Gary Ockenden

November 18, 2019
Once on a road trip with one of his kids, Gary went inside to pay for gas and emerged to share that the gas station attendant had recently battled cancer, and that he had been invited to her wedding the following spring.
That is how Gary moved through life. He was an extraordinary man who brought empathy and genuine connection to every encounter, with a love for humanity that was both exceedingly simple and profoundly courageous.
One of five brothers in a military family, Gary lived in nine different locations in three countries during his youth. He showed early signs of a deep sense of justice: as the little boy whose heart broke witnessing the agony of war while watching A Farewell to Arms; the older boy whose hand shot up when his church minister asked the congregation who would attend an anti-racism rally; the teenager who fasted for those less fortunate and led student walk-outs; the young man who protested the Vietnam War in Washington DC; and the young parent who insisted that babysitters be paid full minimum wage.
A life of discovery brought him to a kibbutz in Israel, an ashram in India and a life of meditation. He helped create the Middle Road Community, a secular intentional community in the Kootenays, where he raised his family.
Gary worked for many years with the Red Cross, including in Sudan at a time of considerable regional conflict. Moved by a young couple who arrived in Khartoum after a perilous journey from Eritrea, he rallied supporters who sponsored Yoseph and Luel for resettlement to Canada as refugees. Thirty years later, they are prominent elders within Toronto’s flourishing Eritrean community.
Everywhere, Gary formed bonds of friendship and common cause – with complete strangers in theatres, on airplanes or online, through work with community- building organizations like BC’s Northern Health Authority and the Columbia Basin Trust, with warmth and insights at the Amnesty International Canada board table and other nonprofit boardrooms around the world; or at the local coffee shop. He used his considerable organizational skills and experience to mentor and uplift those doing the hard work of building inclusive community.
He was also very funny, with an impish sense of humour and a truly perplexing taste for slimy day-old Caesar salad. He loved watching dark Scandinavian murder mysteries, Japanese crime dramas and Survivor.
He felt sorry for himself if he read fewer than 50 books a year and for more than 20 years he organized an annual houseboat trip for himself and his oldest male friends that he affectionately dubbed, “The Shallow Men of the Deep.” Considering his well-developed social grace, Gary was surprisingly clumsy, the top of his head bearing the scars to prove it.
Children learned to write Amnesty International letters at his kitchen table, and he was a passionate roadie, driving his son’s band to gigs throughout the Kootenays. His kids’ friends maintained connections with him into their adulthood, trusting that he was someone who truly valued their perspective and contribution.
Whether rising to the challenges of the #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter movements, or reconciliation with Indigenous peoples, Gary led through example by letting the world in and allowing it to personally transform him. He reflexively made room for others, especially young and marginalized people.
What mattered most to Gary beyond social justice and human rights for all, were his wonderful children, Zoey and Ryan, and his loving partners, first Neese and then Anna. And his most precious teaching? When we truly open ourselves to sharing life’s journey with others it can shape us in ways we never could have imagined; and change the world.
Gary died a year ago on November 18, 2019, probably from a cardiac arrest caused by an arrythmia. He was 68. A virtual celebration of life will be held on December 19, 2020, at noon (pacific time). Please pre-register for the event at celebrategary.com by December 16 so we can get the Zoom link to you.


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