Audrey Vincent Rockingham Gill: Mother. Journalist. Public servant. Powerhouse. Born Jan. 15, 1937, in Victoria; died Jan. 18, 2020, in Vancouver, of complications due to Alzheimer’s, aged 83.
When her father returned home from the Second World War a decorated hero, he found that his eight-year-old daughter Audrey commanded the household. She held sway over her gentle younger brother and her demure mother. The confidence and conviction that would define her as an adult were already powerfully formed.
She graduated high school in Vancouver at the young age of 15. This was fortunate, as her father, as an acknowledgement of his military leadership in Korea, had been invited to London and Audrey was presented as a debutante to the new Queen Elizabeth. After returning, she graduated with a double major in history and political science from McGill University. It was in Montreal where she met and fell in love with John Gill of Ottawa, who at the time was a bush pilot and piano player. They married in 1960.
Until she was eight months pregnant with her first child, Audrey reported for the Financial Post when it was rare for a woman to be in the parliamentary press gallery. After a second child was born, she became a freelance journalist and began a lifelong love of magazines, which would lead to her founding three over her career.
She was an unconventional mother for her era. Alexandra and Peter remember the rat-a-tat of her electric typewriter from behind her office door while they watched TV. Audrey taught through trust, example and expectation. Her children were expected to use their sound judgment and make responsible choices themselves. In keeping with her love of the arts, she never quashed her daughter’s disorderly creative nature. Although Alex’s clothes and hair struck all manner of chaotic arrangements, she doesn’t recall her mother once remarking on either. Independence and critical thinking were among the highest virtues.
Audrey was hired by the Liberal Party in 1975 and rose to be director of policy development. She excelled at making real the visions of others, in part thanks to her great social energy and sense of fun. She did not just love the Liberal Party, she loved parties in general. Nowhere did the two come together better than during her beloved Grindstone Group weekend, which lasted 40 years, a round table gab-fest about policy by day with noisy political kibitzing by night.
Her children rarely saw her as happy as during the 1976 and 1980 election night celebrations for Liberal majorities at Ottawa’s Château Laurier.
Peter and Alex grew up knowing their mother was special, but they were not sure why. They were too young to appreciate that her intellectual curiosity, high spiritedness and toughness made her a force in her professional life where she worked to advance social justice and liberal values. This was true even after she and John divorced and Audrey moved to Toronto in 1984 to become a consultant in the private sector.
During her years in the east, Audrey always longed to return to “my West Coast.” Back in Vancouver, she used to say these were her favourite years of motherhood, when her children were adults and they could spend long hours in conversation with her. But she was a private person and did not gossip. Discussions were about ideas, Canadian politics, world affairs and the several organizations she helped to found once she “retired.”
Audrey died as she lived – on her own terms and displaying astonishing strength of character. She was a formidable person, and a public servant and mother of unsentimental yet tremendous heart.
Alexandra Rockingham Gill is Audrey’s daughter.
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