On April 12, the evening she suffered an aneurysm that would eventually end her life, Wendy Robbins was out doing what she regularly did: Laughing, socializing and fighting the good fight.
Prof. Robbins, a celebrated advocate for women's rights and a long-time Liberal supporter, knew that Jean Chrétien was in Saint John to appear at a Liberal Party fundraiser alongside New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant. She remembered that the former prime minister had once spoken in favour of dual-member constituencies, a policy that would help more women enter the political process.
Mr. Chrétien did not recall his endorsement of that particular idea when reminded by Prof. Robbins, but then it's not surprising that she had the more extensive knowledge of feminist history. Improving women's lives was her life's work. She slipped alongside Mr. Chrétien that evening and handed him a letter she'd written about dual-nomination constituencies.
"She never missed an opportunity to make things better," said her friend Heather Robinson, who was also at the fundraiser. "She came up to me later and said, 'I did it!' with a big smile on her face." To friends and family, it seemed fitting that Prof. Robbins spent one of her final evenings as she had spent her life, in energetic pursuit of justice on behalf of others.
On the way to a friend's house after the event, Prof. Robbins fell ill with a terrible headache and nausea. She was taken to the Saint John Regional Hospital, where it was discovered she'd suffered an aneurysm. After a second bleed and a subsequent surgical procedure, Prof. Robbins's condition deteriorated. A vocal proponent of assisted dying who had spoken out on the Liberals' policy in 2016, she had made clear to her family that she did not want to be kept alive artificially if her cognitive function was severely impaired.
She died at Moncton City Hospital on April 18, surrounded by friends. She was 68.
Prof. Robbins, who taught English at the University of New Brunswick and was a co-founder of the school's gender and women's studies program, could perhaps trace her feminism back to her happy childhood in Quebec.
She was born Aug. 4, 1948, to Catherine and Maurice Robbins in Saint-Jean, about 40 kilometres southeast of Montreal. They raised her alongside her brother, Neil.
Her own mother, Catherine, left "obey" out of her marriage vows, which was unusual for the era. In those days, a married woman couldn't even have her own bank account, as Prof. Robbins recalled in her acceptance speech when she was given the Governor-General's Award in Remembrance of the Persons Case in 2007. (The award honours individuals' contributions to gender equality.)
"We have made substantial, perhaps almost unimaginable, progress since the 1929 Persons Case," Prof. Robbins said in her speech. "However a huge, almost overwhelming, amount remains to be done around the world, and also here at home, before women are truly equal citizens, with one another as well as with men."
Where that work needed to be done, Prof. Robbins rolled up her sleeves. In 2003, along with several other female academics, she launched a complaint with the Human Rights Commission over the gender imbalance in the prestigious Canada Research Chairs (CRC) program. Her analysis had shown that women and people from minority communities were underrepresented in the program, so she challenged its sponsor, Industry Canada.
The complaint was settled through mediation in 2006, with Prof. Robbins calling it "a frustrating case of justice delayed is justice denied." In 2010, she was not much happier with the system, noting that "data still show that women, who are a third of full-time faculty in Canada, continue to be underrepresented in CRC appointments."
She continued to fight for the rights of female academics, and those who were not traditionally in the centre of power. It was this persistence that people remember about Prof. Robbins – along with a laugh that could be heard through doors, and a desire to celebrate the triumphs of those near and dear to her, usually with a party and Champagne.
The national Liberal convention of May, 2016, showcased Prof. Robbins's doggedness. As the chair of the Liberals' women's policy commission, she wanted an emergency resolution to open up the debate around the party's policy on medically assisted dying, which she felt was too restrictive. It was an issue Prof. Robbins felt strongly about, having been involved in the decision to take her father off life support after a stroke. She called medically assisted dying "the most important issue of our generation."
However, the policy was contentious and in the public eye. Senior Liberals tried to persuade Prof. Robbins not to stir the waters at the convention, but she proposed the emergency resolution anyway. The request for debate was refused.
"Wendy didn't see roadblocks," said her friend Anne Forrestall. "Roadblocks were just something to find a way around. Other people got discouraged, but she never did."
In fact, Prof. Robbins kept persisting on the political front. In 2009, as a member of the political advocacy group Equal Voice, Prof. Robbins announced she had better "put her money where her mouth is" and seek elective office. She lost the Liberal nomination in Fredericton in 2011, but, true to form, kept trying to find ways to advocate in the public sphere. At the time of her death, she was looking into being nominated for the Senate, according to her daughter, Chimène Keitner.
"The only thing that could stand between her and her grandkids was the Senate," said Prof. Keitner, herself a professor of law at UC Hastings in California. Prof. Keitner thought of her mother as three equally formidable forces: "There was Grandma Wendy, professor Wendy, and Liberal Party activist Wendy."
The three roles were inextricably entwined, said her daughter, "because she believed, and lived, that the personal was political." To that end, she would befriend her students at the University of New Brunswick, and would support them if they ran into trouble with partners, or work, or the law. She was the longest-serving member of the English department at UNB, and the recipient of the school's top teaching honour, the Allan P. Stuart Award.
"We were like daughters she'd adopted," said Ms. Robinson, who first took a women's studies class with Prof. Robbins in 1996. "She believed in us more than we believed in ourselves, sometimes."
From the moment of her birth to her death, "she crammed so much into the time she was given," Ms. Forrestall said. That included decades of activism, from her work setting up a pioneering feminist e-mail list while she was research director at the Canadian Advisory Council on the Status of Women to fighting against New Brunswick's restrictive abortion laws, in her final years. In January, she travelled to Washington for the Women's March, and wore a pink knitted "pussy hat" in solidarity with thousands of protesters.
While she was good at protesting, Prof. Robbins was equally good at celebrating. She loved Champagne, for one thing. Ms. Forrestall remembers sneaking a bottle of bubbly into the hospital where Prof. Robbins was recovering from hip-replacement surgery. (She'd been badly injured in a cycling accident in Ottawa years before, and spent time in a wheelchair.) She also loved the ocean, and playing guitar, which she'd taken up late in life. Most of all, she loved her grandkids; three from her daughter, Chimène, and two from her son, Haydon.
Prof. Robbins and her former husband, psychiatrist Gabor Keitner, were married in 1969 and separated 15 years later. Their children spent alternate years in Providence, R.I., and New Brunswick, where their mother taught.
"Being a tenure-track professor and single mom of two young kids couldn't have been easy," Prof. Keitner said. The fact that Prof. Robbins made it work was a lesson to her children, her daughter says. "I certainly grew up with a strong sense that a meaningful life for me would include parenting and excelling professionally."
The Wendy J. Robbins Women's Empowerment Fund has been set up in her name. A celebration of her life will be held at the University of New Brunswick on May 20.
To submit an I Remember:
Send us a memory of someone
we have recently profiled on theObituaries page. Please include
I Remember in the subject field.