Winnipeg recently lost an icon of the left, feminist and creative community with the passing of Loa Henry. Loa was a life-long feminist and social justice advocate whose life stands testament to the clarity and depth of her commitment to progressive politics. As anyone who knew her can attest, Loa was no armchair theorist but an activist who lived up to her commitments.
Exuding generosity and warmth, she created community spontaneously, with a naturalness rooted in the kind of generosity and love that the left advocates but often fails to deliver. Loa delivered. She built community in many ways, but most spectacularly she led in the establishment and maintenance of important creative institutions for the left that gave substance to the powerful, but seldom acknowledged, relationship between creative expression and the progressive movement.
I arrived in Winnipeg too late to witness her work in directing the Nellie McClung Theatre, an innovative feminist theatre troupe she established in the 1970s that became a pivotal element of the women’s movement and an inspiration for women across Canada. Loa may well have been inspired by her mother, Ann Henry, an early feminist and a journalist who was also a social activist playwright. Later, Loa tapped into the collective enthusiasm of Manitobans for choral singing and revived the spirit of the 1930s Progressive Arts movement by establishing and directing the Winnipeg Labour Choir, a major institution of the Winnipeg left without which, for many years, no community event on the left was complete.
Loa’s public achievements are legendary on the left, but what we mostly overlook is the kind of contributions traditionally made by women that sustain the movement and are so rarely credited for their political commitment. Loa’s less publicly visible work helped sustain the progressive movement in many ways, and like many women of the left, she did so quietly which left her work hard to identify, but not unrecognized.
With her life partner, Jim Silver, Loa hosted many social gatherings in their home to support progressive electoral candidates. They were ahead of their time in that, before the current upsurge in Indigenous political mobilizing, they recognized the importance of supporting Indigenous and Métis candidates. Loa sustained and supported an extended web of family and friends, the breadth of which is difficult to calculate, but is reflected in the many tributes that are pouring in now.
Loa’s impact on the left, feminist, creative, and Indigenous communities is incalculable and our communities will miss her dearly. Hers is a legacy that we will not soon forget and is a model we would all do well to emulate.
Julie Guard is Professor of History and Labour Studies at the University of Manitoba and the author most recently of Radical Housewives: Price Wars and Food Politics in Mid-Twentieth Century Canada, published by the University of Toronto Press.