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Glendon Remembers Founding Chair of Sociology Jean Burnet


Professor Stuart Schoenfeld, chair of Glendon’s Sociology Department and recently retired York professor of sociology Janice Newson co-hosted a moving memorial on October 22nd to professor emerita Jean Burnet, a much-loved colleague and founding chair of the department, who passed away on September 14, 2009.

Right: Jean Burnet

It was a celebration of an illustrious career and an exceptional, warm and brilliant individual who has touched the lives of so many people around her. The large number of those in attendance attested to this, representing colleagues from faculty and staff, former students, neighbours, family and friends.

Burnet was a pioneer on several levels. She was one of the first women to hold the position of department chair at a time when those who held the power to appoint them treated women as second-class citizens. She was hired by Glendon’s first Principal, Escott Reid, to establish the previously non-existent Sociology Department, a task she accomplished in a manner consistent with Glendon’s ethos.

Left: Jean Burnet (on right) with friend and colleague Janice Newson, retired York professor of sociology

In his words of welcome, Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts pointed to Burnet’s groundbreaking achievements: as a scholar – particularly in the field of ethnic studies and multiculturalism; as a female academic and academic administrator in a male-dominated hierarchy; and as part of a generation of scholars who helped to establish Glendon. “We are acknowledging and celebrating a remarkable life and in the process, we are also celebrating Glendon.”

Rigth: Professor emeritus Don Willmott with sociology colleagues (Photo courtesy Brian Desrosiers Tam)

In his memorial address, Schoenfeld explained that Burnet “…was educated at the University of Chicago, in a tradition that was appreciative of diversity, the struggles of everyday life and social reform. While these issues were present in Canadian sociology in the early 1960s, they were far from mainstream, yet they became characteristic of Glendon’s Sociology Department. Although Jean [Burnet] could handle statistical data, her real interest was in people’s lived experiences and she was open to a department that shared the same enthusiasms.”

Left: L-r: Chair of Sociology Stuart Schoenfeld, sociology professor Richard Weisman and Sociology Dept. Administrative Assistant Alana Chalmers (Photo courtesy Brian Desrosiers Tam)

Burnet started her teaching career at the University of Toronto in 1945 and came to Glendon in 1967. Her U. of T. colleague, Don Willmott later followed her as second chair. Together they set the direction for the department’s new faculty to focus on the study of everyday people, social issues and the struggle for reform.

“The willingness to make diversity and real life experience visible in the Glendon curriculum was pronounced in the department”, said Schoenfeld, reminiscing about the original group of sociology professors - fascinating people collected by Burnet – some of whom are still teaching at Glendon. “Although not part of the original plan for Glendon, this department quickly became one of the most heavily enrolled.”

Right: U. of T. professor emeritus of sociology Raymond Breton with former president of York University Lorna Marsden (Photo courtesy Brian Desrosiers Tam)

Schoenfeld attested to Burnet’s leadership as the discipline of sociology was undergoing major transformation. “Universities were changing into places where the multiplicity of voices and the excitement of creating a new, diverse, hybrid culture was revolutionizing disciplines, with sociology often leading the way”, he said.

Burnet was a pioneer in recognizing the importance of Women’s Studies, which did not exist when she trained and was contentious during her time at York. She had edited a volume for the Multicultural Historical Society of Ontario entitled, Looking into My Sisters’ Eyes: An Exploration in Women’s History. “…She had simply decided that the time had come to challenge the dominant focus on male actors in ethnic studies, with the new knowledge of women’s experiences, and she joined the challenge, not as a polemicist but as a scholar who could give exposure to high quality work from colleagues”, added Schoenfeld.

Left: Brian Burnet, nephew of Jean Burnet (Photo courtesy Brian Desrosiers Tam)

Her longtime friend and colleague, Janice Newson offered many anecdotes at the memorial to illustrate Burnet’s warmth, tact and wisdom, as well as what Newson termed her “chutzpah”. Among these were Burnet’s mid-life clarinet lessons with the lead clarinetist of a symphony orchestra, as well as her ability to ignore rules that she considered discriminatory or unfair. Newson recalled how Burnet ignored the “no women allowed” rules at the U. of T.’s Hart House, where her department head called a meeting. “Jean went over to Hart House a few minutes before the meeting. She was greeted at the gate by the porter who informed her that women were not allowed in Hart House. Jean replied, ‘There aren’t any women. There’s only me,’ and she walked through the gate and down the hall to the meeting.”

Left: Longtime neighbour of Jean Burnet, Larwence Crawford (Photo courtesy Brian Desrosiers Tam)

The anecdotes of friends and colleagues brought to life an outstanding individual, who was very shy about herself, but most able to stand up for those who needed it. A person with an intense love of the Canadian landscape and the ethnic mix that represents this multicultural country. A testimonial from Judy Young-Drache, President of the Canada-Hungary Educational Foundation, paid tribute to Burnet as a “… wonderful, objective, dependable and faithful advisor to multiculturalism and to me personally – with a great sense of humour.” Burnet also participated in the research for Volume IV of the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission’s report; she served as chair on the Canadian Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee, as well as on the Canadian Ethnic History Advisory Panel.

“She was a bright, dynamic, entrepreneurial person”, said U. of T. sociology professor emeritus Raymond Breton. “At the time of her launching the Glendon Sociology Department, there were almost no such departments in the country, no associations, no journals. Sociology was seen as an appendix to economics and political science. Ethnic studies, Jean’s specific focus, were even more underdeveloped than sociology, and academia was a male fortress.”

Right: L-r: Glendon head librarian Julianna Drexler with Glendon alumna Lesley Lewis, CEO of the Ontario Science Centre (Photo courtesy Brian Desrosiers Tam)

The testimonials at the ceremony just kept coming. Former colleague Don Willmott said that “… Jean was deeply interested in the welfare of other people. It was amazing how she put the welfare of others ahead of her own.” Said Robert Leverty, Executive Director of the Ontario Historical Society, “… Jean was the best employer I’ve ever had. She revolutionized our organization. She was a political activist and a force to be reckoned with.”

Next-door neighbours for 18 years, retired gerontologist Lawrence Crawford and his wife, Andrea Walker Q.C. treasure their memories of Burnet. “…Jean had all the integrity, inspiration, intuition and interest with just-right-distance involvement that [anyone] could wish for. We came to share gardens, her dogs, […] baroque concerts as well as jazz, museums and galleries together”, said Crawford. Quoting an African saying from his youth, he added, “…an old person dying is like a library burning.” And he added, with a wistful note, “Jean’s span of knowledge and her refreshing ongoing search for more were treasured moments. I only regret not having kept more notes, or not recording many of our conversations.”

Left: Jean Burnet with beloved pet

Glendon alumna Lesley Lewis, currently CEO of the Ontario Science Centre, was one of Burnet’s students in 1966. “For women like myself, Jean was an excellent role model”, said Lewis. In 1990, over 20 years after she had graduated from Glendon, Lewis was named Head of the Human Rights Commission. “Professor Burnet called to meet me in order to tell me how proud she was of my success. And when we met, she talked about one of my essays. I could hardly believe that she remembered.”

Jean Burnet was the recipient of many awards and honours. She received the Order of Canada in 1989, largely in recognition of her work for the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism; she had also received honorary degrees from York and Guelph University, and was given the outstanding contribution award from the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association. In 2001, the Canadian Journal of Sociology published an article by Margit Eichler, “Women Pioneers in Canadian Sociology.” In her article, Eichler wrote of Burnet as one of ten pioneering women sociologists, whose work significantly shaped the discipline in Canada.

More about Jean Burnet
From the September 22, 2009 obituary in the Toronto Globe & Mail

Jean Robertson Burnet passed away peacefully at home in her 90th year. After growing up in Owen Sound, she obtained her MA at the University of Toronto and her PhD at the University of Chicago, followed by honorary doctorates and other honours for her life’s work, including Member of the Order of Canada in 1989. Her teaching career began at the U. of T. (1945-1967). She was founding chair (1967-1972 & 1974-1976) of the Department of Sociology at Glendon College, York University, and served as chair of the Canadian Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee on Multiculturalism Issues from 1973-1987. She received the Outstanding Contribution Award from the Canadian Sociology and Anthropology Association (1990), the Cruikshank Gold Medal from the Ontario Historical Society (1996) and was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association (2001). She published many books and articles on ethnic studies and served as editor for several publications long into her retirement.

Article by Glendon communications officer Marika Kemeny

Published on November 5, 2009