Alphonse Gerwing family stirs Morgentaler debate

By Dennis Gruending

d_gruending&al_gerwing_250.jpgSome family members of Alphonse Gerwing, who died in November 2007, say they will return his Order of Canada medal. His nephew and a sister have said that a similar award made to Dr. Henry Morgentaler tarnishes the one given to their relative. Al Gerwing was one of my high school teachers and remained a friend and mentor until his death from cancer at age 84. I believe that these family members are being presumptuous in wanting to return the award that Al received.

Many of us, if we were lucky, had one teacher who recognized something in us that we did not see in ourselves and who challenged us to set goals and pursue dreams that would otherwise have languished. Al was that one teacher for me. I grew up in rural Saskatchewan and for three years attended St. Peter’s College, a boy’s high school at a Benedictine monastery near Humboldt, Saskatchewan. Al taught us English literature and did it extremely well. He was not actually a monk but had offered his services so that the monastery could spare someone else to serve in a Brazilian mission. Al was also the driving force behind a series of musical performances at our school, including Pirates of Penzance and The Sound of Music. He chose as his cast boys with the best voices and he recruited girls from a high school academy down the road, as well as people from the local community – many of who had not previously recognized their own talent.

Al was later to leave the school and he taught in a number of towns in rural Saskatchewan and Alberta before he retired. When he visited the Benedictine mission in Brazil, he was immensely moved by the poverty of the people. That drove him to work tirelessly on behalf of social justice for the rest of his life. One of his continuing efforts was raising money to help Brazilian street children. He established the Alphonse Gerwing Foundation to ensure that his work would live after him. He received the Order of Canada in 1989 for his humanitarian work and it was a recognition that was well deserved.

I last saw Al in July 2007 when my wife and I visited with him in Lake Lenore, Saskatchewan, the small town where he had been born and to which he retired. He wrote to us not long after to say that he was ill and hoped that God would take him soon, preferably in his sleep. He died a few months later.

I don’t know how it was decided that Al’s Order of Canada medal should be returned. Al never married so there was no immediate family to make such a decision, but at least one relative has expressed his displeasure with what has happened. Jim Gerwing, a former Benedictine monk at the monastery near Humboldt, wrote a letter to The Globe and Mail on July 23. “The Order of Canada was not given to the Gerwing family,” he said, “and they have absolutely no right to return it simply because they disagree with the fact that Henry Morgentaler is also a recipient. Canada should not accept the return of such an honour unless it is explicitly written into the deceased person’s will.”

The Gerwings are a large family of staunch Catholics and likely that provided their motive to return the medal. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops was sharply critical of Dr. Morgentaler’s receiving the award and various individual bishops have called upon people to make their displeasure known to the Governor-General, who is nominally in charge of the selection. Several recipients have returned their medals. One wonders how they can all be so judgemental about a woman’s right to choose when the church continues to insist that it is sinful for people to plan the size of their families by using what the Catholic hierarchy describes as “artificial” methods of birth control, including condoms and the pill. As recently as July 25, the Vatican responded dismissively to an open letter from 50 Roman Catholic groups who said the Church’s ban on contraception has been “catastrophic” and should be lifted.

I don’t know what, if anything, Al Gerwing would have said about Dr. Morgentaler’s receiving the Order of Canada. When I was a candidate for political office and later a Member of Parliament, Al talked to me about abortion. We were not able to agree entirely, but we did agree that it is essential to support women and families in every way possible – including the provision of adequate child care, housing, increased minimum wages and improved maternity and paternity leaves. Al continued to be a modest financial donor to my campaigns, even though he had by then given away most of his money, including that in his RRSPs. We remained dear friends to the end.

2 thoughts on “Alphonse Gerwing family stirs Morgentaler debate

  1. Dennis :
    I would like to be on page with you , in support of the following.

    ” We did agree that it is essential to support women and families in every way possible – including the provision of adequate child care, housing, increased minimum wages and improved maternity and paternity leaves. ”

    As to the paradox of speaking for the dead. I can only speculate that Al’s thoughts would be of engaging the moral and ethical ideas of members of the Order of Canada in his work in Brazil.

    Al Gerwing would not diminish the contributions of
    Dr. Morgentaler: but only debate their effectiveness as social construction tools in Canadian’s helpful work in Haiti and Brazil.

    Motives, Convictions and expressed thoughts, are part of inclusiveness in a democratic society. In this we all can be thankful. rtg.


  2. I was a dedicated follower of Al’s activities for the last twelve years of his life,and his influence has led me to even adopting a Brazilian boy.
    I agree with Ralph Gerwing in his comment above, that Al would not have returned his medal on the principle of being connected with Dr. Henry Morgentaler,even though I know he opposed abortion strongly.
    As an adoptive parent, I want people to understand that adoption can be just as wonderful as being a regular parent. Having done both, and struggled through a Brazilian adoption, it is still great!
    Al never always agreed with me on everything, but he had to concede that Marcos was probably the best kid in Canada. There are millions more, come on people!


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