On Jan. 18, 1983, Manitoba schoolteacher Doreen Craton turned 65. Instead of mailing a birthday card, her school division ordered her to retire.
Mrs. Craton's refusal ignited a debate among teachers and the labour movement about mandatory retirement. It also prompted a precedent-setting Supreme Court challenge that helped Canadians beat age discrimination across the country.
Mrs. Craton died in Winnipeg on June 19. She was 91.
Art Reimer, her representative at the Manitoba Teachers' Society, called her the "perfect candidate" to challenge the Winnipeg School Division's collective agreement. "There was no question about her competence," he said, "and her evaluations were excellent. We let it be known that we would support a challenge and we were lucky that she was the one who stepped forward."
Doreen Maud Craton was born on Jan. 18, 1918, in Harrogate, England. She came to Canada at the end of the Second World War, raised four children, then became a teacher at age 50. While completing her bachelor of education, she taught typing and accounting at a Winnipeg high school.
"A lot of teachers try to stay under the radar," said Lynnette Milton, a former colleague, "but Doreen was quite formidable. She was straightforward and said what she thought."
"I wish to continue teaching at Grant Park High School for as long as I am physically and mentally able," Mrs. Craton wrote in response to her employer. She swam every day before school and became head of the business department. Still, trustees voted to challenge her in court.
"Without new blood in the system there's a fear of becoming stagnant," Brian Dixon, the chair of the board, told the Winnipeg Free Press at the time. "I sympathize with the older teachers, but then again, isn't it fair that they should be moving aside to let younger people in?"
He wasn't the only one with that point of view. At the time, Canada was enduring a recession and school attendance was plummeting. Baby boomers weren't producing equal numbers of new students. One young woman wrote to the Free Press to say, "There are hundreds of qualified teachers who are unable to find a position. They are the ones who have children to support, mortgages to pay and new ideas to teach."
In 1983, the Manitoba School Act still allowed mandatory retirement. But the province's Human Rights Act, passed a few years earlier, protected Manitobans against discrimination based on age. Mel Myers, the lawyer who took on Mrs. Craton's case, argued that the latter act trumped the former.
Manitoba's Court of Queen's Bench agreed with Mr. Myers and decided in Mrs. Craton's favour. But the Winnipeg School Division appealed. Manitoba's Court of Appeal backed Mrs. Craton, too. Still, her employer refused to back down. Finally, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case.
All the while, Mrs. Craton avoided becoming a public figure. "She wasn't a crusader as such," said her union representative, Mr. Reimer. "She thought it was more important to be in the classroom, teaching."
But when it came time to go to Ottawa, Mr. Myers felt that Mrs. Craton should be in the courtroom, too. "She reminded me of a favourite public school teacher I had," the lawyer said. He predicted the Supreme Court justices would feel the same, so he asked Mrs. Craton to join him. "I could see when I argued the case that all the judges were looking at her," he said. (Memories being fickle, others do not recall her presence in Ottawa.)
In 1985, Mrs. Craton won the right to keep teaching. And ever since, provincial Human Rights Acts have been considered a higher authority than other statutes. "The argument carried the day and it's still being quoted and I'm very proud of that," Mr. Myers said.
Even in victory, though, Mrs. Craton couldn't avoid controversy. Labour leaders feared that she would cause the average retirement age to creep up and prevent other workers from collecting pensions at age 65. In Mrs. Craton's case, however, she started collecting a salary and a pension at the same time.
In 1988, the year Mrs. Craton turned 70, her teaching career came to an abrupt end. On the last day of the school year, she was knocked over by a track athlete training in the school hall. Mrs. Craton fractured her pelvis and never returned to the classroom.
She was predeceased by her husband Doug and son Bill. She leaves children Lynn, Christine and Neil, and grandchildren Abby and Sam.
Special to The Globe and Mail