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ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT FOR FINANCIAL JUSTICE


June 13, 2016
By Nick Pron

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ONE WOMAN’S FIGHT FOR FINANCIAL JUSTICE

Widow Barbara Irwin took on the politicians – and won

by Nick Pron (Photos by Jim Wilkes)

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More than 40 years have passed, but Barbara Irwin remembers every moment of that last night she would ever spend with her husband.

Detective Michael Irwin, 38, was working the overnight shift and he teased his wife that her supper of steak, green peas and french fries was like “a great breakfast.” The couple talked about their coming summer holiday plans with their four children, Stephen, 11, John, 12, Michael, 14, and Cathy, 16. After watching a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey game, he said goodnight to his children and headed for the door.

“Bye honey, see you in the morning,” he said. “Keep the kettle hot. I might bring some of the boys home for coffee.”

“Be careful,” she said. He replied: “When my number’s called, it’s called. I will go.”

About four hours later she got the dreaded knock at the front door. Irwin and his partner, Detective Douglas Sinclair, 44, were checking out reports of a “a man with a pellet gun” when they were ambushed and gunned down in an east end apartment building by a drunk with a .22- calibre rifle who bragged that he was a “graduate student” of prison. Sinclair was killed at the scene, Irwin died later in hospital, his wife of 18 years by his side. He never regained consciousness. The two officers were posthumously honoured for their bravery along with a third officer, Constable Samuel Fox, who killed the gunman, Lewis Fines, later that morning on February 27, 1972.

When the tributes ended, Barbara learned about the financial realities facing the widows of police officers back in those days. It cost her $1,200 to bury her husband. And while she got his annual salary of $12,828 for the rest of her life – if she stayed single – she was told Toronto had a bylaw stating her yearly income would never increase, even as the cost of living began skyrocketing in the 1970s. So when she got a $1.25 increase from a portion of the salary covered by the federal government, she had to write a letter to the police chief, advising him to deduct a buck and a quarter from her monthly pension cheque.

She also lost her dental plan coverage, and would have to pay for the cost of any future hospital bills, along with any medicine for herself and her children. She was shocked to learn that the common-law wife of the man who murdered her husband would be moving into a brand new, city-subsidized townhouse and get welfare cheques about $2,000 higher than her annual police pension.

But rather than sit around and sulk about it, Barbara began a seven year battle to get financial justice for herself and other police widows.

“I never begrudged the fact that the (killer’s) widow and her four children were looked after by the city,” she said. “But my husband was killed protecting the city and I felt that myself and other police widows should receive cost of living increases.”

Police later learned that Fines had been taking pot shots at passing cars on the Don Valley Parkway and could have killed several motorists were it not for the two officers losing their lives to stop him.

Barbara’s battle was backed by the Toronto Police Association. Then president Syd Brown said at the time: “If a widow was worthy of receiving his salary when he was murdered, she should still be worthy of his true salary in subsequent years without its value eroded by inflation.”

The law said the amount of her monthly cheque was frozen forever. It was a time when city employees were seeking large pay hikes, some as high as 15 per cent, to keep up with inflation. Barbara still had a healthy mortgage on their modest, semi-detached home. With four young children, her food bill kept going up. When a bank turned her down for a second mortgage to help pay expenses, the Toronto Police credit union came to her rescue and gave her one. She was under pressure to get a job, but she wanted to stay home to help her children get through this traumatic period in their young lives.

Her son John had gone to the building where his dad had been murdered, staring at his father’s blood stains on the floor before accepting his dad was gone forever.

The four children would often argue over who would sit in their dad’s chair at suppertime. The family dog, Shetly, kept waiting by the bedroom stairs for her master to come home, pining so much for his return she eventually died.

“I lost my husband,” said Barbara. “My children lost their dad. I didn’t want to lose my children because I had to go to work and not be home for them as they were growing up.” So she sat down at her kitchen table and began “the battle,” writing letters to everyone, from the mayor of Toronto to the premier of the province, the head of the police commission, as it was called then, and the media. She became the “the point man” for the police union’s campaign for a cost-of-living clause in pension cheques for police widows.

Her one-woman crusade became a media favourite. Soon, other police unions across the country were following her lead and fighting for the same rights for widows. It was not an easy battle.

One Toronto newspaper ran a half-page of letters to the editor about her campaign. Most were abusive. “Get a job,” was one comment. “Tell your children to go out and work,” said another. She kept getting nasty, hang-up phone calls. Some radio hosts at the time mocked her campaign. “Oh, poor widow,” was one sarcastic comment. “She has a car, a camper and she just went on a holiday trip to England.”

Her husband had bought the car and the camper before he was killed. Relatives paid for the trip. It wasn’t widely known she had donated her husband’s corneas so two young children could have sight.

All the negative comments made her even more determined to win her battle, not just for her family but for other police widows. The $86 a month one other widow was getting had not gone up a single cent in the 20 years since her husband was killed on the job.

“I was not going to lose this battle,” she said. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night, go to the kitchen table, and just start writing.”

The police commission was starting to feel the heat of her campaign. She met them in a closed-door meeting, no media allowed. She went with a lawyer that she paid for herself.

“I don’t understand why you’re here,” one commissioner challenged. “You’re getting a good pension. And you’re also getting baby bonus cheques.”

Barbara said she could feel her blood rising over that remark. In one province, police widows whose husbands were killed in the line of duty got insurance cheques of $190,000. She got $22,000.

She controlled her anger, stood up and asked them one question: “How many men here are also getting baby bonus cheques on top of your salaries?”

Slowly, most of the commissioners raised their hands. Not long afterwards, they were backing her battle.

She had a closed-door meeting with the city of Toronto’s executive committee, and soon the bylaw that blocked cost-of-living increases for the widows of police officers killed on the job was dropped. Barbara had won the battle for her family and other police widows.

“I spoke out,” Barbara, now 82, said. “If everyone kept quiet, there would be no changes. Let people know what you have gone through and it will help other people’s lives.”

Barbara never remarried and is proud that her three sons all joined the Toronto Police Service. Her daughter married a police officer.

“My father gave his life protecting the city,” said John. “That’s why I joined the service. You care about people and you can do something good.”

(Sourced – Toronto Police Association Tour of Duty – November 2015)

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