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Newfoundland labour activist was known for being tough

Winnifred Grace Riche, always known by her family nickname of Nancy, was born Dec. 15, 1944, in St. John's. The Riches lived in Walsh's Square on Signal Hill in The Outer Battery. Her father, Robert Riche, was a fisherman's son who delivered coal and worked for Imperial Oil on St. John's Southside. Her mother, Winnifred Collins, had come into town around 1915 from Spaniard's Bay to work as a domestic.

Not just the youngest of 12, she was also the only girl, and said she was spoiled from the start, even by being born at Grace Hospital (all her brothers were born at home with their grandmother Riche acting as midwife).

But spoiled is a relative term; her family was poor and the neighbourhood was rough. That forged her. She knew from Grade 3 that "one, I was on the left and that, two, ordinary people could make a difference." Her other maxim? "Keep your friends."

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Riche, who died on Oct. 1 in St. John's following complications from heart surgery, held to all three tenets.

Her grammar-school epiphany came while attending St. Thomas's School. She then went to upper-crust Bishop Spencer College. A girl from "the Battery" was an anomaly there, but Riche's mother wanted her to learn the piano. While Riche appreciated her mother's goals, she didn't fit in. She remembered taking on a group of girls who were making fun of the way a friend talked. "I waited outside for them and warned 'em to lay off. And they did."

Then she went to Bishop College, in the stream then called "commercial." She was afraid of math, but not much else. "We were the hard crew, the wild ones. We hung out at King's store across the street from school, smoking."

While in high school she was employed part-time at Ayre's Department Store, for 50 cents an hour. She disliked it and forever remembered how such part-time, pink-collar workers could be misused. After working as a stenographer and receptionist with Guardian Press, she joined the public service as a shorthand typist, and then moved to teaching business education – not an unusual trajectory in those days.

She taught at vocational schools across the province: Bonavista, Port aux Basques, Seal Cove. In Stephenville Crossing she also ran for the NDP because, she said, she was the only party member in town. Around this time she got her driver's licence and quit drinking, as the possibility of ever drinking and driving terrified her. Smoking, though, remained a sometimes pack-a-day habit.

While teaching in Stephenville Crossing, she was told that she would have to repeat a probationary period because she had briefly left to work in Nova Scotia. She took it to the union, the Newfoundland Association of Public Employees (NAPE), but nothing was done. That got her going. Riche and NAPE president Fraser March would be credited with the first collective agreement for vocational teachers in the province, in 1971. Soon after this victory it was International Women's Year and that "was a turning point," she said. "I haven't looked back." She next earned her BA from Memorial University in 1977.

In 1982 she ran again for the NDP, in St. John's East. She lost to PC Bill Marshall, but etched enough of a path that the district soon went, and stayed, NDP. (Riche was later president of the federal NDP from 1991 to 1995 and a strong supporter of Jack Layton.)

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By now she was also very active in the labour movement. As her busy career unfolded, she was director of education, research and communication on the NAPE executive until 1984, when she was elected to NAPE's national body of the National Union of Public and General Employees – "pretty overwhelming for a Newfoundlander" – and in 1986 vice-president and secretary treasurer of the Canadian Labour Congress. The only other woman then in a national trade union position was the CLC's Shirley Carr. Riche was also vice-president of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions.

She travelled internationally; it was routine for her to chair a conference in Brussels one month, and address another in Melbourne the next. She could go for months without a weekend off. Her busy life accrued many honours, including a Doctor of Letters Honoris Causa from Memorial in 1995, the Governor-General's Person's Award in 2002, the AFL-CIO Meary-Lane Human Rights Award in 2003, the Order of Canada in 2004, and the Elijah Barayi Award from the South African Congress of Trade Unions in 2009.

She retired from the CLC in 2002. But retired didn't mean stop, because Riche never stopped. She became computer literate. She founded a monthly book club – 10 women of different ages but parallel progressive interests and ideals, whose collective passions meant they rarely got around to discussing books. And she continued to support the causes important to her.

She had carefully considered where best to put her time, and the provincial NDP was her choice. She was president from 2003-2008, and often urged to run herself. Her work ethic was legendary. (She once suggested that, in a movie, actor Lily Tomlin could play her: "Always the working girl, loud and half nuts, like me.")

She gave her last interview to Michael Enright, live, for CBC Radio One's The Sunday Edition on Sept. 25, a week before she died. She wasn't feeling great and, in fact, would go from the studio to the hospital. But she felt the topic, the right to strike, was too important to miss. The interview itself was a break from her campaigning for the NDP in Newfoundland's provincial election. After being admitted to hospital, she was volunteering to make campaign phone calls from her hospital bed.

Witty, whip smart and forthright, she was a media darling, but occasionally rued her frankness.

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She once said she was "too quick to criticize."

"You have to take your words out and look at them before speaking … and sometimes I've felt pretty shitty afterward. I hope I didn't hurt anyone – but they probably deserved it anyway." Then she went on to call then prime minister Jean Chrétien a "patronizing son of a bitch," and worse.

Her bluntness applied equally to her own work. She never glossed over the struggles of the left and of unions. These were difficult, disheartening battles. And even as one hurdle was cleared, another immediately appeared. Women, for example, might be making strides in the labour movement. But what about gays and lesbians? What about people of colour? Riche championed them, too, and had from a time when it was politically risky to do so. Gutsy, inclusive, she never gave up. She lived by the creed: Don't accept. Stand up. Speak out.

Her words were her actions, yet she was reluctant to give advice to young women coming into the labour movement, because "they are so bright … I expect that their solutions will be so brilliant and creative they will blow us away."

For women her age, though, she counselled, "Do whatever you want, whenever you want, and don't take any shit. And if you are not quite 65, and they ask you at the movies if you're a senior, say yes. Everybody over 50 looks really old to the 18-year-old selling the tickets."

Nancy Riche leaves a son, Andy Wilson of Montreal, whom she gave up for adoption when she was 26, and who reconnected with her a year ago, and two grandchildren. She also leaves two brothers and an extended family of nieces and nephews.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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