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In loving memory of Joan Francis: Amnesty's Teddy Bear Lady

Posted in: Members Take Action
    Friday, September 5, 2014 - 09:47

    Joan Francis, one of Amnesty International's longest-serving volunteers, passed away on September 3 at the age of 97. Joan was well known for her support of Amnesty International (AI), and for encouraging others to sign AI letters and petitions. She also created Teddy Bears which were sold to raise money for Amnesty. She treasured a note she received from Hamid and Antonella Ghassemi-Shall, wishing her happy birthday and thanking her for her support when Hamid was being held as a prisoner in Iran.  "She was one-of-a-kind, an outspoken advocate for justice, and her voice and presence will be deeply missed.", said Father David Montgomery, St Augustine of Canterbury in Toronto, where Joan was a member.


    Amnesty's Teddy Bear Lady

    The following story "Amnesty's Teddy Bear Lady" originally appeared in The Activist, Amnesty's monthly magazine for activists in Canada. May 2010.

    If you've ever been to an Amnesty International Annaul General Meeting or any other Amnesty fundraising event, you're probably familiar with the adorable hand-knitted teddy bears sold there to benefit Amnesty's work. What you may not be familiar with is Joan Francis, the 93 year-old activist who knits them.


    Joan's work is an inspiration

      Sister Wilma is part of a group of dedicated Amnesty International fundraisers at the Anglican Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto. Since 1989, inspired by Joan Francis, they have made and sold more than 1,800 knitted and stuffed teddy bears and raised almost $15,000 towards Amnesty's human rights work! 

    Read about the work of the Sisters of St. John's


    Joan first became involved in Amnesty International in the early 1970s, when she joined Group 3 in Toronto. The Toronto Office has an Accounts book that records Joan's membership in 1973. She was quite bewildered by the first meeting but stuck with it and, as she said, "the rest is history".

    At some point in the late 70s, a young man made a teddy bear pattern with seniors in mind. He though kitting bears for their grandchildren might help to fill their days. A friend of Joan's came across the pattern in a story, bought it, and shared her excitement with Joan.

    Wallis was the first teddy. "He was a peculiar-looking bear, " Joan recalls. "I forgot to make his body, and simply attached his legs to his head!"  She fixed him up and sold him for $5. The money paid for a telegram in response to an Urgent Action.

    More bears followed - Darcy, Turtle, Tulip, Pansy, Hamish, Jasper ... "I try to choose names that little people can understand." These joined the Teddies for Telegrams club.


    Over the past 27 years, two bears have been born every month for a grand total of 620.

    Each continues to support Amnesty International's work. The latest is Robin. Have any been named Joan? "No!" she exclaimed vehemently. Is she still knitting?  "Of course!” And then admitted "It's almost like an addiction, you know."

    The price of the bears has climbed from $5 in the 70s to $8 in the 80s and to $10 in the 90s. There it has stayed.

    Perhaps most special of all is the bear in the custody of Dita Sari. The trade union leader attended an annual meeting after she was released from prison in Indonesia. A delegate bought the bear and presented it into Dita Sari's arms as a tangible message that Amnesty International stood by here, and continues to do so. "I think about the prisoners, you know," said Joan. "Every time I knit one I think of someone in prison".


    Do you have a picture of one of Joan's teddy bears?

      Joan's life has inspired us to write letters for prisoners and has brought joy to little ones.

    She is proud of her bears. "All the material is made in Canada", she crowed. "And I always buy new yarn and new stuffing for them. There's nothing harmful about them, so even little ones can enjoy them."

    "It's my offering"

    The cost of yarn, stuffing and bags over the years must be quite high. Joan has a friend who shakes a finger a her, encouraging her to keep a few dollars from each sale to cover costs. "But you know, if I take money back, then the whole project has no meaning for me", she mused. "It's my offering."

    Thank you, Joan, for your support over the years. And keep clicking those knitting needles.




    Carrying on Joan's legacy

    Write a letter - As one of the longest serving members of Amnesty International's Urgent Action Network, Joan encouraged others to sign Amnesty letters and petitions. Please write a letter or sign a petition in member of Joan.

    Send us your Teddy Bear photos - Do you have one of the treasured teddy bears knitted by Joan or the Sisters of St. John the Divine? Send a photo to and we'll create an image gallery of Joan's Teddy Bears.