A Life's Story
December 07, 2019
Chaplain, champion, caregiver
In lifetime of volunteer work, Eleanor Brownlee 'gave everything of herself'
By: Gabrielle Piché
Loud noises interrupted Kevin Brownlee’s play time at his grandmother’s cottage at Pelican Lake. He looked up and saw his mother, Eleanor, wrestling with a snake, trying to pull a frog from the predator’s mouth.
Eleanor Brownlee’s life revolved around caring for others and the environment. She helped start Manitoba’s first hospice, worked with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s victim services unit and volunteered at United Way Winnipeg.
Since her death June 9, at age 75, Brownlee’s children remember her for her compassion and progressive views, calling her a champion of the environment, reconciliation, and social justice.
Brownlee was born June 17, 1943, in Brandon. Her mother became a social worker after her dad died in the Second World War.
"Her mom was very demanding of her," said Ross Brownlee, one of Eleanor’s three children. "Our mom, she became kind of a perfectionist."
Helen Riesberry (Brownlee’s mother) had a brief passage in the Winnipeg Free Press when she died, listed in a feature of notable Manitobans.
"Mom was thrilled, but she was saying, ‘Well, I’ll never do anything like that,’" Ross said. "She’s laughing wherever she is right now."
Brownlee followed her mother’s path, earning a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work. She was offered free tuition at Laval University in Quebec City, but she turned down the offer to stay in Manitoba with then-boyfriend (later husband) Clark, also a social worker.
As a child, Brownlee didn’t see her mother much; she didn’t want that for her own kids, Ross said. So, when Brownlee married and had children, she stayed home — but also ventured into the community.
Brownlee volunteered with United Way Winnipeg after she had her first son, Ross. She adopted Kevin in 1973, so Ross wouldn’t be a lonely only child; and later adopted daughter, Meredith, in 1976.
As the three children grew up, Brownlee got involved with Jocelyn House, Manitoba’s first hospice.
"What her role was, I don’t know if any of us can say," Ross said. "I just remember many meetings, and hours and hours of phone calls. She would hand-write letters to government."
Brownlee rallied to raise money for the new centre. After Jocelyn House opened in 1985, she volunteered as a careperson, tending to people with terminal illnesses.
"She never took a red cent (in salary)," Ross said.
Brownlee volunteered at the hospice for a decade. During that time, she ensured Kevin and Meredith learned about their Indigenous roots. "It’s certainly something that was celebrated and not shied away from," Kevin said.
The family attended powwows and a Sun Dance at Sioux Valley Dakota Nation in the 1980s. To have attendance from white people — Eleanor, Ross and Clark — was a big deal, Kevin said.
Brownlee later stopped volunteering at Jocelyn House to pursue a master’s degree in divinity. She became a chaplain at St. Boniface Hospital.
"(Being a chaplain) was hard work; a lot of emotional hard work," Meredith said.
Brownlee would console families whose loved ones had died or were seriously ill. She’d work long hours without being paid overtime, and she’d bring the stress of the job home with her.
"They would say, ‘You’re not getting paid overtime,’ and she’d say, ‘Well, I can’t just leave if the family’s in the middle of a crisis,’" Kevin said.
Brownlee emotionally invested in her clients. "It took a toll on her mentally and physically," Ross said. "It beat her up."
During a break in 1994, Brownlee travelled to Pender Island, B.C., to visit her best friend, Bonnie Thompson. She fell in love with the Southern Gulf Islands location and, after visiting for a third time, bought a house there. She rented a place in Winnipeg while still working as a chaplain.
"She often said, ‘It’s my light at the end of the tunnel,’" Ross said of the island home.
Brownlee retired in 2003, and moved to Pender, but her work never stopped. She volunteered with the RCMP victim services unit, Pender Island Conservancy Association, and Pender Truth and Reconciliation Circle. She volunteered at a local thrift store, helped researchers identify forage fish, and raised money to buy land for Brooks Point Regional Park, among other ongoing causes.
However, she had ongoing troubles with her digestive tract. In June, it finally failed her.
Even now, Brownlee’s children get letters forwarded from government officials responding to her handwritten memos. One from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrived just after her death.
"She gave everything of herself," Ross said.