As both a lawyer and an elected official representing the North End, Joseph Zuken was a voice for Winnipeg’s working class and a champion of social justice. A school trustee from 1942 to 1962 and city councillor from 1962 to 1983, Zuken was the longest-serving elected Communist party politician in North America, and one of the most controversial and respected politicians to serve our community.
“Joe was one of the very rare councillors the City has had who stood up for people at the bottom of the pyramid,” says Jesse Vorst, one of the founding members of The Joseph Zuken Memorial Association.
While Zuken was often criticized for views many considered radical, a number of his proposals were embraced, and have become an important part of Winnipeg’s social fabric, including: free textbooks for school children, kindergarten, increased public housing, and the creation of Seven Oaks Hospital.
“He was elected as a Communist, and surely not everyone who voted for him shared his views, but he was able to transcend that,” says Neil Cohen, the Association’s chair. “He had an integrity, a respect for the disadvantaged. He was a decent, honest person.”
“Joe was a man of very wide interests,” says Norm Larsen, another founding member of the Association, and one of the trustees of the Fund. Larsen practised law in the office next door to Zuken for five years.
Despite being shy, Zuken was an active member of a local theatre troupe. Later in life, he gave a series of public lectures on Yiddish writing.
It’s only fitting that the Fund established in Joseph Zuken’s memory continues his legacy of social activism in Winnipeg’s North End neighbourhoods. Created at The Winnipeg Foundation by friends and colleagues shortly after his death in 1986, The Joseph Zuken Memorial Trust Fund supports charitable, educational and cultural activities that reflect Zuken’s values.
A volunteer steering committee, which includes three trustees (appointed by The Manitoba Federation of Labour, University of Manitoba and Law Society of Manitoba), makes decisions about annual grants from the Fund as well as a Citizen Activist Award in Zuken’s name.
Grants from the Fund have supported a range of organizations – including Canadian Jewish Outlook magazine, a national secular publication; a Luxton neighbourhood child care centre; the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives; and Rossbrook House, an inner-city youth drop-in centre.
Most of the grants from the Fund support organizations in Zuken’s constituency, including Ross House, a museum that provides a glimpse into the lives of Red River homesteaders circa the 1850s. It’s located in Point Douglas, between Sutherland and Euclid Avenues, in what is now Joseph Zuken Park.
Last year, the Fund celebrated its 25th anniversary and reached two important milestones: $100,000 in both capital contributions and funds granted out to the community.
In 2012, incidentally the hundredth anniversary of Zuken’s birth, the fund generated a total of nearly $10,000 to support eight community projects. One of those was the purchase of a new cooler for Norquay Community Centre, after a commercial sponsor removed its previous equipment.
The grant “was gratifying because we were able to respond to their need,” says Cohen. “It was a very modest request but we were able to act quickly.” (The grant was made within a few hours of trustees learning about the issue.)
“That’s part of the joy of this,” says Cohen. “A lot of foundations give out huge grants. We recognize what $1,000 or $2,000 can mean for a small organization with an urgent need.”
In keeping with Zuken’s support of the underserved and the overlooked, the Fund often supports grassroots organizations that might not otherwise receive a lot of funding or attention.
“There are so many relatively small organizations that don’t have much standing in the community,” says Vorst.
About Joseph Zuken
Born in Ukraine in 1912, Joseph Zuken immigrated with his family to Winnipeg’s North End two years later. Growing up in a family and community of immigrants, Zuken developed a lifelong passion for social equality.
As a lawyer, Zuken often took on low-cost and pro bono legal work for low income people and advocated for welfare rights. During the Second World War, he defended many of those who had been interned without trial under the War Measures Act.
Zuken served in public office for 42 years, split almost evenly between his time as a school trustee and two decades as a city councillor. During that time, he demonstrated unwavering commitment to the needs of his constituents and of all disenfranchised people.
He was awarded the City of Winnipeg Community Service Award, an Honorary Law degree from the University of Winnipeg, a Distinguished Service Award from the University of Manitoba, and was inducted as an Officer of the Buffalo Hunt by the Province of Manitoba.
This article was originally published in Working Together — A Magazine of The Winnipeg Foundation. To download the Fall 2012 edition, click on http://cms.tng-secure.com/file_download.php?fFile_id=23061