Remembering Cam Russell

Beginnings

By Rachel Gray, Executive Director

The Stop’s founder, Cam Russell, passed away on August 4th. At the celebration of his life held this past weekend, friends and family reflected on a life well lived, a life of love and generosity, of friendship, community, and song. A table at the reception was weighed down with family photos, awards, and plaques of recognition for his years of community service, and Gilbert & Sullivan showbills and songbooks (he was a devotee and an enthusiastic singer). Without a doubt, Cam’s life made the world a better place, one small step at a time.

Cam had been a regular visitor to The Stop over the years, attending AGMs and special events, but two years ago he spent a powerful afternoon with the staff team, describing the history of The Stop and what led to our founding (Cam is pictured above, far left, with staff members following this meeting). His reflections were gratifying and exciting as he described the Kensington Market community he and his wife Shirley moved into in 1972, when he took over as priest at St. Stephen-In-The-Fields Church. The excitement of learning about their new community was soon followed by understanding the need so many people were facing. The many knocks on the rectory door led to the church’s outreach efforts, which eventually became The Stop. Cam was also responsible for helping launch St. Stephen’s Community House around the same time – a remarkable contribution from one small congregation.

In sharing archival materials and reflections from those early years, Cam reminded us that The Stop has always been about responding to urgent needs AND advocating for change. From the beginning, The Stop was about listening to people, about being “in community”, and it was about using food as a tool to build that community. As Cam wrote:

“At first we contented ourselves with giving out sandwiches and the odd bit of cash. That is what our callers asked for, and that is what they got – a baloney sandwich and a wide smile from Shirley. But soon it became clear that for many, food was not what they were asking for. They weren’t coming back for the baloney sandwiches – they were coming back for Shirley’s smiles! So, we began asking them their stories, and found we were making friends.” 

Cam Russell’s legacy, and the legacy of The Stop, is one of community, justice, and action – about building social solidarity. His response when marginalized people in need came knocking at the door was to talk to them, to ask about their lives and what was needed, to be an ally in helping them, and to advocate on the issues they faced. Cam often talked about the African concept of Ubuntu (‘I am, because you are’), and his life was guided by his belief in the universal bonds that connect us all.

When I learned of Cam’s death, I couldn’t help but think of the contrast of his life and the times we now face. A week after he died, the white supremacy march took place in Charlottesville. As we face the reality of the deep-seated racism on display in the faces of those angry white men, and the more obscured but equally present systemic racism and oppression here in Canada, we need more Cam Russells.

We all need to do just a little bit more to make up for his passing. Really listen to each other’s struggles. Be part of a community response that allows marginalized people to move their lives back onto the page. Build social solidarity, break down barriers, and engage in the invaluable work Cam believed was our collective responsibility — creating economic, social, and political justice. In honour of Cam Russell, might I suggest that we also take time to sing. With his voice gone, we need more of that, too.