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Canada A feminist force in politics, Nancy Ruth prepares her Senate swan song

Women in Politics is a new regular column by veteran political journalist Jane Taber. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook

Nancy Ruth, the feminist senator from Toronto, was so vexed by the Conservative government's decision to cut funding to the church-backed aid organization Kairos that she took down a Lawren Harris painting she had on her office wall, and one by Emily Carr, too – and sold them.

After taxes, they fetched about $500,000, which she gave to Kairos.

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"My mother gave me the paintings, and she would have approved of it. So that's what I did," the senator recalled. "I was just so annoyed with the government."

That was in 2009. The move was controversial, attracting negative publicity for the Harper government of which Nancy Ruth was a member.

She describes herself as a Red Tory, and ran unsuccessfully both federally and provincially. In 2005, she was appointed to the Senate as an independent by then Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin.

Later, she joined the Conservative caucus after Stephen Harper formed government.

It didn't seem like a natural fit for the social activist and philanthropist, also a lesbian, from Toronto's Rosedale to be sitting among the Alberta Reformers. But as a woman operating in a man's world, Nancy Ruth knew she had to go where the decisions were being made.

"I made a choice to be with power, and that's what Ottawa is all about. I knew … I had 11 years to do this job, so better to be with power than without it."

Her 11 years are up in January when she turns 75. She plans to make the most of the time she has left. She wants to see through the legislation to make the national anthem more gender neutral, and she's pushing to have the name of the Canadian War Museum changed to the Canadian Peace Museum.

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Nancy Ruth stopped using her famous last name in the 1990s – and goes by her two given names. She says she doesn't want to be known by a surname.

She is a Jackman, a member of the prominent political and moneyed family from Toronto. She is the only daughter and youngest of the four Jackman children. Her father, Harry, was a successful entrepreneur and the Progressive Conservative MP for Rosedale from 1940 to 1949. Her eldest brother, Hal, was Lieutenant-Governor of Ontario. Her mother, Mary, was a patron of the arts, supporting members of the Group of Seven, including A.Y. Jackson. He would come up to their Georgian Bay cottage to paint, and Nancy Ruth painted along with him.

From afar, it looked like a charmed life. But from an early age, she says, she was a feminist – informed, in part, by a troubled relationship between her father and mother. "That was the emotional trigger to the intellectual stuff," she says.

In feminist circles, Nancy Ruth is spoken about with reverence, as she has pushed for systemic change for women. Janet Ecker, a former Ontario finance minister, says Nancy Ruth is unique, "coming from a background not known for their revolutionary zeal on social issues."

"She put her money where her mouth was, literally and figuratively, and made a difference," Ms. Ecker says.

Nancy Ruth is generous with her money. She is well-known as the co-founder of the Women's Legal Education and Action Fund, or LEAF, which fights to protect the equality rights for women enshrined in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

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She says she has put LEAF on notice to start preparing for the constitutional challenges that will arise from the new assisted-dying law. She sat on the joint parliamentary committee and is incensed the government did not include advanced directives for people who want to end their lives in the future.

"The reasons I think prior consent is so important is because it is women primarily who not only deal with life but they also deal with death," she says. "They see their parents out … they usually see their husbands out because they live longer."

More women than men suffer from dementia, she says. "And this government will not allow prior consent. This discriminates against women who have to deal with all of this death, and then their own possible dementia," she says.

She has long pushed for government to better use Gender Based Analysis on legislation, so that women's rights are supported in policy. If rigorous GBA was done on the assisted-dying bill, she believes prior consent would have been part of the new law.

Nancy Ruth has a big presence, and she will be missed in the Senate. Sometimes she is profane, and at other times she has put her foot in her mouth. She famously complained during the Senate expenses scandal about the quality of airplane breakfasts, saying she has to eat broken crackers and ice cold Camembert.

Her comments provoked outrage, adding to the perception of entitlement in the Red Chamber. She regrets that now – "It didn't push any issue at all. It was stupid."

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Recently, Nancy Ruth was told that she is legally blind – she suffers from age-related macular degeneration. It means she can no longer drive, reading is a challenge and she's worried about not being able to manoeuvre her little motorboat around at her beloved cottage on Georgian Bay.

Her world is becoming smaller, which is hard to fathom, as there has never been anything small about Nancy Ruth.

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