree at times on how far that should go and they had “heated debates” but Kovac’s natural warmth never flagged.)
Her husband said, if still here, she would be doing all she could to fight Bill 96, which permits the Quebec government to strengthen French by unilaterally changing the Canadian Constitution.
Peter praised his wife who skilfully juggled commitment to family, including raising their three children, and her municipal and volunteer work, which also included Mount Sinai Hospital, Maccabi Canada and Héma-Québec.
Kovac was thrilled to be named in 2017 as a public representative on the Canadian justice department’s judicial advisory committee.
“As Ruth would have said, ‘thanks, now let’s get back to work’,” Peter concluded in accepting the posthumous award.