A large crowd including family members, Jewish community leaders, political and military officials, and a large contingent of Canadian Armed Forces veterans, gathered in the elegant drawing room of Army Officers’ Mess at 149 Somerset Street West in Ottawa, October 11, for the dedication of a plaque honouring philanthropist and community leader Lillian Bilsky Freiman (1885-1940).
Also present at the morning ceremony – organized by Parks Canada on behalf of the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada – were representatives of many of the charitable organizations impacted by Freiman’s activism and generosity.
The daughter of Moses Bilsky, the first Jew to settle in Ottawa, Freiman married department store owner and Jewish community leader A.J. (Archibald Jacob) Freiman in 1903. The Freimans built their home in 1913 and the mansion became the Army Officers’ Mess in 1957.
As Freiman’s granddaughter Betsy Rigal, who grew up in the home, and Lt.-Col (Retired) Dan Mackay explained, it was on the dining room table in her home in 1922 that Freiman made the first artificial poppies that quickly came to symbolize Remembrance Day in Canada – a symbol that endures to this day.
Well before she launched the poppy campaign in Canada, Freiman, who became known as “The Poppy Lady,” had taken a leading role in supporting soldiers and veterans. As Mackay, a past president of the Army Officers’ Mess who now serves as the Mess historian explained, “With the outbreak of war in 1914 Lillian Freiman devoted herself to the welfare of Canada’s soldiers. She established a sewing club in her home… which the Freimans had purchased in 1913. In so doing, she removed her dining room furniture and installed 30 sewing machines. Each day… under the auspices of the Red Cross, women volunteers sewed pyjamas and heavy-lined dressing gowns which later proved so satisfactory that the pattern was adopted by the American Red Cross. The women who volunteered to do this work did so until the end of the war.”
Mackay also noted that Freiman opened her home every weekend to Jewish soldiers from the Rockcliffe Camp. “These soldiers in turn brought their gentile friends as well, and all enjoyed a weekend where they could relax and take part in various entertainments throughout the war years.”
From the soldiers, Freiman learned of the problems experienced by returning veterans leading her to help establish the Great War Veterans Association, the forerunner of the Canadian Legion. In 1933, Freiman became the first woman made an honorary life member of the Legion.
Within the Jewish community, Freiman was best known as the founder of Canadian Hadassah-WIZO (CHW), the country’s largest Jewish women’s organization. Freiman served as CHW’s national president from its founding in 1919 until her death in 1940.
Among her many honours, in 1934, Freiman became the first Jewish Canadian to be awarded the Order of the British Empire.
The federal government was represented at the ceremony by MP Stéphane Lauzon, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Veterans Affairs and associate minister of National Defence.
“On behalf of the government of Canada, I am pleased to commemorate the national historic significance of Lillian Bilsky Freiman, whose lifelong dedication to helping others through social activism and community service had a real and direct positive impact for the lives of thousands of Canadians. I encourage all Canadians to learn more about Lillian Bilsky Freiman and her important place in our country’s history,” said Lauzon.
The plaque honouring Freiman can now be seen in front of the Army Officer’s Mess.