Internationally acclaimed author and prominent activist June Callwood is one of Canada’s most treasures and versatile writers. After nearly fifty years of writing, the author, journalist and social activist has covered a wide gamut of writing genres.

“I learned that in this country, you can’t make a living writing for just one medium,” said Callwood. “And because one source of income is not enough, I had to do newspapers, radio, television, gave speeches and occasionally did a book. To be a writer, you have to be a juggler.”

Juggling her wide range of talents has been one of Callwood’s strongest attributes and has kept her active in writers’ circles.

Raised in the small town of Belle River, Ontario, Callwood began writing fiction. After winning a writing contest, she was offered a job as a reporter at the Brantford Expositor. She then joined the staff of The Globe and Mail. It was here that she met her husband Trent Frayne, a sports writer. After leaving The Globe, she turned to freelance writing and broadcasting. In the mid-1970s, she hosted the CBC program In Touch.

As another venue of writing, Callwood turned to ghostwriting autobiographies.

“I think it’s one of the easiest ways for a journalist to make a living,” she said. Ghostwriting, according to Callwood, is just a matter of helping people organize their material and trying to get the sound of their voice right.

“You can’t write better than the way the person normally writes or it would be an artificial book … you don’t have to reach for a wonderful way of expressing anything,” said Callwood.

When asked if she would ghostwrite any more books, Callwood said that she didn’t find it very challenging. “I won’t do it anymore … I’m tired of it.”

But Callwood is not known just for her ghostwriting. She is the author of 27 books to date. Love, Hate, Fear and Anger and Portrait of Canada are just part of the impressive list of her achievements. At one time, Callwood was writing a book each year.

Her literary pursuits have never overshadowed Callwood’s involvement in humanitarian work. She is a founding member of the Civil Liberties Association; a founder of Nellie’s Hostels for Women; founder and president of Jessie’s Centre for pregnant teenagers; and is a prominent contributor to Amnesty International, the Writers’ Union and PEN, which works on behalf of writers in prison in addition to countless other causes.

She not only speaks in support of the causes she works for; she puts herself out on a limbt to make a point. In the 1960s, Callwood was arrested during a demonstration outside Digger’s House, a home she founded for homeless kids.

“To me, justice is not what the courts define it as,” said Callwood. “Justice is what is right and what is fair.”

And fighting for what is fair has made Callwood a well-known activist.

Eventually her love for writing columns brought her back to The Globe and Mail in 1983.

The pressures of churning out a regular column did not phase the well-seasoned writer.

“You just have to set aside time to research it and decide what you’re going to do,” Callwood said.

She listed column ideas for a month of two ahead and never had problems finding something she felt compelled to write about.

“Some people get overwhelmed by the blank screen and have trouble deciding what to write, but my problem was selecting what to do,” she said.

She was receiving an average fifty letters a day from people asking her to write about their experiences or situations.

“Some people felt a column about what they were going through would help them individually or their causes … a good many were heartbreaking stories so the hard part was responding to this outpouring of grief and choosing which ones to write about.”

Callwood was criticized by Globe publisher A. Roy Megarry for only writing about depressing topics. But Callwood says she tried to achieve a balance.

“I wrote about noses, toes, breasts and penises,” said the writer.

Speaking about the publisher’s complaint: “I think it was partly personal because he didn’t like me,” said Callwood. “He had a different idea of newspapers … he was more interested in business and politics and thought my column was an anomaly.”

But the readers certainly didn’t. And Callwood’s appeal has not faded as she is still actively writing columns for various publications.

Evident in her choice of column topics, Callwood is concerned about social issues. It is often difficult to separate the author from the activist, said Callwood. But it’s necessary.

“The role of a journalist as advocate lies in having a wealth of information on social conditions,” she emphasized. “The reading public is entitled to a careful construction of the facts without the passion of the writer being all over the story.”

But Callwood recognizes that all writing is slanted “because it comes from your own personal experience.”

“It is the responsibility of the journalist to be informed,” she stressed. “You must meet a higher test in advocacy journalism because if you get one tiny fact wrong, the whole thing is discredited and there will be more damage done to the cause you care about and you may never recover from it.”

It is through reading, Callwood said, that writers learn to master their craft.

“Reading is important to all writers for the language. It’s like getting a musical ear and you get the sense of when a sentence sits right if you read a lot.”

“You get an ear for how the language should fall on the page.”

And Callwood definitely takes her own advice. She recently devoted an entire month to reading.

“My vocabulary improved, my proportion of the language and how it applied to my own writing,” she said. “I quit swearing so much … it was good for everything.”

“I don’t think you can be a good writer without being a heavy, heavy reader.”

Callwood attributes her attraction to reading to her childhood experience of what she refers to as being a misfit. “Being isolated made a reader and made me more sensitive,” she reflected.

“When you’re not a mainstream person, you have to protect yourself and become an observer,” she said. “I also have some experience with being unfairly marginalized on the basis of some collective judgment.”

But she says that experience had some benefits. “In some ways, it’s a positive … people who have never known despair or have never been shut out, what do they know?”

And Callwood’s deep sense of humanity is evident in her writing. Her columns often take an in-depth look at societal problems and she enjoys working on difficult topics that require more work.

“If I have a topic that is thin and it has to be spun out by being written well, I like it better than just telling a story in narrative form,” said Callwood. “I used to deliberately pick something tough and go to the Robarts Library or Sig Sam and read and read and read.”

Still writing columns, Callwood pays close attention to her peers.

She especially admires the work of Jeffrey Simpson at the Globe. “He’s the perfect political writer for the paper … he’s superb and his research is impeccable.”

She also speaks highly of Carol Gore, a writer with The Toronto Star whom Callwood considers “probably the best of all the political columnists I know.”

Michele Landsberg is another writer Callwood “rarely misses reading” but the two feminists have clashed on the issue of censorship.

Landsberg, a supporter of tough antipornography laws, is not in agreement with Callwood’s position on the controversial topic.

“Censorship does not prevent what it’s meant to prevent: the debasement, humiliation of people, violence,” explained Callwood. “Pornography is a bad idea and you counteract bad ideas by presenting better ones and through a certain amount of peer pressure to change the general standards of behaviour.”

Callwood attributes much of the problem to a society that is “still supporting macho male behaviour and that’s responsible for much of the problem.”

Both rigid in their beliefs, Landsberg and Callwood remain on opposing sides of this issue and this has strained their relationship as colleagues.

“She to some extent personalizes it and feels I’m somebody who isn’t very admirable being opposed to censorship,” Callwood said.

Her efforts as a crusading journalist have earned her both the respect of her peers and her readers and several honours.

Callwood was named an officer of the Order of Canada, was inducted into the News Hall of Fame, received the Humanities Award of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews and countless other distinctions.

Despite her success, Callwood does not like to be seen as a mythological character. “People tend to force sainthood upon you when you reach this age,” she said. “I’m flesh and blood, and deeply flawed.”

And it is that human element that endears Callwood to her readers who follow her articles with the assurance they will find the kind of writing we’ve always found in anything bearing her name.