Oxfam Canada pays tribute to Katharine Pearson

Dear Oxfam Firends and Supporters,

To current and former staff, to members of the present and past Boards and to all those who share our commitment to end poverty and injustice, I write to share the sad news of Katharine Pearson`s death.

Not all of you will have known Katharine. Many who did will not know that she has been ill. Both I regret.

Katharine Pearson made an indelible impression on how Canadians practice solidarity and advocate for human rights, peace and development. And she did it in a gentle, self-effacing yet powerful manner.

Across this country, Katharine traveled with campesinas and commandants to church halls and union halls, drawing public attention and stoking public pressure to end the violence and repression, allowing the majorities in Central America - the poor, the landless, women, indigenous peoples - their right to justice and dignity.

Years after her last visits to Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, companeros would ask fondly after Katarina, still held in her thrall, beguiled by her brilliance, her beauty, her compassion and commitment, her humility and her humour.

These same qualities equipped her well to navigate the corridors of official Ottawa - and the sometimes tricky shoals of the Canadian NGO community. With talent and tact, generosity and tenacity, Katharine could bring people together - in several languages - helping spearhead an era of remarkably effective public policy advocacy.

Through grassroots action by fishers and farmers; through meetings with mandarins and missions with Parliamentarians; through urgent action networks and the systematic documentation of human rights abuses; through campaigns and communications, coalitions and collaboration; through development education and demonstrations; through fundraising and support to partners overseas, a Canadian solidarity movement was forged and its impact felt. And to all of this, Katharine brought her measure of magic, helping us find common ground, move the dynamic forward, and reach out to include the excluded.

Many of us shared a discourse of peace building, but Katharine lived it. She was the one who could talk to - and hear - everyone. She could create a safe space within which people of strong and diverse opinions would find an open ear and an open heart - steeled by a strong ethical axis and values that were unwavering. She had a remarkable capacity to interpret divergent views in such a way as to find common ground, to help people ease themselves away from extreme positions and to help those immersed in the mushy middle to remember their sense of common decency in reaction to poverty and injustice. She helped people cut through organizational, sectarian or personal interests by keeping her mind open and her ego in check.

Katharine played a pivotal role in defining what is Oxfam in Canada. During the 80s and into the early 90s she worked first in the Vancouver office as an Outreach Officer and then in Ottawa as a Program Development Officer for Central America. In both roles she excelled, building an ever wider constituency of actors and activists in the service in peace and justice. Her understanding of, and her commitment to, thinking globally and acting locally help us still to walk our talk.

From Oxfam, Katharine moved to the policy unit of the Canadian Council for International Cooperation where she continued her work in building Canada`s voice in support of human rights and pro-poor development. She then moved to the McConnell Foundation in Montreal where as Program Director she nurtured innovation in support to active citizenship and resilient communities. She has also made a tremendous contribution as a member of the Board of Oxfam Quebec for a number of years.

Just three weeks ago Katharine spoke eloquently and courageously at a memorial service for her father who had died in March. She herself slipped away in the early morning hours yesterday on May 24. Until so recently a picture of youth and vitality, she had been successfully battling an aggressive form of breast cancer detected last autumn. But she learned recently the disease had metastasized and after another bout of treatment, spent the past two weeks in palliative care surrounded by people who love her.

Katharine was proud of her father, Geoffrey, a distinguished diplomat and public servant, her mother Landon, a senator and advocate for children`s rights, and her grandfather, ‘Mike`, prime minister and Nobel Peace Prize winner. While she was not unaware of the impact her pedigree could have in pressing a Foreign Affairs or CIDA official to do what Canadians would want their government to do, she wore her pedigree withgreat humility. Despite her privilege, she never lost sight of her vulnerability and identified most with those who were struggling.

She was also fiercely proud of her two wonderful sons, Graeme and Alex, and her remarkably talented siblings. She was much loved by many - with good reason.

Katharine would be embarrassed by this tribute. She preferred to exercise her leadership out of the spotlight and was far too sassy for sainthood. But for a community that too often is too busy doing good to do well, it is important that we take time to celebrate her gift, to reflect on her genius and to apply more lessons from her life in our work and in our own.

A gathering of family and friends to celebrate Katharine`s life is planned for late June. And Oxfam will be considering how we might commemorate this extraordinary person. More information will be shared as it comes available.

I returned yesterday afternoon from two weeks in South Africa, a country convulsed by inequality, violence and poverty. I am outraged by the injustice and haunted by their pain. But I am also energized by the passion of the women and men I met there, humbled by their tenacity and inspired by their courage. So it is with Katharine.

To her sons, her mother, her family and friends our deepest sympathy and to all of you, a wish that together we can build the world that Katharine so desired.

Katharine will be sorely missed as she has been greatly valued for her tremendous contribution to our work and to our lives.

In solace and solidarity,

Robert Fox
Executive Director
Oxfam Canada