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His Life

Father/Grandfather/Rabble Rouser/Social Justice Activist/Beethoven Lover/Chinese Food Enthusiast

September 4, 2021
We are deeply saddened to announce the devastating news of the passing of Don Weitz, whose fight with lung cancer ended peacefully at home, surrounded by his loving family.

We are also stunned and shocked. It just doesn’t seem possible that his shining light and unstoppable energy are no longer with us. Since his diagnosis in February this year, we thought the doctors must surely be wrong. After all, Don was, first and foremost, a fighter with an indomitable spirit when faced with any challenge: political, medical or otherwise. A heart attack, a stroke, major eye surgery, and the myriad health issues that come with reaching 90 were no match for Don’s fierce will to make each day better than the one before. He was still going strong right up to end and, prior to Covid remained a steadfast presence at events, marches, tribunals, giving interviews and attending local calls to action on homelessness and affordable housing He kept on writing books (Resistance Matters was published just a couple years ago - ), and of course, never stopped writing letter after letter to politicians, newspaper editors, and corporations. His outspoken “blasts” were legendary and, as many knew, when Don blasted somebody, they remembered it!

Don was a person of integrity and principle, and of great humility. As a leader in the anti-psychiatry and disability rights movements, he incorporated the teachings of allied movements, which recognize the intersectionality of different forms of oppression. In that light, he was a steadfast anti-racist activist and a ferocious defender of Indigenous, women’s, LGBTQ rights, was a very active member of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), the seniors’ advocacy movement, the migrant justice organization No One Is Illegal.

Don came by his passion and deep commitment to anti-psychiatry and patient rights directly. He was always open about having been placed in the Anderson School for so-called “problem” children in the late 1930s and later psychiatrized in the 1950s, first at the Austen Riggs Center and then at McLean Hospital. At McLean, he suffered systemic abuse and was subjected to 110 insulin sub-coma shock “treatments.” All of this ultimately shaped his lifelong dedication to exposing and abolishing systemic, unethical and inhumane treatment and human rights abuses within psychiatry and in society at large. He also chose to channel these early experiences to advocate for others on a personal level, and worked tirelessly and fearlessly over the decades, helping survivors of abuse and oppression to find their voices, always lending an ear, a shoulder, an outstretched hand and a warm embrace.

Don wasn’t a religious man but had a spiritual calling to always place faith in the power of the human spirit to make a better world. The one truly spiritual force for Don was the music of Beethoven (which helped him get through those early troubled times), and especially the string quartets, piano sonatas, and symphonic works (the “Eroica” and Ninth Symphony were among his favourites). It didn’t matter how many times we listened to this music with him. The instant Beethoven’s music started playing, he would transform, often stopping mid-sentence (not a frequent occurrence with this feisty man), to conduct and sing along to the music.

Don never missed an opportunity to tell his family how much he loved us. He was always interested in our lives and supportive of our goals and dreams. He shared many wonderful times with us, often involving Chinese food (and Beethoven of course), trips to Toronto’s High Park, camping, apple picking, and attending marches and other political events. His grandchildren were his “number ones” and he took immense pride and satisfaction in them. He was particularly proud of his granddaughter Rachel’s legal aspirations and lived to see her start Osgoode Hall Law School just days before his passing. He got naches from his teenage grandson David’s leadership activities, particularly in the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization and as a camp counsellor. He also marvelled at David’s stature, declaring him the tallest Weitz that ever lived.

We are comforted to know he is now with his firstborn son, David, whose death from cancer at age nine was the crushing blow of Dad’s life; with his great friend Alf Jackson, who was like a big brother to him; and with friend and fellow activist Mel Starkman and soul-sisters Carla McKague and Bonnie Burstow. If there is even one iota of injustice to be found on the other side, he’s undoubtedly with his kindred spirits, kicking some you-know-what. An admirer of the late John Lewis, Dad is probably still getting into “good trouble.” After all, Lewis shared a poignant grammar lesson that dad always acted on: that justice and freedom are not just nouns but verbs, in the sense that justice is movement, it’s action, requiring constant nourishment. 

He will be deeply and forever missed by Mark, Lisa, her partner Raymond, Sue, Rachel, David, and his wide circle of friends and activists. 

We wish to express our deepest gratitude for the care he received from Mount Sinai’s home palliative team (Melissa, Marnie), St. Elizabeth’s stellar home nursing (Michelle, Sara, Emily) and personal support staff (Julita, Victor, Henry), and the years of community care from the Vibrant Healthcare Alliance (Marilyn).

Our heartfelt thanks as well to everyone for the beautiful outpouring of love for Don. His political and advocacy family meant everything to him, and your support means everything to us. 
We plan to honour Don's life and celebrate his incredible legacy with a virtual gathering on his birthday, December 10 which, fittingly, happens to be Human Rights Day. 
1:00-4:00pm EST.

ASL and Live Captioning provided.

Donations in Don's memory to any of the following would be greatly appreciated: Black Lives Matter, Bonnie Burstow Scholarship/Archives (U of T), CAPA, OCAP, Native Women's Resource Centre, Toronto Homeless Memorial.


Don’s life journey began in Cleveland, Ohio on December 10, 1930, born to David and Nettie (nee Simon) Weitz, joining older sister Janice.

With the goal of understanding his early experiences and of making institutional changes, Don earned a Master’s in psychology at Boston University and later worked as a psychometrist at the Cleveland Institute of Psychiatry. It was there that he met Helen Brunell (née Selymes, later, LaFountaine), who worked in the medical records department. They married in 1961 and had David in 1962.

He and Helen (who was Canadian) moved their young family to Toronto later that year. Two years later, in 1964, their family expanded with the birth of twins Mark and Lisa. In the late 1960s, Don (now divorced) worked as a social science instructor at York University and at Ryerson Polytechnic Institute, as a consulting psychologist at the (Pine Ridge) Ontario Training School for Boys in Bowmanville, and as a psychology instructor at Centennial College. At the Training School, he witnessed first-hand the physical and emotional abuse of children, including solitary confinement and beatings. His whistle-blowing efforts to stop the abuse and reform institutional disciplinary practices were unsuccessful and led him to resign in protest (but not before copying records) and write an exposé, published in Toronto Life Magazine in 1976. He talked about the Training School in CBC’s documentary “Born Bad” ( )and provided an affidavit for the class action suit against it.

Following his resignation, still doggedly determined to make changes within the mental health system, Don worked as a community psychologist at Toronto’s Queen Street Mental Health Centre (now part of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) from 1970 to 1972. There, too, he witnessed a wide range of abuses, including electroshock (ECT, particularly targeted at elderly women), forced drugging, physical restraints, solitary confinement, and the absence of informed consent. All of this brought him to the conclusion that the mental health system could not be reformed. From that point on, he dedicated his life to anti-psychiatry and to establishing non-coercive, non-medical, community-based, humane alternatives controlled by psychiatric survivors (former and current mental health “patients”) and their allies.

In the 1970s, inspired by a visit to Vancouver’s Mental Patients Association, Don co-founded the Ontario Mental Patients Association. The group later changed its name to On Our Own. It was Ontario’s first autonomous self-help group for psychiatric survivors, dedicated to helping them re-develop social, practical and vocational skills that they had lost through psychiatric “treatments” and incarceration.

One of Don’s proudest and most empowering achievements came in 1980, when, together with his late and deeply missed friend, brilliant lawyer and courageous shock survivor Carla McKague, he co-founded the national antipsychiatry magazine Phoenix Rising: The Voice of the Psychiatrized. Edited in its final years by Don’s dear friend Irit Shimrat, Phoenix addressed, and often ran special themed issues on, a wide range of topics, including electroshock, psychiatric drugs, legal issues, human rights, prison, poverty, housing, work, advocacy, and the psychiatric oppression of women, children, the elderly, and lesbian and gay survivors. In all, there were 32 issues produced between 1980 and 1990 (see ).

In 1983, inspired by the Berkeley Committee to Stop Electroshock, he and several fellow activists founded the Ontario Coalition to Stop Electroshock (OCSE). In 1988, Resistance Against Psychiatry (or RAP) succeeded OCSE, organizing rallies and protests, not only against electroshock but against psychiatry itself.

OCSE supported Carla in her legal representation of the “Mrs. T.” case in the Supreme Court of Ontario. Mrs. T. was incarcerated at Hamilton Psychiatric Hospital, where her psychiatrist was repeatedly threatening to shock her, despite her competent refusal and the refusal of her husband and brother. Thanks to this case, OCSE’s public pressure, and the informed consent recommendations in the Ontario government’s 1985 report on ECT, the Ontario’s Health Care Consent Act now prohibits (at least on paper) the administration of ECT without consent, as do some other pieces of mental health legislation in Canada. (Mind you, Don would be quick to say that, in practice, there is no such thing as informed consent to any kind of psychiatric treatment, since true information is never provided.)

In 1988, New Star Books published the ground-breaking Shrink Resistant: The Struggle Against Psychiatry in Canada, which Don co-edited with feminist activist, author and academic Bonnie Burstow. These were followed by 2 more books, “Rise Up/Fight Back: Selected Writings of an Antipsychiatry Activist” (2011) and “Resistance Matters” (2019).

In 1994, Don started “ShrinkRap,” later named “Anti-Psychiatry Radio”: the only antipsychiatry radio series ever broadcast in Canada, aired on CKLN – check it out at ).

In 2003, together with Bonnie, he co-founded the Coalition Against Psychiatric Assault (CAPA), which held public hearings on electroshock and drugs, featuring testimony about brain damage, various disabilities, and the loss of memory, cognitive function, artistic talents and careers. To this day, CAPA continues the work of OCSE and RAP in protesting ECT.

Don was also a fine actor and a playwright and, in 1993, became involved with The Friendly Spike Theatre Band which staged community productions by and about those who variously refer to themselves as survivors, mad people, or disability activists. He remained an active member until 2007.

Don’s advocacy on behalf of homeless people is another of his major legacies. Since the late 1990s, he was an active member of OCAP, a major anti-poverty organization speaking out and taking direct action for homeless and other poor people, including psychiatric survivors.

Along with street nurse Cathy Crowe and other street workers and affordable housing activists, Don was able to pressure Toronto’s municipal government and public health officials to start tracking the number of homeless people who have died on Toronto streets and in city shelters. Facts matter.

In the late 90s, OCAP, with Don’s participation, was successful in preventing Doctors’ Hospital from being turned into yet another condo—it was renovated as a residential apartment building for elderly and chronically ill people. They also successfully initiated the Special Diet Allowance and the Raise-the-Rates Campaign for thousands of people on welfare in and around Toronto.

Don was also involved in the co-op community, first living at the Bain Co-op and then, in 1997, moving to his final residence: the Stanley Knowles Housing Coop. There, he participated in the newsletter and social housing committees, and collected winter clothing from Co-op members, to distribute to people who were homeless.

Over decades and decades, Don never stopped attending inquests; organizing and participating in protests; speaking out publicly; writing letters to government officials, newspaper and magazine editors; providing brilliant personal and political support to individual psychiatric survivors; and doing everything else he could to stop the terrible suffering caused by the medical model of mental illness: the false idea that unusual or disturbing thoughts and behaviour are caused by abnormalities in people’s brains, rather than by normal human frailties and challenging events in their lives.