Doer’s once-private battle with an eating disorder is now very public

And she never imagined the difference it would make


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Most courage is invisible.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 01/02/2014 (3415 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Most courage is invisible.

It’s the unspoken bravery of the everyday kind that gets us through life, one day, one challenge, at a time.

But it takes a particular kind of courage for someone young and from a prominent family to expose herself to the still-prevalent stigma of a mental illness she had hidden for years.

John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press
Emily Doer
John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press Emily Doer

In speaking up for herself, she also spoke out in hopes of helping others. Although no one expected Emily Doer to help in the way she did, a way no one else had been able to.

Emily is 23 and the older of Gary Doer’s and Ginny Devine’s two daughters. On Feb. 9, a week from Sunday at the Fort Garry Hotel, she is bringing in eating-disorders survivor and author Brian Cuban to speak at her second tea to raise funds and awareness for the Health Sciences Centre’s adult eating-disorders program that had given Emily her life back.

Three months prior, to promote the event, Emily had publicly announced she had been in treatment in 2011 for an eating disorder that had manifested itself in the final year of high school. Except for her father’s profile as premier, Emily’s struggle isn’t so different from many of the up to four in 100 adult Manitobans and one in 100 teens and children who have eating disorders. The difference for Emily was that her family’s public profile had a profound impact on her upbringing.

“I had a really, really difficult time with my dad in politics,” she said this week. “I hated the attention. I felt like we were always under the microscope. I always felt like I was being watched.”

She said her dad tried to make things as normal as possible. And he did.

I remember seeing him one Saturday in the Second Cup across the street from the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Emily and her younger sister, Kate, were taking lessons and he was waiting for them, just like any other dad or mom.

But her mother, Ginny, recalls something that happened when Emily was in Grade 7 that suggests what her elder daughter had to endure because she was Gary Doer’s daughter. Emily was one of the few younger girls selected to play on her school’s grades 7 and 8 volleyball team.

“And,” Ginny recalled, “someone made a comment, well, the reason she’s on the team is because of Gary. That was hard because number one it wasn’t true.”

Later, in high school, Emily — who was a high achiever and avid athlete — gained 50 pounds within a few months. Starving herself to lose the weight would lead to bulimic behaviour. And by 19, Emily was working in a weight-loss clinic and concocting her own diet. But it wasn’t simply feeling watched and judged because she was the premier’s daughter that contributed to her illness. Emily had, and still has, an underlying anxiety disorder.

“It was the one thing I could control in life,” she said of food. “But then it started to control me.”

Her parents didn’t see it coming.

“I was pretty blind to it,” Ginny said. “I knew that she was having some anxiety problems. But I kind of put it down to first-year university. A lot of kids go through a tough transition. And then she actually told me.”

By that time, Gary had already taken up his role as Canada’s ambassador to the United States.

Gary and Ginny weren’t pushy parents, but naturally they wondered if they bore any responsibility for what their daughter was going through.

“Emily was really adamant with both of us,” Ginny recalled. “She said, ‘This is not you, this is me. It’s just who I am.’ “

At first, she tried going to a counsellor and helping herself on her own.

When, after a year, that hadn’t worked, she reluctantly agreed to be assessed for the HSC’s adult eating-disorders program. Initially, Emily didn’t believe the program would work because nothing had. But her dad flew back to Winnipeg to join family counselling sessions that were part of the program. She found community there; people who understood her and what she was going through.

Despite the happy outcome, Emily knows she isn’t cured.

“Every day, I have to make a choice. I think it’s still something I’ll struggle with the rest of my life. But it’s manageable now.”

Last year’s tea, which raised almost $38,000, was her way of saying thanks, as is this year’s.

Dr. Louis Ludwig, the medical director of the adult eating-disorders program, credits Emily — and the Doer name — with getting the attention of the government. After Emily spoke up, the health department contacted him about the program and the long waiting list to get into it.

“And at that point,” Ludwig recalled, “we were asked, ‘Well, do you have a proposal to improve the quality of care?’ And I said, ‘Yes, as a matter of fact, I have a proposal which had been gathering dust for some time.’ “

As a result, this September, with more funding from the province, the adult eating-disorders day hospital program was expanded with more staff, more programming and more hours.

“And,” said Ludwig, “I really do credit Emily for that in the sense that I think it would not have happened without her going public.”

The irony seems obvious.

In the end, Emily had taken the limelight she suffered through as kid and turned it into a spotlight on a program she says gave her back her life.

But Emily Doer couldn’t have done that without something else that has always fed and nourished her soul — even as she starved her body.

Her caring and brave heart.

Tickets to this year’s tea are available online at

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