As a young woman, Tillie Taylor alarmed and outraged her family and community. In time she also brought honour to them, but never ceased to stir up controversy in her quest for justice, equality and a fighting chance for everyone.
Born on Nov. 11, 1922, the eldest of four children of prominent Saskatoon lawyer J.M. Goldenberg and his wife, Sarah, she came of age in the 1930s. The Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and the threat of war galvanized many youth of the time to agitate for peace and economic opportunity. She became passionately involved in the Canadian arm of the international Youth Congress Movement, and there she met George Taylor.
George was the eldest son of a Welsh miner; the family had come to Canada in 1929 when he was 14, about a decade before Tillie met him. His family were dedicated communists, and she was inspired by both their politics and their passion. Before she turned 19, she had become a communist and married George.
Her parents were outraged. He was not Jewish; he was a communist. But to the young woman, her parents' strong values of seeking justice and helping the vulnerable were exactly what she found in George's family and politics – along, of course, with a strong dose of self-differentiation.
The young couple spent some time in Calgary, where George worked as a labourer; but this was not the life his parents had wanted for him, and in the mid-1940s he returned to school – with Tillie working as a secretary to support him – and obtained his law degree. By this time they had left the Communist Party, but remained ardently left-wing: they were active in the CCF, and later the NDP.
They reconciled with Tillie's parents, and George articled with and eventually joined her father's firm, going on to become a pre-eminent labour lawyer.
Tillie, meanwhile, had two daughters, Barbara and Lise, and returned to school herself, earning her own LLB in 1956. There were very few women lawyers in those days – she was the only one in her class – and few firms willing to take them on, perhaps especially if they were known to espouse radical politics. She took a job as deputy registrar in the Saskatoon Land Titles Office.
In 1960, she was named a provincial magistrate, the first woman (and possibly the first Jew) to be so appointed. "I still remember all the palaver surrounding her appointment," said Barbara at her mother's memorial gathering. "Should a woman hold such a responsible position? How would she balance work and motherhood? At one point she decided to dye her hair blond and the Star Phoenix devoted an entire column to it – 'Judge changes her mind.' "
In fact, although her appointment was a landmark, it was in reality a limited position. The Magistrates' Court (later the Provincial Court of Saskatchewan, in which the magistrates became judges) handled civil and minor criminal matters, conducting only preliminary hearings into more serious cases. One lawyer describes it as "grinding it out on speeding tickets day after day."
The speeding tickets didn't particularly interest Taylor, but she saw many petty crime cases, particularly involving young people and aboriginals, and her position gave her a unique window on the life situations that landed them in court. Poverty, she came to realize, was behind many misdemeanours.
As a provincial magistrate she could not be active in party politics, but she could certainly make a difference in other ways. Through the John Howard Society, the Medical Care Insurance Commission of Saskatchewan, and the Provincial Commission of Inquiry into Legal Aid, she worked for prison and law reform and tackled the problems of poverty. She also worked with Roger Carter, dean of the College of Law at the University of Saskatchewan, to create opportunities for natives to study and practice law and to redress systemic injustices.
In 1972 she was named the first chairperson of the newly formed Saskatchewan Human Rights Commission, and played a key role in the development of its mandate. She also chaired many of its boards of inquiry into alleged human rights violations, fighting for civic rights and social justice for all the province's people, in particular the most vulnerable. She was heavily criticized for having the commission name abortion as a human right, but she – and the commission – stood by the decision.
Not surprisingly, she was named one of 50 outstanding Saskatoon women in 1975. The next year she was elected a director of the Canadian Research Institute for the Advancement of Women, and a year after that began a decade-long stint on the board of governors of the Canadian Council on Social Development. Until she retired in 1987, she worked hard through many organizations to advance justice and opportunity for all.
In 1995, Taylor's toughest battle began. A massive stroke left her unable to speak, read, or walk, and doctors believed she never would again. But they didn't know her. A photograph taken when she was awarded the Saskatchewan Order of Merit in 1996 shows her keen and capable; and in 2002 she walked unaided to the dais in her synagogue and read prayers in Hebrew.
Last year she told her daughter Barbara that she had wanted to be "a proper person."
"I think she meant a decent person," Barbara says, "one who does the right thing. She certainly was that – even if sometimes she was wrong about what the right thing was, and even though her determination to do the right thing often made her a pretty improper person – that is, the sort of person who defies convention, who overturns rules, in order to get the right thing done. That kind of impropriety takes a lot of courage."
Predeceased by George, Tillie Taylor died on Oct. 23 at the age of 88, leaving her two daughters, two grandchildren, and a great-granddaughter. She also left some 12 metres of documents about herself and George to the Saskatchewan Archives Board: still making history.
Special to The Globe and Mail