Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Writer's best legacy: respect for her peers

Robertson won rights for freelance writers

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Heather Robertson had been getting progressively more ill with the cancer that began in her breast five or six years ago, then spread to the colon and finally her brain.

But she wasn't supposed to die. Not yet.

Last Tuesday she and her broadcaster and writer husband, Andrew Marshall, had made dinner together in their home north of Toronto. And he had written a card he was planning to give her the next morning on her 72nd birthday.

"All I can hope for," he had written, "is to have at least another birthday with you, love of my life... "

Andrew placed the still-unopened card on the kitchen counter. And they went to bed.

-- -- --

Monday, in preparing to write my own words about Heather Robertson, I watched her grow up in the archived pages of the Free Press. Starting with her birth announcement:

"Mr. and Mrs. Harry Robertson. Home Street, a daughter. Heather Margaret... "

How could her mother, Margaret, and school principal father, Harry, have known the gift to journalism, and Canadian letters, their only child would become. Or realized, even when she was beginning to show her gift as a teenager, that she would not only become one of the country's most admired writers, but the writer who would lead a successful multimillion-dollar class action on behalf of Canada's freelance writers. And how relentlessly she did it.

"Musicians are paid for radio play," she said in 1996 when the suit was launched. "Why shouldn't writers be paid for electronic play?"

As I scrolled through more than seven decades of selected Free Press pages, watching little Heather serving tea at engagement parties, making posters at the public library, writing a Free Press book review on Canadian history as a Grade 11 student at Kelvin and winning a Woodrow Wilson fellowship to Columbia University, I finally got to the most intriguing story.

How she caused an uproar on the University of Manitoba campus as a 19-year-old editor of the Manitoban. As I read the archives, I remembered the first time I saw her. It was the summer of 1964. She was a 22-year-old dark-haired beauty who had started her journalism career at the Free Press and was now reporting for the Winnipeg Tribune. But her beauty aside, what I remember most 50 years later is her intimidating intelligence and sparkling spirit of independence.

And we never even spoke.

By that time, of course, she had been editor of the Manitoban where attempts had been made to censure and censor her for her left-leaning news coverage and editorials. During that process, she and deputy editor Jim Lorimer were burned in effigy outside the UMSU building.

"She was fearless and controversial," recalls Martin Knelman, who would also serve as Manitoban editor and now works for the Toronto Star.

But her writing wasn't all about world peace and NDP values.

"When she came out against the U of M having a football team," Knelman says, "it caused a near-riot at the university."

Robertson clearly wasn't one of the boys and too ambitious to spend her career in a newsroom. By 1970, she had published her first book, Reservations are for Indians, a groundbreaking look from the inside at First Nations people and their plight. It was published by her then friend, and deputy editor through the campus newspaper wars, Jim Lorimer. Years later she would be presented with an honorary doctorate of laws by the U of M, and she would honour the university by giving them her papers.

It's there in the university library, where one can browse through the decades of work that went into her mastery of so many forms, from books of non-fiction and fiction, to magazine writing and columns. Among the books, her favourite was Willie, A Romance, a fictional look at the life of former prime minister Mackenzie King, which won a best-first-novel award.

But today, it may be her work to help other writers for which she is even more appreciated. Robertson founded both the Writers Union of Canada, and helped establish the Periodical Writers Association of Canada. And then there was the class-action suit against big newspapers that took years of her time before it was won in the Supreme Court of Canada.

"She was a brave fighter," says Doug Gibson, her former publisher at McClelland & Stewart.

-- -- --

I reached her husband, Andrew, on the phone late Monday afternoon.

He talked about how they met in 1973 at Queens University when he was running the radio station and she was visiting for a conference and how they instantly fell in love.

He talked about how she would go home each summer to spend time at the Lake of the Woods cottage property her parents bought for $69 the year before she was born. And how they would slip in to see friends in Winnipeg.

And then he described how he came downstairs early Wednesday morning to find the birthday card she would never read still on the kitchen counter.

His wife was lying still, her hands clasped over her heart. It had taken death to force Heather Robertson to go quietly for the first time in her life.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 25, 2014 0

History

Updated on Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 11:46 AM CDT: corrects typos

11:47 AM: adds link

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