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Michael Edward Seaward was a grassroots activist like no other

Michael Edward Seaward

Contributed photo

Michael Edward Seaward

Brother. Uncle. Newfoundlander. Labour activist. Born Dec. 24, 1950, in St. John's; died May 20, 2017, in Aurora, Ont.; of a heart attack; aged 66.

In the summer of 1966, Mike Seaward enjoyed a bittersweet return to his birthplace during Newfoundland's first "Come Home Year." He'd been 10 years old when he left six years earlier, along with his four younger sisters, as his parents sought an economically better life on the mainland. A few months after arriving in Toronto, Mike's father, Bill, died of a brain tumour. Three months after the funeral, Mike's brother was born, and named after his father.

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While the struggle may have been easier in Ontario than it would have been in Newfoundland, a widowed Gladys Seaward struggled nonetheless with six children. Only the support of family, who had already moved to the mainland, kept them out of abject poverty. So when Mike was packed into a station wagon filled with uncles and cousins for the long drives back and forth to Newfoundland, it is easy to understand how a passion for family, home and social justice crystallized in 15-year-old Mike.

After graduating high school in 1968, Mike spent a few years working in the sheet-metal industry with his stepfather, later joining Reynolds Extrusion in 1972 and quickly becoming active in the United Steelworkers. Here his strong belief in labour rights, human rights and social justice found traction, and for the next 45 years Mike became a grassroots activist like no other.

Elected as president of his USW local, Mike also became vice-president of the Toronto and York Region Council and president of the Steelworkers' Toronto Area Council. (The council is honouring his indefatigable commitment with its newly named Seaward Hall on Nov. 12.) He was a founding member of a York Region housing co-op and child-care centre and served as an executive member of the York Coalition for Social Justice. Mike travelled to South Africa as part of an international delegation regarding social housing. He also ran as a provincial NDP candidate three times in the Newmarket-Aurora riding.

Born in 1950, Mike Seaward's life paralleled the postwar accumulation of wealth and the domination of North America by the automobile, yet his values lay elsewhere. He died a man who never obtained a driver's licence. Throughout his life he mostly chose to live with his sisters or brother, with all his nieces and nephews. He owned no house, no condo, no cottage and no automobile. He never married and he had no children.

As an adult, Mike returned to Newfoundland countless times, forgoing the tourist attractions of iceberg sighting or whale watching. His visits were contained to the East St. John's working-class neighbourhoods – that stretch between Signal Hill and Patrick Street – where his parents grew up and where he lived as a young boy. He loved watching the annual regatta on Quidi Vidi Lake and enjoying his cousins' band, Billy and the Bruisers, perform during the George Street Festival.

In July, 52 years after his first Come Home visit, Mike will return one last time when his Ontario family brings his ashes to St. John's for a gathering with our Newfoundland family. We will celebrate a man who lived his life by the values forged in his youth.

Ed Seaward is Mike's cousin.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, visit tgam.ca/livesguide

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