A Life's Story

March 12, 2022

The great defender

With friends from U of M to taxi drivers, Lisa Seymour created safe spaces and called out injustice

By: Mike Sawatzky

As a young woman growing up in Woodstock, Ont., Lisa Seymour had a serious side that foreshadowed her life’s work.

“Lisa was pretty selfless,” remembers Jill Town, a close friend. “I met her when I moved from a rural school into town in Grade 7 and she was sort of the first of my peers, outside of my family, who had a little bit of political awareness. She’d look at our packed lunches and say, ‘You know, we shouldn’t be eating green grapes. Did you know the workers are striking in California?’”

Seymour had a socially conscious upbringing in a family of labour unionists and she volunteered at a women’s shelter while still attending high school.

As an adult, she was an admired professional and a valued friend and co-worker.

The longtime social worker, feminist, labour activist and University of Manitoba associate professor, died on March 26, 2021 of cancer. She was 60.

Almost one year after her death, friends and colleagues are still coming to grips with her absence.

“Lisa lived her life the way she worked,” says Elizabeth Boyle, now retired from the U of M’s Career Services. “Her work and her life were treated the same way — she treated people with kindness and respect. It could have been a student she was working with or it could also have been a barista at Starbucks who probably also loved her or her cab driver — she took the cab a lot; she didn’t drive. And the cab drivers loved her, too. She was probably the best tipper ever.”

Seymour’s undergraduate years were spent at the University of Western Ontario before moving on to work in London and Hamilton. She relocated to Winnipeg and completed her Masters of Social Work in 1996.

At the U of M, Seymour was a force of nature.

Teaming with her friend Chad Smith, Seymour helped to develop the Identifying Allies: A Safe Space Project into a ground-breaking program. It was an initiative to make the campus a safer place, where gender and sexual diversity was accepted and respected.

In addition to her position as an associate professor at the Student Counselling Centre, Seymour was also the guiding force of the Peers: Students Helping Students program, an on-campus organization.

Rebecca Balakrishnan, a volunteer in Peers who eventually became a U of M work colleague, valued Seymour’s keen insights and willingness to involve everyone.

“She was just someone that could just nurture everybody around her and connect people,” says Balakrishnan, currently a consultant and work study supervisor in the U of M’s Career Services. “I think it really brought her a lot of joy and it meant a lot to her to connect people to one another.”

Making personal connections was crucial to Seymour’s life and work. She had a prodigious memory and a remarkable ability to recall personal information about people she interacted with. The combination proved irresistible.

Megan Thom photo Lisa (right) was best man at Jill Town’s wedding to Noreen Stevens in 2006. At right, Jill and Noreen’s daughter, Savannah, laugh alongside Lisa.

“I had the opportunity to be a friend and colleague and facilitate workshops with her and see her engage with students and myself — you always felt you had her attention,” says Angela Faulkner, a U of M co-worker who knew Seymour for the last 21 years of her life. “She always focused on people. She was always making people feel valued.”

Seymour knew how to make and maintain connections.

“She was this embodiment of empathy,” says Balakrishnan. “Just so full of caring for others and their experience and such a fierce advocate. She was so empathetic, but she was also so sharp: if somebody was being insensitive or saying something that was not OK or hurtful to other people, she would call it out without hesitation and in a really clear way. She wouldn’t stand for injustice.”

Boyle remembers Seymour quickly drew people into her orbit. A devoted baseball fan, music lover and book club participant, she was well known for leaving voice mail messages in the middle of the night to follow up with friends and co-workers.

“In the first year or so I always thought, ‘Wow, how can I get to be her friend?’” says Boyle, who became a close friend for more than 20 years. “She had that kind of charisma and it was clear that students loved her. She had such a great presence.”

Seymour received a cancer diagnosis in 2008 in which doctors gave her 10 years to live. She made the best of the time remaining, living on for 13 more but friends say she rarely let on about the full effects of the disease.

“She was very private about it because it was not who she was,” says Town. “It was part of what she was dealing with, but it didn’t define her — that was the selflessness.”

Supplied Lisa (left) and her lifelong friend from high school, Cheryl Gould.

During her final days in palliative care at Riverview Health Centre, she was able to receive in-person visits from some close friends. Many others, including friends, former students and co-workers, also sent heart-felt letters and Faulkner compiled 115 of those in an online document and printed a copy for her father, Phil.

Those words spoke to the impact Seymour had and reading the letters to Lisa proved to be a heart-wrenching experience.

“They’re beautiful,” says Faulkner. “People talked about how she made them feel valued and made them feel special. She was such a bright light. People talked about her energy and her vibrancy and her smile…

“At one point, I think it was too much for her. It was too overwhelming at one point when I was reading them to her. We had to (take a break). Somebody wrote she really did make the world a better, safer place.”

Seymour’s vast capacity for seeing the good in people made a lasting impression.

“Everything was about fun and laughter,” says Town. “She could be serious, of course, when that’s what you needed. She was there to listen to you. But I think she also absolutely loved young people and the endless possibilities that she saw in them.”

In a tribute to Lisa, donations can be made to the Lisa Seymour Memorial Fund at the University of Manitoba at give.umanitoba.ca/LisaSeymourMemorialfund.

mike.sawatzky@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @sawa14

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