April 09, 2018

Tribute: A lifelong commitment to social justice

Jamie Swift

Wednesday, March 14, 2018 8:42:57 EDT AM

A woman who touched the lives of many people in Kingston left us on March 9.

I remembered her as I made my way through Skeleton Park that day. A gentle snow was falling, feathering the trees. That's where Debi Wells often took her daughter Telfer to play beneath the silver maples back in the nineties.

Local dog walkers knew Debi as the woman with the Labrador. Or one of the succession of cream- or butterscotch-coloured Labs. I imagine her fellow dog owners, huddled together in the middle of the park in all kinds of weather, would wonder how in the world Debi could be out there with no socks under her Birkenstocks. A child of the sixties, in more ways than one.

Debi combined a passionate commitment to the common good with an infectious sense of humour. I recall standing with her by the Skeleton Park playground when a car pulled up on Alma Street. A leather lung hollered out the window, "Britney, get on home!"

"Drive-by parenting," Deb said with a straight face.

I laughed. Then she did, too.

Debi spent some formative years here in Kingston where her father once worked, as she'd insist, as a "boss" at DuPont. Over the years she circled around through Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Along the way she gave birth to her daughter Beth before returning here in the late eighties. She'd decided to pick up a trade and began a teaching career. Her lifelong commitment to social justice was only underlined by the savage inequalities she saw reflected in the education system during her years teaching at the hardscrabble Frontenac Public School (now closed) on Cowdy Street in Kingston's near north end.

As a lifelong socialist, Debi wasn't very big on bosses. She learned the skills of tough-minded bargaining when elected as vice-president of the Limestone Local of the Elementary Teachers' Federation of Ontario. She was president when she died, having planned to retire not long after that March snow faded away.

Debi was in recent years a great experimenter with foods that I found a bit odd. She got ahold of a contraption that would dry food. She began to make kefir, insisting on the merits of its beneficial bacteria. Then she started to talk up kombucha and started to make up batches of the effervescent concoction. She liked fermenting it.

She also felt the need to foment trouble. A hard-boiled radical, Debi never hesitated to shake things up. But this woman with the easy laugh and irrepressible smile remained a pragmatic activist. She sat patiently -- and sometimes not so patiently -- through endless meetings with school board officials as well as local business grandees when she served on the board of the troubled Kingston Economic Development Corporation.

There were uncountable evenings spent in our backyard, listening to Debi's tales of the teachers and children who consumed her working life. She had endless stories -- my friend was never at a loss for words -- about driving for hours to a remote school where someone needed help.

I reached out to one of Debi's former bosses the day she died.

"Debi was a fighter for the rights of the poor, the needy, the teachers of Limestone District School Board and teachers elsewhere in the province," veteran educator Dave Wyatt recalled. "Most of all, Deb was an advocate for the children in her classroom. I witnessed this regularly when I was the principal of an inner city school where she taught."

In her final days, Debi decided that she had changed her mind about one thing.

"I'm not a hugger," she said, and she began embracing the legion of friends who arrived to bid her goodbye. "But I've changed my mind."

I really do hope I can live up to her legacy by joining Debi's friends in making common cause for the common good.

"The last time that I saw Deb was in January," Dave Wyatt said. "She told me that she intended to retire at the end of the school year. I said, 'It's about time that you live for yourself!' And now this. We'll remember her, and when we do, be inspired by how she lived."

Jamie Swift is a Kingston writer.

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