Lillian Freiman

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1885-1940

 

Lillian Freiman was a tireless fundraiser and organizer whose charitable works touched many people in Ottawa and across the country. She was the most influential Jewish Canadian woman of her generation.

 

Lillian grew up as the fifth of eleven children in a large house at 158 Nicholas St., just south of Laurier Ave. She was the daughter of Moses Bilsky, the owner of a jewelry store on Rideau St., a man with a strong sense of adventure – he participated in the 1861 Cariboo gold rush in British Columbia and was wounded as a militiaman in San Francisco – and incidentally the first Jew to settle in Ottawa. Today, Bilsky is remembered more for having founded Ottawa’s first synagogue and his strong support for the then-small but growing local Jewish population.

 

Lillian was exposed to her parents’ generosity and community spirit at a young age. One of her first memories was accompanying her father to the train station in winter to meet refugees of a Russian pogrom and bringing them home. Years later, she would recall that “it was the usual thing when we came home from school to find that our rooms had been given to some unexpected visitor. We never knew where we were sleeping or how many of us would occupy a room. And we never knew when we went to dress what article of clothing would be missing.” (Figler, 1961)

 

At 18, Lillian married Archibald Freiman, whose department store on Rideau St. (now home to the Bay) became the biggest in the city. They first lived at 210 Daly Ave. before moving to 24 Russell Ave. in 1906. In 1913, they would settle definitively at 149 Somerset St. West (now the Army Officers Mess).

 

Her husband’s business success gave Lillian the financial security to pursue an extraordinarily active life as fund-raiser and community organizer. Among other things, she helped young people in trouble with the law find jobs, set up 30 sewing machines at her home to support sewing circles for the Red Cross during World War 1, travelled the country to raise money and find homes for 150 Ukrainian children orphaned by the war, co-founded the Great War Veterans Association (the precursor to the Canadian Legion) and campaigned for a Jewish homeland. Ottawa’s mayor also asked her to lead the city’s response to the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic[1].

 

Starting in 1921, she headed the first Poppy Day campaign in Canada and nearly all the subsequent ones during her lifetime and became known as “the Poppy Lady” as a result. She had a fair claim to the title as the first Canadian poppies were made in her living room.

 

She was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 1934 for her community work and, in 2008, the government of Canada recognized her as a National Historic Person. At her funeral in 1940, her casket was covered in red poppies.

 

 

 

[1] See separate article on the Spanish flu.