Lotta Hitschmanova

Lotta Hitschmanova, CC (1909-11-28 – 1990-08-01) was a Canadian humanitarian. In 1945, she founded the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, an international development organization that began as a small group of aid workers sending supplies to war-torn Europe for relief and reconstruction.

Lotta Hitschmanova
(1909 – 1990)

She was born in Prague, where she earned a Ph. D. She worked as a journalist, and was an outspoken critic of the Nazis. Both of her parents died in the Holocaust, while she had to flee Czechoslovakia in 1938. For four years she wandered over Europe, eventually finding her way to Marseilles, where she helped refugee support groups.

In 1942, after a 46-day voyage on a converted banana boat, she arrived penniless in Montreal “with an unpronounceable name” as she said, and feeling completely lost. Three years later, she founded the Unitarian Service Committee (USC Canada). Her mission from the mid-1940s into the 1980s, was to educate and mobilize Canadians. “I experienced personally how much it hurts to be hungry. To be a refugee, to be without a home, to be without country, to be without friends. And this is something dreadful; you have no more roots, you have no one to turn to.”

Her work took her first back to post-war Europe, and then to Africa and Asia, to conflict zones and newly-independent nations, where the need was greatest. She urged Canadians to become aware of the living conditions of people living far away, and calling upon them to take action and help: “Charity begins at home…and then it goes on to embrace next door neighbours and all those who need help.”

Yet, Lotta’s influence went well beyond her work with USC Canada. Her educational efforts over four decades, provided a foundation for the Canadian public’s ongoing support for international humanitarian aid and development assistance. I remember listening to her talk about her work, and admiring her unique army nurse uniform, complete with military-style hat. She spoke with a thick Czech accent, but it never detracted from her message.

Each year she travelled to poor and strife-torn towns and villages of the world, in need of Canadian assistance to recover from drought, war, disease and poverty. Her message was sincere, and received as such by many thousands of Canadians. People from all faiths and occupations responded by becoming lifelong supporters. USC’s address 56 Sparks Street, Ottawa became the most recognizable address in Canada.

Nova Scotia author Joan Baxter wrote: “It was Lotta Hitschmanova who shaped my values as a Canadian, and the type of Canada I believe in. She helped give us our identity.”

I am neither the first person, nor the last who was moved by Lotta. The CC after Lotta’s name refers to her merit as a Companion of the Order of Canada, the highest grade after that of the Monarch and the Governor General, given her in 1980. She has received numerous other awards and honours from countries and organizations on four continents.

In 2007, the Canadian Museum of History included her as one of the founders in its Canadian Personalities Hall. In 2013, when the Museum conducted a poll, she received the most votes as the person who had shaped Canada’s history most, ahead of Tommy Douglas, Terry Fox and Pierre Trudeau.

Her greatest legacy remains is the deep, emotional reverberation of her values in the memory by hundreds of thousands of Canadians. Her background as an articulate refugee impacted and enriched Canadian society. Today, Canadians – especially – are awaiting the next Lotta Hitschmanova, who may be arriving soon in Canada. Let us welcome each and every one.

In Vancouver, folk singer Vera Johnson (1920 – 2007) commented for decades on political events starting in 1949. Her humorous, original songs spanned every conceivable forbidden topic: censorship, divorce, family life, liberation, politics, religion and sex. Her most famous song, The Fountain, described the Vancouver hippie protests of 1968. She also attended the Vancouver Unitarian Church, although in periods of her life she also lived in Penticton BC, Stratford Ontario, as well as in Britain and Mexico.

Johnson writes, [While in Ottawa for a singing engagement at the beginning of September 1968] “I wrote Nagamma and, next morning, went into Lotta’s office and sang it for her. She cried. I cried. She phoned CBC. They didn’t cry but made an appointment for me to record it at 1:30. Then Lotta used it as the theme song for [her next] campaign.

I have tried to find Nagamma on YouTube, without success. In fact, I have been unable to find anything sung by Johnson, anywhere. She was a generous person. Royalties for Nagamma, went to the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada. For The Fountain they were given to the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. That’s What I Believe royalties went to the Unitarian Church of Vancouver. We’re Gonna Make His Dream Come True, went to the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights, Martin Luther King’s organization. For Pierre Trudeau, they went to UNICEF.

Lotta is one of many Unitarians who have influenced my life positively. Others include: Tim Berners-Lee (born 1955) – inventor of the World Wide Web; Ray Bradbury (1920–2012) – author; Brock Chisholm (1896–1971) – director, World Health Organization; Charles Darwin (1809–1882) – English naturalist and biologist; Charles Dickens (1812–1870) – English novelist; Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983) – inventor, engineer; Ashley Montagu (1905–1999) – anthropologist and social biologist; Isaac Newton (1642-1726) – English physicist and mathematician; Kurt Vonnegut (1922–2007) – writer; Frank Lloyd Wright (1867–1959) – architect; and, N. C. Wyeth (1882–1945) – illustrator and painter.

For more information on Lotta and USC-Canada, visit:



I am an active member of the Baha’i Faith, an organization that is currently unable to grow, at least where I live, in Norway. My simplified analysis of the situation, is that becoming a Baha’i is too big a step, for the majority of the population. People need an opportunity to take a smaller step, first. Then, at some point in the future, measured in years or generations, they (or their descendants) will be able to make another smaller step, and become Baha’is.

This is precisely what I had to do. I had grown up in a trinitarian family in the 1950s. It was a time heavily influenced by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, which mandated church attendance. Despite hours of Sunday School, I found it impossible to understand many concepts that many Christians find fundamental. The first of these was the trinity. Yes, I can accept that there is a God. Yes, I can accept that a person called Jesus lived, and promoted a better way of life, including treating people in the same way you want to be treated. I regarded him as a prophet.

My second problem is Jesus dying for my sins. I commit my own sins and will have to bear responsibility for them myself. Like the majority, I would prefer forgiveness or grace, but it is not up to me to decide if I am worthy of it. Saying that Jesus dying on the cross, resulting in the forgiveness of others’ mistakes is too easy. It just encourages selfishness, and yet more irresponsible action.

A third problematic area has to do with the relationship between creator (normally referred to as God) and his creation (which includes us humans). I have no problems with people being indirectly created (yes, that is why we have sex!) fully accepting evolution. I have no problems with Big Bang, placing this incarnation of the universe at about 13.8 billion years of age.

One of the real challenges that I have has to do with miracles. If one accepts that there is divine intervention at the micro-level, then humans do not need to do anything about, say, the increased carbonization of the atmosphere, and its effects on climate. God will simply come along one day, and fix it for us. At the same time God could replenish the oil reserves in Saudi Arabia, so everyone can continue to drive fossil-fuelers into eternity, while the Saudi Arabians make even more money. A belief in divine intervention has enormous implications for life on this planet.

On the more personal level, a true believer in miracles has no need to change behaviour. One does not have to quit smoking, because God will not allow cellular mutants to cause lung cancer. One does not have to be particularly careful in a workshop, because God will regrow missing limbs.  One does not have to reduce plastic consumption, because God will clean rivers and seas, and make everything perfect again.

Perhaps what I find most astonishing about some tribes of trinitarians, is their ambivalence. They may visit their local doctor, have blood samples taken and checked, and then use science based medications to ameliorate a medical problem. That seems sensible, and I do the same thing. Yet, these same people are unable to visit their local climatologist, have air and other environmental samples taken and checked, and then then use science based corrections to ameliorate a climate problem affecting the entire world.

The interior of the Unitarian Church, Vancouver. (Photo: Rob Atkins 2017 Vancouver Heritage Foundation)

My initial response to these trinitarian problems, was to search for a solution more in keeping with my beliefs and principles. I found Unitarianism to be palatable for me. This was not because of the popularity of Unitarianism. Today, in Canada, there are only 3 804 members, in 46 congregations. To say that 1 in 10 000 Canadians is a Unitarian, is an exaggeration.

Once I became a Unitarian, and accepted Jesus as a prophet, I was then able to accept other prophets, including those of the old testament, and Islam. Thus, when I became introduced to the Baha’i Faith, I could accept it on its own merits. It fit into my accepted pattern.

The Baha’i Faith is almost eight times larger than Unitarianism. The Canadian Encyclopedia writes; “As of 2015, there were an estimated 30,000 Baha’is in Canada, a number that includes French- and English-speaking members of the faith living in 1,200 communities. An estimated 18 per cent of the Baha’i community in Canada are Inuit or First Nations people, while recent immigrants make up 30 per cent.”