Remembering James Clancy (1950-2024): A lifetime of solidarity


Please find visitation and funeral information here.

OPSEU/SEFPO mourns the loss of James Clancy, former OPSEU/SEFPO President from 1984-1990, and President of the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) for 26 years, from 1990-2016. He passed away on April 2, 2024 at the age of 74.

A lifelong champion of public services and social justice, Clancy valiantly fought for decades against the forces of austerity, from the Thatcher-Reagan-Mulroney years in the 80’s to the present. During his years as OPSEU/SEFPO President, Clancy pushed the union to organize and expand throughout the Broader Public Sector, including paramedics, Children’s Aid Societies, legal clinics, community colleges, child treatment workers, mental health and health care professionals.

“James Clancy laid the groundwork for the organizing union we are today,” said JP Hornick, President of OPSEU/SEFPO. “As an Ontario Public Service member himself, his vision of expanding our union membership into the Broader Public Sector and Colleges has built the solidarity and strength throughout the public sector that we continue to build on today.”

As President of NUPGE, Clancy brought together provincial public sector unions across the country to organize and campaign to defend and expand public services. NUPGE honours his vast contributions to the national union here: James Clancy (1950-2024): A visionary leader in labour and social justice

Clancy led the National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) for 26 years. Elected as President in 1990, he advocated fiercely for the protection and expansion of public services and programs. He was a staunch defender of public Medicare, the Canada Pension Plan, Old Age Security, and Guaranteed Income Supplements. Over his tenure, he guided the work of the national union, through its federated structure, to become a go-to place for valuable research, outspoken campaigns, and leadership on issues no one else would take on. At the heart of his action was the belief that our common wealth should be used for the common good.

Clancy was born in Kingston, Ontario, in 1950, to John and Joan Clancy, one of seven children. Clancy graduated from Carleton University in 1975 with a degree in political science, and joined the Ontario Public Service a year later. He immediately became active in Local 533, during a period of immense change in the union, as it had recently transitioned from the Civil Service Association of Ontario (CSAO) to the Ontario Public Service Employees Union (OPSEU) in 1975. By 1977 or 1978, he was elected local president, in 1982, he was elected to the Executive Board, and by 1984, he was elected President of OPSEU/SEFPO.

Clancy also met his life partner and mother of their three children, Debbie Champ, during this time. In an extensive 2016 profile by OPSEU/SEFPO’s inSolidarity magazine, Clancy said that he learned plenty from her about feminism and activism during their years together. We offer our deepest condolences to Debbie and their three children at this difficult time.

As a memorial to James Clancy’s life of activism and leadership, please continue reading the in-depth inSolidarity profile of James Clancy, which we have republished below in its entirety. The profile was written in 2016 on the eve of his retirement as NUPGE President.

Profile: James Clancy looks back on a lifetime in organized labour

inSolidarity – The newsletter for OPSEU Stewards and Activists, Volume 23, Number 1, Winter 2016

Greg Hamara, OPSEU/SEFPO Communications Officer

James Clancy eases his lanky frame into a well-upholstered chair inside the brightly-lit boardroom of the National Union of Public and General Employees Union (NUPGE) and fixes his gaze on the outdoors.

“I really prefer doing most of my work from here,” he remarks casually. Stacks of papers and a laptop clutter the head of the table where he has parked himself. “I find my own office too dark.”

Sure enough, a quick visit to his private office a few steps away reveals a space where the lowhanging branches of evergreen trees outside the window dim the natural light. James Clancy thrives on the achievements that brightness can deliver over the gloomy outcomes cast by darkness.

It’s a philosophy that has served Clancy well for close to 40 years as a public sector union activist at the local level, three terms as president of OPSEU and, for the past 26 years, president of NUPGE.

In August, Clancy, 65, will retire, leaving behind his private office and the boardroom from where he led one of Canada’s largest unions and one of which most Canadians – indeed, most unionized public sector workers in the country – have little or no awareness.

With its head office in the Ottawa suburb of Nepean, NUPGE is self-described as a “union of unions.” Modelled as a federation, the National Union, as it is sometimes called, takes direction from the leadership of all provincial “components” (and a handful of other affiliates) who primarily represent unionized government employees, like OPSEU. All provincial components, with the exception of Quebec, are members. (The Alberta Union of Public Employees is not a component, but the 35,000-member Health Sciences Association of Alberta is).  Today, NUPGE represents more than 360,000 members across Canada, with more and more smaller, private-sector unions choosing to affiliate.

Funded by two per cent of each component’s annual revenues, NUPGE focuses its work primarily on national issues and public policies. Examples of this include federal-provincial transfer payments, national standards for health and social programs, tax policies, the Canada Pension Plan, legislation respecting workplace health and safety, and changes to Employment Insurance, among others.

Eloquent and articulate, Clancy’s voice is seldom heard in the national or provincial news media. That task typically falls to the leadership of the components. If it frustrates him, Clancy doesn’t let on. As NUPGE president his primary task has been to “herd the cats” and keep their attention and strategies focused on domestic issues that affect all Canadians. NUPGE has been there to push for a national child care program; anti-privatization of public services; pension and retirement security; remedies for post-traumatic stress disorder among dozens of other campaigns he’s directed during his term in office.

He takes satisfaction that over his quarter century as president, NUPGE has grown in strength.

“I’m proudest that we have knitted together the NUPGE family. Thanks to the work of a lot of people we’ve become one of the strongest and most-respected unions out there. I think, in the process, private sector unions have gained a deeper understanding of what public sector unions can do.

“At the same time, the experience has taught me how difficult it can be to build unity in the labour movement. We haven’t been helped when labour itself is under attack by all sides.”

Throughout it all, Clancy has been a recognized leader in making the country a stronger and better place for working people, unionized or not. He’s had plenty of critics along the way, but few will fault him for the passion, energy or commitment he’s brought to the job.

Building the common good became his life’s mission and one he adopted early.

James Clancy was born in Kingston, Ont., in 1950, the middle of seven children to John and Joan Clancy. The couple met in London during the Battle of Britain; John was a paratrooper with the Canadian army, and Joan was an ambulance driver for British forces. The family relocated to Ottawa shortly after James’ birth. John became a career officer with the military, serving in Korea and Cyprus, and from several bases across Canada. Joan, meanwhile, became the homemaker, raising a large family often in the absence of her husband whose military service saw him stationed in scattered locations.

From each, recalls Clancy, he learned the value of public service.

“They both held the view that if people were prepared to spill their blood for their country in a time of war, then the least we can do in return is reward them by spending on the common good.”

To be active is to be well informed. From a young age Clancy discovered he enjoyed an appetite for news and the current affairs that were unfolding around him during the volatile 1960s.  By 12, he was reading the respected British newspaper, the Guardian. He counted U.S. president John Kennedy, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Cuban revolutionary Fidel Castro, and Nelson Mandela among those he most admired and respected.  He absorbed the social gospel as taught to him by his Jesuit teachers in Ottawa.

“As I grew older I quickly discovered how the real world works,” he says. “Rule by the rich, for the rich.”

He graduated from Carleton University in 1975 with a degree in political science and found himself driving a dump truck in the nation’s capital for the next year.

His transition from truck driver to employment with the Ontario Public Service was audacious.

“I had a few days off and drove down to Toronto to spend some time with buddies of mine. We were watching Monday night NFL football at the Monarch Tavern and a friend of mine happened to mention that he had a job interview next day for a position with the Ministry of Community and Social Services. He wasn’t interested in the interview and he didn’t really want the job. He said I should go in his place. So I did.”

Clancy showed up next day for the interview before a three-member panel. The ministry was looking for an income maintenance officer. Plans were slowly underway to divest the services of the massive psychiatric hospital at 999 Queen St. West in Toronto. There was a demand for new staff to monitor incomes for displaced patients.

“I got to the interview and made it clear right from the start that I wasn’t my friend, so-and-so,” says Clancy. “I gave them my name and said I was interested in the job and I was here to be interviewed for it. The panel wasn’t amused, to say the least. In fact one of them remarked my move was ‘highly unusual.’”

Clancy was eventually hired for the position at an annual salary of $14,400, working from an office on Eglinton Ave., in mid-town Toronto. It took several years before he finally gained a permanent position with the Ontario Public Service, along with a not-too-subtle reminder that he should steer clear of union activities. His ascent through the elected ranks inside OPSEU would be rapid.

He immediately became active in Local 533, representing about 120 members in the ministry.

It was a period of rapid growth inside the OPS with the Progressive Conservative government of the day, under Premier Bill Davis, expanding the province’s social safety net in ways that haven’t been witnessed since. It was also a period of abrupt transition for OPSEU.

“Those were turbulent times for the union,” recalls Clancy. “The fight was still on for elected control of the union and away from the habits of the old Civil Service Association of Ontario, and I got in on the ground floor.” In the struggle for a union built on democratic principles, he found inspiration in the leadership of figures like Jake Norman, Jim Tait, Art Lane, and others.

It didn’t take long before Clancy was elected president of his local – he’s not exactly sure of the year, it could have been 1977 or ‘78 – and he quickly set about putting his labour ideals into place. Unwaveringly, they’ve guided his activism for the past 40 years.

Clancy likens his approach to a three-legged stool that is supported by collective bargaining, campaigns, and organizing. Each relies on the others. If one cracks, the other two are likely to collapse.

There’s more to the Clancy approach.

“I’ve discovered the key to success starts with listening to people as much as you talk to them. You’ve got to get a feeling of what’s happening to them, in their working lives and in their communities. You’ve got to drive public policy to meet the needs of people and the clients we serve. As trade unionists we have to marry our interests as workers with the interests of the public we serve. Do that, and negotiations will take care of themselves.”

His activism drew him into conflict with senior management at the ministry. They failed to renew his contract on a couple of occasions (it would be several years before he landed a permanent post); another time he opted to go on unpaid leave-ofabsence to work on an OPSEU campaign.

“I guess there were times when I pilloried ComSoc for what I saw as their failure to put their clients first.”

By 1982 Clancy found himself on OPSEU’s executive board and two years later he was elected president, defeating three challengers – Ron Martin, Ev Sammon and Lane – by a margin of eight votes on the third ballot. At 33, he had become the youngest person ever elected to lead a major Canadian union.

Under his stewardship, OPSEU rapidly widened its footprint. It was a period marked by “tension” as he cajoled, pushed, dragged and challenged the union to start organizing in the broader public sector, starting with paramedics, the Children’s Aid Society, legal clinics and a few others.

“I got a lot of push back from our members in the OPS,” he says. “They couldn’t understand why all of ‘their’ dues were being spent on organizing these other groups. The fact was, we needed their money; we couldn’t have grown the BPS without it.”

It was also period of almost frantic mobilizing as OPSEU sought to organize the unorganized working in units considerably smaller than the giant, the OPS.  The victories kept adding up: child treatment workers, psychiatric nursing practioneers, community college employees, health care professionals and many others.

“There were times during the ‘80s when we had five major campaigns happening simultaneously. I was blessed with staff and activists who understood the importance of campaigning around contracts. No other union in the country could match our record on wage settlements and new contracts. There were times when I felt I was operating from the deck of an air traffic control tower. I found out that you can’t land every plane at the same time, but we tried.”

Eventually, the frenzy of the times caught up with Clancy and exacted a ferocious toll on his health. On Easter weekend in 1988, during his second term in office, the 37-year old OPSEU president suffered a massive heart attack while on Salt Spring Island off the east coast of Vancouver Island.

He was rushed by air ambulance to Royal Jubilee hospital in Victoria where doctors, “paddled me back to life.” After three weeks in the intensive care unit, his doctor asked him: “Have you thought about doing something different in life?”

He hadn’t. To accommodate his months-long convalescence, the union delayed by one year, to 1989, its election for president. Clancy was re-elected handily.

His six-year term in office was marked by other significant events; some political, some personal.

In 1985, after more than 40 years in office, the mighty Big Blue Machine of Ontario politics, the Progressive Conservative Party, was brought to its knees by voters. Although the Tories won more seats than the Liberals (52 to 48), Bob Rae and the New Democratic Party had little interest in supporting a continuation of PC rule; they began negotiations to reach a legislative pact with David Peterson’s Liberals that would keep the Grits in power for two years. In the 1987 provincial election the Liberals steamrolled to victory with a massive majority.

Looking back on those historic times in Ontario, Clancy carries a certain fondness for the policies Davis put into place.

“Bill Davis was seen by many as a type of father figure. He viewed public service as a calling. Under Davis, we really witnessed an expansion of public service. The PCs were successful because they built from the bottom up.

“David Peterson? He was the first premier to treat public service as a business. Enough said.”

Closer to home, the mid-80s marked the time when Clancy first met Debbie Champ, the woman who would go on to become his life partner and the mother of their three children.

The occasion was a labour convention in Saskatoon where Clancy was scheduled to speak. Afterwards, Champ, a nurse practioner in the Saskatchewan correctional service at the time, took the opportunity to share her opinion on what the OPSEU president had had to say.

“She came up to me after I’d finished and challenged me on some of the things I had to say. She displayed a certain chutzah that I found refreshing. Our conversation continued over the course of the convention and then some more.

“She’s was and is a feminist and an activist and I have learned plenty from her over our years together.”

That same spirit of destiny can’t be said of Clancy and the surprising election of the NDP to Queen’s Park with a majority government almost 26 years ago. On the same day that NDP leader Bob Rae was elected premier – September 6, 1990 – Clancy started his new job as president of NUPGE having earlier stepped down as OPSEU leader to take a run at becoming the next head of the National Union.

No one can be certain how the history of the NDP government might have unfolded differently had Clancy, a lifetime supporter and member of the party, remained at the helm of OPSEU during the NDP’s term in office. He certainly would have vigorously opposed Rae’s decision to drop an election pledge to introduce public auto insurance. He would have argued that the NDP should introduce some form of proportional representation to our electoral system.

Most of all, would Clancy have made a difference on Rae’s decision to impose the infamous Social Contract  on public sector workers – a move that enraged unions like OPSEU and CUPE, but found support with many private sector unions? (A quick history lesson: Faced with a $12 billion deficit in 1993 and looking for ways to reduce it, the Rae government unilaterally opened collective agreements in the public sector and imposed 12 unpaid days of leave on all provincial public servants earning more than $30,000 annually, including OPS members, teachers and nurses. The move was quickly dubbed, “Rae Days”).

Clancy avoids a clear answer to the question, but observes the government and the unions of the day resembled, “two ships passing in the night.” He adds: “No question, the Social Contract was a huge disappointment; you don’t build prosperity on the back of austerity.”

Austerity. In Clancy’s worldview the move to impose austerity measures by neo-liberal governments in western Europe and North America didn’t begin with the Great Recession of 2008. It doesn’t coincide with economic

downturn of the early1990s. Its roots can be traced to the Thatcher-Reagan axis of the early 1980s and their mutual assault on public sector workers. Today, its grip is as tight as ever and its target is still the same: public services.

Public sector unions are squarely in austerity’s crosshairs. Not surprisingly, he says, there is a direct relation between the attack on organized labour and the alarming growth in social and economic inequality.

“You can divide the post-war period into two, distinct eras,” he begins. “We had the period between 1945 and 1980 where incomes grew and where we witnessed, in Canada, an expansion of government programs like the CPP, Old Age Security, GIC supplements and public health care.

“Now, let’s look at the past 35 years. Canada is three times wealthier than we were in 1980, but what have we experienced? More inequality. More mental health illnesses; lower life expectancy in marginalized groups; more crime; lower levels of civic engagement and social mobility. In the process, the state has become more authoritarian and public trust breaks down. It’s perfectly captured by the sentiment, ‘I don’t have a workplace pension, so let’s take yours away.’”

Against this roiling background, Clancy singles out the unprecedented attack by neo-liberals on organized labour. Since 1980, he says, Canadian jurisdictions haves adopted 225 labour laws – but, over the same 35-year period, 217 labour rights have been repealed by provincial and federal governments. “Why are we surprised, then, when income inequality has increased by about 20 per cent since 1980?”

Despite his gloomy assessment, Clancy remains the same irrepressible optimist he was the day he walked into his first job interview with the Ministry of Community and Social Services in place of his friend almost 40 years ago.

“We’re in the final throes of this 35-year experiment,” he concludes. “Unfettered capitalism is in its death spiral. People are desperate. There’s something boiling just beneath the surface. I believe we can still build a better place using our common wealth for our common good.”