The Levine legacy: a family’s commitment to social justice



By Kathy Kennedy

As Gil’s Hootenanny approaches its 14th anniversary, it seems a fitting time to reflect on the positive impact Gil Levine, his wife Helen and daughters Tamara and Karen have had on the Canadian workplace and society through labour, the women’s movement, broadcasting and folk music.

The Levine family has links to the Glebe that date back 100+ years. Helen Zivian Levine was born at the Civic Hospital in 1923, was raised on Sunset Boulevard and attended Mutchmor, Glashan and Glebe Collegiate. Gil and Helen met in Toronto and moved to Ottawa in 1957 with their young daughters.

Gil Levine was one of the most influential Canadian labour leaders of his time. He was at the founding of the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and was CUPE’s first director of research from 1963 to 1988.

Gil was also a peace activist, a folk music enthusiast and an historian who spent his life organizing and mentoring others in support of social justice. When he died at 85, three words in his obituary, “… plan a hootenanny”, inspired family, friends and fans to organize Gil’s Hootenanny, a celebration of the collective power of song to change the world.

Helen Levine was a lifelong feminist and social worker who found her passion and life’s work in the women’s movement. A beloved professor of women’s studies at the Carleton School of Social Work in the 1970s and 80s, Helen advanced a feminist approach to counselling and community development. When Helen died in 2018 at age 95, she was remembered in her obituary for teaching “what matters.”

Gil and Helen contributed to Ottawa’s musical scene for decades. In 1958, Gil co-produced a Pete Seeger concert in Ottawa when Seeger was blacklisted in the US. Self-described as “old folkies”, they loved folk music and May Day and hosted hootenannies at their home for years.

Glebe residents might see Tamara heading off to Abbotsford with her ukulele to help lead the weekly Jam ’n Sing session along with her banjo playing friend, Debbie Rubin, Gil’s team member and long-time Third Avenue resident. A retired adult educator and literacy activist, Tamara pioneered workplace literacy and clear-language initiatives across Canada with the Ontario Federation of Labour and the Canadian Labour Congress.

Following breast cancer recovery, Tamara retired and wrote But Hope is Longer: Navigating the Country of Breast Cancer. Tamara is passionate about memoir writing and has taken and co-instructed memoir classes at the Glebe Community Centre and elsewhere.

Tamara’s husband, Larry Katz, was a union activist who retired as CUPE’s national research director in 2000. An accomplished woodturner, Katz has shown his work at the Glebe Craft and Artisan Fair and at galleries for two decades. Tamara and Larry raised their children Rachel and Daniel on Craig Street, where they have lived for the past 40 years.
An acclaimed producer and writer, Karen Levine recently left CBC radio after 41 years. She turned one of her documentaries, Hana’s Suitcase – a true story of the Holocaust – into a book which became an international, award-winning best-seller.

Karen’s partner, Michael Enright, is a journalist and broadcaster. He was host of CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition for 20 years.

Ottawa’s annual May Day sing-along, Gil’s Hootenanny, has grown to be much more than a one-day event. In 2015, Tony Turner’s catchy and controversial tune “Harperman” won the Gil’s Hootenanny song-writing contest and became an anthem for a protest movement. Gil’s Hootenanny has also sponsored singing and song writing workshops and has presented the stories and protest songs of the 1960s to high school students as part of their history curriculum.

This May Day, people lucky enough to join Tamara and Karen Levine at Gil’s Hootenanny will participate in a remarkable event that celebrates the power of song to change the world.

Canadian singer-songwriter Coco Love Alcorn headlines this year’s Gil’s Hootenanny on Monday, May 1 at 7 p.m. Gil’s is also sponsoring a singing workshop – Let’s Sing! Let’s Play! – to be led by Love Alcorn on Sunday, April 30 at 2 p.m. All voices are welcome! Tickets to each event are $20.Tickets to both the hootenanny and workshop are discounted at $35. For information & tickets:

Kathy Kennedy is active in promoting and protecting the wellbeing of Ottawa’s downtown neighbourhoods and is on the organizing committee for Gil’s Hootenanny.

1.From left, Helen, Tamara, Gil and Karen Levine
2. Helen Zivian Levine and Gil Levine

Courtesy of Levine Family

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