When a 24-year-old Heather Robertson began working on her first book, Reservations Are For Indians, in 1966, she had identified a nascent civil-rights movement emerging among members of Canada’s first nations. Armed even then with sharp, observational skills, a passion for storytelling and a literary touch, she captures a moment of dramatic dialogue here when two young Slaveys (an aboriginal people from the Dene group) arrive unannounced at Edmonton’s Federal Building to meet then-Indian Affairs regional director R.D. Ragan, who suggested they build a road on their reserve using a horse and scraper.
“Ha!” sneered Victor Chonkolay, an aggressive, highly articulate man who speaks fluent English. “We want Caterpillars.” Mr. Ragan did not know what could be done.
“Ask me,” snapped Victor.
Mr. Ragan rambled on, suggesting, pacifying, promising.
“Shut up, Mr. Ragan, it’s time you listened to us,” said Victor. “You are too small to deal with us. We will wait for your bosses to come. We will not come back to discuss this with you any more. If you don’t do as we ask, you will hear from us again later on.”
Published in 1970, the book is a landmark study of aboriginal affairs, yet Ms. Robertson, who would become an award-winning journalist and novelist, had only just learned her trade as a reporter.
Born in Winnipeg on March 19, 1942, Heather was the daughter of Harry Robertson, a high school principal known for working with troubled youth, and his wife, Margaret, a woman with progressive values who supported her daughter throughout her life. Ms. Robertson was also influenced by her grandfather, a Scottish immigrant who worked for the Canadian National Railway and took part in the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike.
She earned a BA in English from the University of Manitoba and served as editor of its feisty student newspaper, The Manitoban. Later she attended New York’s Columbia University to study Victorian literature, but realized she wanted one day to write books, not teach them.
Returning to Winnipeg, she worked for a summer at the Winnipeg Free Press before joining the Winnipeg Tribune. Years later, in an essay in Saturday Night called “My Squalid Life on the Winnipeg Dailies,” she noted that the crusty male journalists of the era weren’t sure what to make of this new crop of educated second-wave feminists who had no intention of being confined to the traditional newspaper ghetto called the “women’s pages.” About her generation, she wrote: “We had no tits. It had been customary to measure the talent of female staff members at the Tribune by the size of their bra cups; the women’s editor was a statuesque 38D, columnist Ann Henry a stunning 36 triple C. We were all As.”
Graduating to longer feature writing, Ms. Robertson contributed to Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Toronto Life, Saturday Night, Equinox, Elm Street, Canadian Forum and other influential Canadian publications. Her trademark was a smart contrarianism supported by thorough reporting. At Maclean’s, then-executive editor John Macfarlane (today editor of The Walrus), remembers a tall, striking, “almost Victorian” beauty.
“She could be steely, even prickly, sometimes,” he says, “although I don’t mean that as a pejorative. When discussing her work she wouldn’t be pushed around but she was always intelligent and principled in a most admirable way.”
Ms. Robertson was a muckraker whose reforming spirit animated much of her work and her life. Her family had roots in organized labour and she told the Ryerson Review of Journalism that “it was in my blood to stick it to the corporation,” adding that she had her grandfather’s copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on her bookshelf. (Tongue at least partly in cheek, she once told an Ottawa Citizen reporter that she considered herself a “left anarchist maverick, subversive and provocative to liberal democracy.”)
Unafraid of controversy, her Maclean’s article “Confessions of a Canadian Chauvinist Pig,” referred to her “desire to toss a hand grenade into every American camper I pass” and a withering critique of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Life caused the chattering classes to choke on their cocktails. “Heather was a Canadian nationalist and a feminist,” says her friend and fellow writer, Elaine Dewar. “Her voice was clear, honest and rigorous in a way that was uncommon at the time.”
She embodied her grandfather’s crusading convictions outside of her writing life, too. Aware that writers were underpaid and often treated churlishly by publishers, she co-founded both the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Professional Writers Association of Canada. Her biggest coup, though, came in the 1990s when she became the lead plaintiff in two lawsuits against the country’s largest media corporations, including The Globe and Mail, over the electronic rights of freelance journalists. (Ms. Dewar remembers that Ms. Robertson was smart enough to be afraid of the responsibility and brave enough to ignore her doubts.) The eventual settlement of more than $11-million remunerated many freelancers for lost income and established that publishers could not simply repurpose a writer’s work on databases or the Internet without credit or payment.
Although she built her reputation as a journalist, Ms. Robertson made a transition into fiction in 1983 with her first novel, Willie: A Romance, an imagining of the strange secret life of Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, for which she won the Canadian Authors Association’s fiction prize and Books in Canada First Novel Award. She later turned the King novel into a trilogy, with Lily: a Rhapsody in Red (1986) and Igor: a Novel of Intrigue (1989).
After Lily was published, Ms. Robertson told Books in Canada’s Barbara Wade Rose that those who write nonfiction aren’t taken seriously. “In this country, if you write a novel – any novel – you are considered to be a real writer.” Still, in the years to come she returned to nonfiction, publishing more than a dozen books and collecting many awards and honours, including an Honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Manitoba in 1998 and the National Magazine Awards Foundation’s Outstanding Achievement Award in 2011.
As for her personal life, she met her soulmate, broadcaster and writer Andrew Marshall, in 1973 and they became a couple once they had disentangled themselves from existing marriages. She became the stepmother of Mr. Marshall’s daughter – Amy Marshall Furness, who is now an art archivist – and the mother of their child, Aaron Marshall, who went on to become a film editor. (Later she would dote on four grandchildren.)
For two decades, she lived with Mr. Marshall in King City, where she founded the King Township archives and was active in the local historical society. Beginning in the 1990s, she survived both breast and colon cancer and, in recent years, was fighting brain cancer. Both she and Mr. Marshall knew the end was approaching sooner or later. On March 18, the eve of her 72nd birthday, after the couple enjoyed a dinner of pork chops, their favourite, Ms. Robertson seemed to be sleeping peacefully through the night. Some time before morning, she passed away.
Mr. Marshall points out that in 2000, Ms. Robertson published a book called Meeting Death: In Hospital, Hospice and at Home, written after she had grown disillusioned with the care her father received during his painful death from cancer. Obsessed with understanding the socio-cultural dynamics of dying, she took a course to become a certified caregiver and visited hospices in Canada, England and Africa. “I will search silk and string in my cultural rubble,” she wrote, “and I will go to the dying and find out how they do it.” The result: a spiritual and emotional journey of discovery containing characteristic Robertsonian debunking, as when she dismissed psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s famous five stages of dying because of its dubious research.
In the days after her death, Mr. Marshall began reading the journal she had kept since her brain cancer diagnosis and discovered she recorded dreams and hallucinations in which she felt she had already died. When it came to the end of her own life, Mr. Marshall says, “she had explored what death entailed, disentangled from religion and emotional mumbo jumbo. She died peacefully.”
Special to The Globe and Mail
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