Humanitarian, diplomat, politician, and journalist Stephen Lewis has dedicated much of his life to helping make the world a better place. He has become internationally famous through many years work on behalf of children, and, more recently, Africans living with HIV/AIDS. If you ever get a chance to see Stephen Lewis speak - and you may, for he travels endlessly promoting his causes - I recommend you do; he is an impassioned and informed speaker who can talk inspiringly and entertainingly, with authority but also humility, about the plight of those who suffer needlessly.
Lewis was born in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada in 1937, and was immersed in politics from an early life. His Russian-born Jewish father, David Lewis, was for many years the national secretary - and sole paid employee - of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), a left-leaning political party; and was one of the architects of the New Democratic Party (NDP) that replaced the CCF in 1961. Under the NDP David Lewis was finally successful in being elected to parliament in 1962, and in 1971, when Tommy Douglas retired, was also elected the party's leader. Though initially successful, David Lewis was not reelected in 1974; thereafter he retired from politics.
Stephen Lewis (hereafter Lewis) followed in his father's footsteps, first getting elected to the provincial legislature in 1963, while only 26 and still in university. He was articulate and charismatic, and the provincial party hoped that his youth and ambition would give them new life at the polls. Chosen party leader in 1970, the election of the next year did not bring the hoped-for resurgence of the left-of-centre NDP, which yo-yoed in and out of popularity over the next two elections. Initially the NDP attracted so many new supporters that they became the official opposition and forced the Liberal government of Bill Davis to adopt many of their policies, such as rent control; the subsequent election found the party fortunes waning, and Lewis quit politics in 1978.
He worked for a number of years as a labour mediator, columnist and broadcaster, before being appointed Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations in 1984 - a bit of a surprise, as it was Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, from the opposite end of the political spectrum, who nominated him. With characteristic vigour, Lewis threw himself into the work, chairing a committee that drafted a five-year program for African economic recovery, as well as the first international conference on climate change, which formulated the first plan on global warming. He was appointed special representative for UNICEF in 1990, and travelled widely, advocating for the rights and needs of children, especially children in the developing world and those suffering as a consequence of war. Between 1995 and 1999, he was deputy executive director of UNICEF, and in 1997, was also appointed by the Organization of African Unity to the portentous-sounding "International Panel of Eminent Personalities to Investigate the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda and the Surrounding Events". In 2001 UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed Lewis his special envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, and Lewis' work in this capacity has consumed his life since then.
Lewis holds 18 honorary doctorates from Canadian universities and is a Companion of the Order of Canada, my country's highest honour for lifetime achievement. He is married to the socialist feminist journalist Michele Landsberg, and together they have three children: Ilana, Jenny, and Avi Lewis, also a journalist and married to author Naomi Klein.
Recently he created the Stephen Lewis Foundation (www.stephenlewisfoundation.org) to help ease the pain of HIV/AIDS in Africa. According to its website, the foundation has a threefold purpose:
- "to provide care at community level to women who are dying, so that their last weeks, days, hours are free from pain, humiliation and indignity;
- "to assist orphans and other AIDS-affected children, in every possible way, from the payment of school fees to the provision of food;
- "to support associations of people living with HIV/AIDS, so that the courageous men and women who have openly declared their status can educate themselves and share information with the broader community on prevention, treatment, care and the elimination of stigma."