CWITCO email@example.com_county.toronto.globe_and_mail 2005-09-05 published
By Ross HOWARD and Gary CWITCO, Monday, September 5, 2005, Page A16
Labour advocate, socialist, canoeist. Born April 3, 1947, in Chippewa, Ontario Died Feb 22, in Vancouver, of cancer, aged Keith OLEKSIUK had never considered his own obituary when he was stricken with cancer. He rarely talked of his accomplishments and his still-expanding career as a labour lawyer. For the last two decades, his life had focused almost exclusively on labour relations and New Democratic Party politics, his family and his community in Vancouver. But he often recited the boyhood joys of jumping into Chippewa Creek, near Niagara Falls, where he was born.
Early on, Keith acquired a respect for sweat labour and harsh conditions working summers in Chippewa's Norton foundry. At York University he was an average arts student with an abnormal course load in political theory. Keith ignored the campus protests over co-ed dorms and marijuana laws, and quietly focused on bigger issues. After graduation Keith joined the front lines of social-justice advocacy, becoming director of the Toronto Unemployment Help Centre. His evenings were eclectic: exploring Toronto's left-wing political circles, and Toronto's music scene. Class-consciousness was linked to most things about Keith: it was Grossman's and the Silver Rail, not the O'Keefe Centre, for him. When he went further afield, it was to the North -- the Nahanni River -- for serious canoe-tripping.
The Marxist Institute attracted his intellectual curiosity but its lack of activism held no lasting appeal. It was storefront lawyers, getting dirty in the trenches, that propelled him to Osgoode Hall Law School in 1980. It was there he met his future wife, Cathy AGNEW. In 1983 he joined the United Steelworkers of America staff.
Keith enthusiastically tackled even arcane legal issues, but he personally found most satisfaction in the long evening meetings with steelworkers in towns such as Flin Flon, Snow Lake, Manitoba, and Trail, British Columbia The plain-speaking young lawyer, in blue jeans and leather jacket, could strategize with workers over beers or the labour leadership across Canada.
In 1990, the steelworkers union lured Keith to Vancouver. This new posting brought him before the British Columbia Labour Relations Board. Shortly thereafter, then-premier Michael Harcourt's New Democratic Party government tapped Keith as a vice-chair for the Labour Relations Board. Although he had not sought the post, Keith welcomed the chance to meld adjudication with a labour consciousness. He also championed efficiency and intellectual rigour in Labour Relations Board rulings. Premier Glen Clark made him chair in 1996. He resigned in 2000 without public comment.
Keith was not one to waste his time on tired ideas or tiresome individuals. As a lawyer and adjudicator, he deplored time-wasting litigators arguing flimsy cases. He acknowledged posturing as a form of protest but his patience was short.
Except on the playing field. When coaching his beloved Trout Lake soccer, baseball or hockey teams, Keith had unlimited patience for the weakest player. His encouragement for young teams, and his attention to the minutiae, was a restorative alternative to the cut-throat realm of British Columbia labour relations. His children Danny, Shane and Kayla, were his greatest pride and, with Cathy, the centre of his life.
By 2002 Keith was again before the British Columbia Labour Board, as staff lawyer for the British Columbia Government Employees Union fighting the new British Columbia Liberal government policies. He also resumed New Democratic Party political activism and mused about international work.
Life, although not necessarily the state of the world, pleased Keith, but nothing fulfilled him more than the accomplishments and love of his family.
His trademark ear-to-ear grin, his sparkling eyes and his good-hearted challenging nature will be sorely missed.
Ross was Keith's canoe partner; Gary his sometimes squash partner.
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