Making change in students’ lives

Literacy, Education & Employment

Academic, socialist Leo Panitch honoured through scholarship for north end students.
Head shot of Leo Panitch.
Leo Panitch.
Photo courtesy of Melanie Panitch.

Leo Panitch believed it was possible to build a better society, one in which people could live better lives.

A political science professor and Canada Research chair in comparative political economy at York University, Panitch’s contributions to the field of democratic socialism are far-reaching. Following his death from COVID-19, Panitch’s life is being recognized with a scholarship for students attending University of Winnipeg classes at Merchants Corner in the North End – the same neighbourhood in which Leo grew up, and which greatly influenced his world view.

It is fitting that the scholarship will help students who might otherwise not have access to education.

“One of his awesome qualities was to create a space,” says Melanie Panitch, Leo’s wife of 53 years. “Because of his size, his big voice, his connections in the world, he really could create space that allowed other voices to come in to be heard. He was very committed to and keen about building capacity and participation.”

Born in 1945, Leo Panitch grew up in Winnipeg’s North End. His parents, Max and Sarah, were Jewish immigrants from Ukraine and were active in the Winnipeg labour movement.

“Leo would say that it had a very profound effect on his perspective of the world… experiences as a working-class family gave him a real sense of class inequities in capitalism, but also gave him a socialist sensibility.”

Leo went to I. L. Peretz Folk School, a secular Jewish elementary school, and then to St. John’s High School, both located in the in the North End. He obtained a Bachelor of Arts in Economics from the University of Manitoba and a Master of Science and a Doctor of Philosophy from the London School of Economics.

Panitch taught at Carleton University from 1972 to 1984, and then moved to York University where he worked until his retirement in 2016. There, he spent time as chair of the department of political science and was named Canada Research chair in 2002. A favourite professor, Panitch was known to lead students in a rousing rendition of “Solidarity Forever.”Panitch authored more than 100 scholarly articles and published nine books, including

2012’s The Making of Global Capitalism: The Political Economy of American Empire, cowritten with Sam Gindin. He was particularly proud of his work with the Socialist Register, which he co-edited from 1986 until 2021, says Melanie.

During a career that spanned more than 40 years, Panitch continually questioned the status quo and believed in the ability to make change. He was inspired by those around him.

“He drew a lot of strength from radical progressive movements, so even in the context of some of the dire situations one might see, he immersed himself where there was the possibility of radical change,” she added.

Sometimes that was found in other countries, in different political parties, in local groups such as those trying to transform transit into a free system, or in cultural works such as music or theatre that aimed to evoke change.

Leo and Melanie met in their teens in Winnipeg. They were married in 1967 and had two children, Maxim and Vida. Both children are pursuing their passions and interests, with a strong commitment to family and friendship.

“He would be proud of knowing the influence he had is demonstrated by the way in which they’re leading their lives,” Melanie says.

The couple was told they brought out the best in each other, and Melanie says they were very supportive of each other’s work.

An activist, advocate, researcher and educator in the field of disability studies for more than four decades, Melanie was a founder of the School of Disability Studies at Ryerson. Today, she is executive director of Ryerson’s Office of Social Innovation.

“We could teach one another, we could complement the work we were doing, with this very similar kind of foundation about recognizing the need for change, surfacing voices that aren’t heard, resisting some of the established practice and policy.”

In May 2019, during the Winnipeg General Strike Centenary Conference, Leo and Melanie Panitch sat on a panel of former Winnipeggers speaking to the strike’s impact on their work. This was the first time the couple had appeared on a panel together.

While they were in town, conference participants asked for a tour of Merchants Corner, which Melanie had taught about in her course, “Foundations of Social Innovation.”

Located on Selkirk Avenue at Andrews Street, Merchants Corner was redeveloped through a community coalition including U of W’s Dr. Jim Silver, North End Community Renewal Corporation, Community Education Development Association (CEDA), and other North End community organizations. Today, Merchants Corner is a mixed-use campus that includes community classrooms shared by the U of W’s Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies and CEDA’s Pathways to Education program, student housing, and a community café.

“[Merchants Corner is] a stellar example of an innovative community engagement initiative and an incredible example that could be held up for other universities, community groups, and students. It just is such a shining light,” Melanie says.

Wanting to do more, the conference tour group launched a fundraising campaign, in which Leo took a leading role.

Panitch passed away in December 2020 of COVID-19 and pneumonia, shortly after being diagnosed with cancer. It made sense to set up a scholarship for students studying in U of W’s Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies at Merchants Corner, Melanie says.

“When Leo died, it became the most obvious way to remember him, because it spoke to his North End roots, his academic orientation and his commitment to education and social justice.”

Fund: Leo Panitch Award at Merchants Corner; Leo Panitch Community Outreach Award at Merchants Corner
Cause: Literacy, Education and Employment
Supports: Students in University of Winnipeg’s Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies at Merchants Corner who have academic ability, financial need, and experiential knowledge of the North End. The Community Outreach Award will also enable students in community to teach local students about educational opportunities, under the supervision of the Department of Urban and Inner-City Studies

This story is featured in the Fall 2021 issue of our Working Together magazine. Download or view the full issue on our Publications page.

About the photo

Melanie Panitch (centre) with University of Winnipeg professors, Dr. Shauna MacKinnon (left) and Dr. Jim Silver

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