Claire Eglin Culhane

On this date in 1918, Canadian activist Claire Eglin was born in Montreal to Russian-Jewish immigrants. She and her brother were the only Jewish students at Maisonneuve School, she told an interviewer. “At Christmas time, we were rejected because we didn’t believe in Jesus Christ. At Easter, we were sometimes pelted with rocks because ‘the Jews crucified Christ.’ ” She began her activist efforts as a teenager, helping with relief efforts in Quebec during the Great Depression and protesting to end the Spanish Civil War.

Despite anti-Semitic discrimination and other obstacles, she graduated from high school, learned how to drive, and trained as a nurse. Eglin Culhane also took a business course to work for a family company. She later found consistent employment by specializing in new systems of medical records. She married union organizer Gerry Culhane and they had two daughters. The couple later divorced.

Eglin Culhane established a tuberculosis hospital in Vietnam during the war, picketed on Parliament Hill in Ottawa against the war, staged sit-ins at prison wardens’ offices, hosted a cable TV show called “Instead of Prisons,” and spoke extensively on the subject of prisons as social control. In 1968, she met with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau to discuss Canada’s involvement in the Vietnam War. She came under police scrutiny and a file on her expanded to several hundred pages, a fact she was proud of.

One of her final public acts was to take sides with Aboriginals in a dispute with local officials at the OKA Reservation in Ontario. She wrote several books, including Barred from Prison (1979) and Why Is Canada in Vietnam? The Truth About Our Foreign Aid (1972). Biographer Mick Lowe’s 1992 book was titled One Woman Army: The Life of Claire Culhane. In her own book, No Longer Barred from Prison: Social Injustice in Canada (1991), she wrote, “We can only proceed, individually and collectively, to make whatever improvements are possible in our respective areas of concern, sustained by the hope that others are doing the same.”

She was inducted into the Order of Canada, the nation’s highest civilian honor. She was also a member of the BC Humanist Association. She died in Vancouver in 1996.

Freedom From Religion Foundation