Glendon remembers founding chair of sociology Jean Burnet

Professor Stuart Schoenfeld, chair of Glendon’s Department of Sociology, and York sociology Professor Emerita Janice Newson co-hosted a memorial on Oct. 22 for Professor Emerita Jean Burnet, a much-loved colleague and founding chair of the department from 1967 to 1972, and again from 1974 to 1976, who died Sept. 14 at the age of 90.

Right: Prof. Jean Burnet with her dog

It was a celebration of an illustrious career and an exceptional, warm and brilliant individual who touched the lives of so many people around her. The large number of those in attendance attested to this, representing colleagues from faculty and staff, former students, neighbours, family and friends.

Prof. Burnet was a pioneer on several levels. She was one of the first women to hold the position of department chair at a time when women were treated as second-class citizens. She was hired by Glendon’s first principal, Escott Reid, to establish the previously non-existent Department of Sociology.

Left: Prof. Burnet’s nephew, Brian Burnet. Photo courtesy of Brian Desrosiers Tam.

Glendon Principal Kenneth McRoberts pointed to Prof. Burnet’s groundbreaking achievements as a scholar – particularly in the field of ethnic studies and multiculturalism; as a female academic and academic administrator in a male-dominated hierarchy; and as part of a generation of scholars who helped establish Glendon. “We are acknowledging and celebrating a remarkable life and in the process, we are also celebrating Glendon.”

In his memorial address, Schoenfeld explained that Prof. Burnet "was educated at the University of Chicago, in a tradition that was appreciative of diversity, the struggles of everyday life and social reform. While these issues were present in Canadian sociology in the early 1960s, they were far from mainstream; yet they became characteristic of Glendon’s sociology department. Although Jean could handle statistical data, her real interest was in people’s lived experiences and she was open to a department that shared the same enthusiasms.” 

Left: York Professor Emeritus Don Willmott (centre) with Department of Sociology colleagues. Photo courtesy of Brian Desrosiers Tam.

Prof. Burnet started her teaching career at the University of Toronto in 1945 and came to Glendon in 1967. Her U of T colleague Don Willmott later followed her as second chair. Together they set the direction for the department’s new faculty to focus on the study of everyday people, social issues and the struggle for reform. 

“The willingness to make diversity and real-life experience visible in the Glendon curriculum was pronounced in the department,” said Schoenfeld. “Although not part of the original plan for Glendon, this department quickly became one of the most heavily enrolled.”

Right: Stuart Schoenfeld (left), chair of the Department of Sociology; Richard Weisman, sociology professor; and Alana Chalmers, administrative assistant, Glendon Department of Sociology. Photo courtesy of Brian Desrosiers Tam.

Burnet was a pioneer in recognizing the importance of women’s studies, which did not exist when she was trained and was contentious during her time at York. She edited a volume for the Multicultural History Society of Ontario, titled Looking into My Sister’s Eyes: An Exploration in Women’s History. "She had simply decided that the time had come to challenge the dominant focus on male actors in ethnic studies, with the new knowledge of women’s experiences, and she joined the challenge, not as a polemicist but as a scholar who could give exposure to high-quality work from colleagues,” said Schoenfeld.

Left: Janice Newson (left) and Prof. Jean Burnet

Longtime friend and colleague Newson offered many anecdotes at the memorial to illustrate Prof. Burnet’s warmth, tact and wisdom, as well as what Newson termed her “chutzpah”. Among these were Prof. Burnet’s mid-life clarinet lessons with the lead clarinetist of a symphony orchestra, as well as her ability to ignore rules that she considered discriminatory or unfair. Newson recalled how Prof. Burnet ignored the “no women allowed” rules at the U of T’s Hart House, where her department head called a meeting. “Jean went over to Hart House a few minutes before the meeting. She was greeted at the gate by the porter who informed her that women were not allowed in Hart House. Jean replied, ‘There aren’t any women. There’s only me,’ and she walked through the gate and down the hall to the meeting.”  

Right: Julie Drexler (left), librarian at Glendon’s Leslie Frost Library, and Lesley Lewis, CEO of the Ontario Science Centre. Photo courtesy of Brian Desrosiers Tam.

A testimonial from Judy Young-Drache, president of the Canada-Hungary Educational Foundation, paid tribute to Burnet as a "wonderful, objective, dependable and faithful adviser to multiculturalism and to me personally – with a great sense of humour.” Prof. Burnet also participated in the research for Volume 4 of the Bilingualism and Biculturalism Commission’s report. She served as chair of the Canadian Ethnic Studies Advisory Committee, as well as the Canadian Ethnic History Advisory Panel.

“She was a bright, dynamic, entrepreneurial person,” said U of T sociology Professor Emeritus Raymond Breton. “At the time of her launching the Glendon sociology department, there were almost no such departments in the country, no associations, no journals. Sociology was seen as an appendix to economics and political science. Ethnic studies, Jean’s specific focus, were even more underdeveloped than sociology, and academia was a male fortress.”

Left: Raymond Breton (left), University of Toronto sociology professor emeritus, and Lorna Marsden, former York president & vice-chancellor. Photo courtesy of Brian Desrosiers Tam.

Prof. Burnet received the Order of Canada in 1989, the Outstanding Contribution Award from the Canadian Sociological Association in 1990, the Cruikshank Gold Medal from the Ontario Historical Society in 1996 and was the first recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Canadian Ethnic Studies Association in 2001. In addition, she received honorary degrees from York and the University of Guelph.

The Canadian Journal of Sociology published an article in 2001 in which Burnet was listed as one of 10 pioneering women sociologists whose work significantly shaped the discipline in Canada. 

Submitted by Marika Kemeny, Glendon communications officer