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Featured Memorial | Heather Crowe

Heather Crowe Obituary

CanWest News Service - Canadian anti-smoking activist Heather Crowe has died of lung cancer at the age of 61.

You probably never met Ms. Crowe, but you probably saw her on Health Canada's anti-smoking ad.

"My doctor told me I had a smoker's tumour - and therefore I'm dying,- she says, explaining that she'd been a waitress for 40 years. "And I never smoked .... But the air was blue where I worked."

And then she closes her eyes and you hear the kicker voiceover: "And I'm dying of lung cancer from second-hand smoke."

On Feb. 24, days after admission to palliative care, she made a final plea to journalists for a nationwide ban on cigarette smoking in public places. She had often said she wanted to be the last Canadian to die of secondhand smoke.

In that valedictory press conference, she acknowledged that that unobtainable goal had not been achieved.

People with lungs damaged from years of exposure to tobacco will continue to die for some time. "But at least I will have made a difference," Ms. Crowe said. With one voice, those closest to the issue affirm her words.

"What Heather did was allow us to put a face on the hundreds of Canadians who die every year from exposure to secondhand smoke," Dawn Hachey, the former acting director general of Health Canada's tobacco control program, said recently.

"She made a connection with people that made a real difference. To me, and I'm choosing my words carefully, she was not just a wonderful person - but really a hero."

Neil Collishaw, a spokesman for Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, said Heather Crowe had the respect of everyone who worked in the antismoking movement in Canada. "She had the honesty and simplicity to speak directly from her own heart to other people's hearts. Those qualities, and the selflessness she showed in desperate circumstances, are what made her so effective an advocate."

Ms. Crowe spent much of her final four years speaking to premiers, ministers of health, provincial legislatures, mayors, city councils, community groups, students, reporters, and ordinary people.

At the outset, not a single jurisdiction had what Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada considered a desirable policy on public smoking.

Now, most have one, or soon will. "And perhaps in a strict sense, this wasn't just one person's achievement," Mr. Collishaw said. "But Heather's role was huge.

"As a person devastated by second-hand tobacco, she could put the message across without anyone's eyes glazing over."

Heather Crowe first came to notice in October 2002 when the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board granted her workman's compensation for the lung tumour that physicians had diagnosed earlier that year.

Across Canada, only one or two such previous decisions had been made, none of them involving a hospitality industry worker.

This groundbreaking decision was logical. Her tumour was non-small cell lung cancer, the most common found in smokers. And she had never smoked herself nor lived with a smoker. Her only significant exposure had been in the workplace.

In some ways, it almost seemed like the universe was maneuvering to make her the public face of the anti-smoking movement. In the first place, having never smoked, she would not be blamed for her predicament.

Beyond that, two coincidences sent her on her way.

The day after her first biopsy, back in 2002, she went to work at the Newport Restaurant on Richmond Road. As she was serving a regular customer, a man who worked in the government, he asked her if she were alright, and her story popped out. This bureaucrat was an assistant deputy minister for Health Canada, and the point man in the government's antismoking programs. On the spot, he asked her if she would appear in a television ad, and she quickly agreed.

Another night, when she was still searching for medical studies to support her compensation claim, she saw a woman on television who was obviously affiliated with the antismoking forces. She learned this was Cynthia Callard, the executive director of the Physicians For a Smoke-Free Canada - and on a Sunday night she phoned the association, expecting only to leave a telephone message. As chance had it, she found Ms. Collard at work and eager to talk. From that conversation, Ms. Crowe learned that many studies showed a link between second-hand smoke and lung cancer.

"I showed those studies to my lawyer, and that's how it all started," she once said. Her claim, when it was sent into the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, was buttrussed by letters from Mayor Bob Chiarelli and former mayor Elizabeth Holtzman, both customers in the Newport, and by Medical Officer of Health Robert Cushman and councilor Alex Munter.

Ms. Holtzman felt the case was reasonable. One often left restaurants smelling of smoke, she told The Citizen. And for Ms. Crowe herself, she felt particular sympathy: "It didn't matter if you were mayor or just a person walking in off the street - Heather Crowe welcomed you and made you feel at home."

Mr. Munter came to know her during the public debates on the city's antismoking bylaw. Then chair of city council's community services committee, he went to many meetings with her. "And I always felt her quiet dignity and resolve was the best way of countering the loudmouth yelling that was going on.

"I could cite statistics on second-hand smoking and lung cancer, but Heather made those stats into a real human story.

"Before she stepped in, the debate revolved around patrons - the patrons who didn't want smoke in the air against the patrons who wanted to smoke. By bringing the focus onto the hospitality workers, Heather changed the dynamics of the issue forever.

"Her intervention, I think, was the pivotal moment in consolidating support for the bylaw."

The remarkable thing was how effective she could be in addressing audiences far from the city she lived in. Accompanied often by Mr. Collishaw of Physicians for a Smoke-Free Canada, she spoke to politicians across the country. She went to every province except Prince Edward Island, and to every territory except Yukon. Often exhausted by her radiation treatments and by chemotherapy, she nonetheless found energy to make her direct and human case. In March 2003, on one of her first trips, she and Mr. Collishaw went to Iqaluit, the capital of Nunavut.

Ms. Crowe, quite ill from her treatments, was particularly frail at this point. In the legislative assembly, she addressed the MLAs and the Circle of Elders. As she spoke, there was simultaneous translation into Inuktitut, for those whose English was shaky. When she finished, one of the elders addressed the assembly in Inuktitut.

"I believe this white woman," the elder said. "I believe she speaks the truth. And I believe we should show a good example to our children and not smoke in front of them, and teach them not to smoke."

This was a powerful statement, Mr. Collishaw said, because three-quarters of the adult population in Nunavut smoke. Obviously, no one recognized that Ms. Crowe, raised by a Mikmaq mother, was herself native.

"So Heather told them - told them that she was raised in the way of the Mikmaq, that she considered herself an elder, and that it was very important that we teach our children in every way we can.

"And when Heather finished, you could hear a pin drop in that room."

After their visit, the legislature, which had virtually no smoking policy, brought in one of the toughest antismoking laws in the country. In her own way, Heather Crowe could be funny. A consignment to relatively early death is no springboard to comedy, but she could make light even of the urn that will hold her ashes.

"I was standing there holding my new urn and thought to myself, this is Freedom 55 for an unprotected worker," she told audiences. Ashes seemed to get her going. She once said, "I'm looking forward to seeing a 'No Smoking' sign in the crematorium as they push me in, so that I know it's a safe place for their workers."

But she was essentially a serious person, allergic to dramatics, her gaze direct, and her voice clear but not especially modulated, a speaking style she said came from her mother. You would listen to this human being, because she was sincere and had no personal agenda.

"I've been in this business for 17 years and after a while you develop a thick skin," said Les Hagen, director of the Alberta chapter of Action on Smoking and Health. "But when someone leaves a death bed to champion a cause when it would be far easier to fade away in silence - well, I recognize the commitment. We all did."

In January 2003, provincial labour ministers from across the country were meeting in Banff. Ms. Crowe wrote to ask if she could have time on the agenda to address them about tobacco risks in the workplace, but was refused.

"Well, Heather showed up anyway," Mr. Hagen said, laughing. "And she got into their meeting - in fact, they invited her for lunch."

Ms. Crowe also had meetings with municipal officials in Banff, who shortly after decided to ban smoking in all workplaces and public establishments. Alberta eventually brought in antismoking legislation, but it was weak, only forbidding smoking where children are present, a narrow factor that caused some fear that children might be banned from doughnut shops.

Apart from her manner, which won immediate confidence, Ms. Crowe, in Mr. Hagen's view, could reach people because her personal situation was so universal. "If Heather had been an actress, the whole thing would have been different. But she was a single mother, a grandmother, a woman who worked incredibly hard, a very humble person - someone we all know, someone every Canadian can relate to.

"What was extraordinary was not who she was, but what she did."

Heather Crowe was born on April 23, 1945 in Yarmouth, N.S. She was the third oldest of seven children. Her Mikmaq mother, a homemaker, had married a white man because she didn't want to lose her children to the residential schools.

Her father was a carpenter by trade, but also worked as a stevedore and heavy equipment operator. Both parents were highly principled; her mother stressed kindness and truth to oneself, and her father was a proponent of hard work and doing things well.

With so many children and only one income, money was tight. In particular, there was never any money for alcohol or tobacco. When she was 17, she moved to Toronto and quickly found work as a waitress at Fran's Restaurant at Yonge and Eglinton. She had only finished Grade Nine and was surprised at how easy it was to earn good money waiting tables.

"All you had to do was give me a clientele, and I could write my own paycheque," she told The Citizen. "I always conveyed good service and respect - and I never thought directly of money. I only wanted to finish a shift with more money than I had when I came in."

She was married to a man in Toronto, but divorced him when she turned 27. It was a relationship that she did not wish to discuss. However, it did give her a daughter, Patricia, and a granddaughter, Jodi-Ann. In 1972, she moved with her then four-year-old daughter to Ottawa to live with a sister.

A few years later, she bought a house in the Glebe. She found work easy to find. At various times, she waited at the Holiday Inn on Kent Street, the old Carleton Towers at O'Connor and Albert, the Gausthause Zum Dorfkrug and Chuck and Harold's, on Innes Road, and finally the Newport on Richmond Road.

In the late 1980s, facing some expensive home renovations, she worked at three restaurants, on three shifts, at once, starting at 6 a.m. and working through almost to midnight. "These were all smoking places," she said. "The air in everyone of them was always blue."

Her favorite place was the Newport Restaurant. Owner Moe Atallah was a dream to work for, she said. "I never had a boss like him. If they walk on me, nearly everyone eventually sees my porcupine side, but not Moe. There was only respect from him."

Despite the extraordinary workload, her health was so good that she almost never missed work. And then four years ago, she found a few lumps on her neck and on a collarbone. She suspected a simple infection, but her doctor, assuming something worse, sent her for a chest X-ray. The next day, the doctor called with the diagnosis.

"It was like having a mirror shatter into a million pieces. You see the shards on the floor, but you can't put them back together. It changes your life forever."

What amazed people was the value that Heather Crowe got out of the four years that remained to her - the trips made, often in a state of exhaustion; the speeches given; the people, many ill, whom she encountered along the way.

She received a number of awards. Among them were an award from the World Health Organization for public service, an award that only six people in the Western Hemisphere receive each year, and a Meritorious Service Decoration from former Governor General Adrienne Clarkson for activities that brought honour to the community. In a recent interview, Ms. Crowe expressed appreciation for these honours, but refused to discuss them at length.

"The only thing that's important is that the right legislation comes in to protect people who might get sick the same way I did.

"You wouldn't put your dog in the garage, turn the car on, and walk away. And neither should governments allow people to work in what pretty much amounts to gas chambers.

"It's too late for me, but it's the next generation I've been doing this for. That's why I've been pounding on the drum."

Looking at all the legislation of the last four years, it looks like Heather Crowe's pounding was wonderfully effective. Of course, long before she became well-known, this quiet woman had a way of touching people.

A few weeks ago, at the Newport Restaurant, Moe Atallah spoke fervently of his memories of Ms. Crowe, as he anticipated the prospect of not seeing her again. "We are still waiting for Heather, I think," Mr. Atallah.

"It's something you naturally expect - she will be back. "And when you realize she won't be, you still feel grateful. "With every drop of my blood, I believe it was grace that brought her to us."

© Ottawa Citizen 2006
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