The joke, for a long time, was that Carol Billett knew everything. That’s what her friends would say when they had a question without an answer, or a task without an obvious method of doing: "ask Carol," they’d say, "she knows everything." But it was only sort-of a joke, because they truly believed she did.
For instance: how to cook something, or get a stain out, or build a cottage with her hands and a few friends. How to secure permits to launch Winnipeg’s first lesbian social club, pack the right way for camping or make the world a little better for women: these are just a few of the things Billett knew how to do.
So when she died suddenly of a stroke on April 4, at age 71, it was an enormous loss to everyone who knew her, and particularly to the tight-knit local lesbian and feminist communities Billett had spent years working to support. Some describe her as a mother figure; others as a sister, or just a loyal and loving friend.
"People looked up to her," says Wendy Johnson, Billett’s friend and partner of over 20 years. "Somebody that has such integrity always, you can count on them, you can trust them. You know where they’re coming from is always going to be a higher place."
That strength, people who knew Billett say, came to her organically. She was born in 1950 in the middle of a great Winnipeg flood, the first of her parents’ two children. Her father was an RCMP officer, so as a child she moved a lot, spending many of her younger years around Dauphin and Brandon.
Even as a child, it seemed there was little Billett couldn’t do. She was brilliantly smart, and did well in school; she rode horses; she was deft with tools. She was deeply connected with nature and spent youthful days on the land or in a canoe, building a love for the environment that would figure into her later community work.
And she also had a deep sense of who she was, and who she loved. Once, when she was about 12 years old, she was out rafting with her brother and a cousin, listening to them chatter about the girls they hoped to marry someday. When Billett declared she too would marry a girl, they pushed her in the river in disbelief.
By the time she reached university, where despite her diminutive size she played for the Brandon Bobcats basketball team and got her first degree in mathematics, she was even more sure of her orientation.
Billett never really spoke with her parents about being gay, she told Johnson. Her mother once broached the topic, and Billett replied she wasn’t interested in men; her father never discussed it. But neither gave her any grief, or hassled her to get married. In that era, that was as close to acceptance as many could expect.
It helped that she was busy building her own family, drawn from Winnipeg’s feminist circles. Over the years, she established a large network of lifelong friends that proved to be incredibly resilient; together, they would build a number of social enterprises that, to this day, provide crucial support for women.
"She could be strong in herself, and not try to change, and she had her community," Johnson says. "They created and carved out their own lives. They had support with each other, and I think they tried to make a difference in every way possible for other women."
After graduating from Brandon University she took a corporate job crunching numbers, but quickly became disillusioned; what she really wanted to do was help people. She returned to school to study social work, a career that, although less lucrative, would prove to be far more fulfilling.
By the late 1970s, Billett was living in Winnipeg, where she later took a job at what was then called the Family Centre, and is now Family Dynamics. She worked there for nearly 40 years, providing support and counselling to strengthen families, particularly newcomer families, until her retirement in 2020.
She also dove into community work, especially to support women’s equality. Of all of those efforts, one of the most notable was Ms. Purdy’s, Winnipeg’s historic first lesbian social club and one of the longest-lived bars of its kind in Canada.
Billett came to the project in the late 1970s, when she started helping to establish a women’s centre in an old building on Alexander Avenue. The building was to be an umbrella, of sorts, which housed everything from a thrift store to a women’s theatre troupe; in the basement was an early incarnation of Ms. Purdy’s.
Joan Campbell, who had founded the club along with Bev Banks, met Billett in the late 1970s through that building. As the finances of the big building faltered, the three worked to secure a permanent space for Ms. Purdy’s, eventually finding a spot in the former Commercial Hotel at 226 Main Street.
Billett, Campbell says, was critical to that process. She knew how to set the club up as a member-driven non-profit, and how to jump through the hoops to get their permits and club licence. The club opened in 1982 and for nearly 20 years thrived as a beloved space for friendships, fundraising and women’s culture.
"We danced there, we celebrated there," Campbell fondly recalls. "Most people would say it was a big part of their lives. They would be there regularly, and it was just fantastic. It made for a very, very cohesive Winnipeg lesbian society."
Meanwhile, Billett was involved in countless other endeavours. She served on the board of Women’s Health Clinic and Fort Garry Women’s Resource Centre, and helped counsel sexual assault survivors at Klinic. She co-founded Save Our Seine, which today still does vital work to preserve that river’s environment.
Much of this work flew under the radar, at least outside Billett’s close community. She wasn’t the type of person to lead a protest, or cause a ruckus in media: she was "a quiet crusader," Johnson says, always moving steadily towards her vision of justice and working to lift the causes she believed in.
"When you need someone to come in and lift the weight up the extra 10 per cent to get you there, she was there," Campbell says. "But she wasn’t a person out there in front doing it. She really cared that it got done, but it wasn’t necessarily anything that she needed a lot of accolades for. She was very pragmatic."
Yet she could be playful too, her friends say, with a quiet sort of confidence and a gung-ho attitude about just about anything. When Campbell’s dog once fell through the ice on the river, Billett was right there to hold her friend’s feet as they hauled the pup out, "like it was no big deal," Campbell says.
"She was just really solid and dependable, the perfect friend you could ever have," she adds.
By the time Billett retired from her work last year, she had also largely stepped back from community activism. She filled her time with beautiful days at the cottage, and her myriad talents and interests: she gardened, dabbled in photography and was a talented woodcarver. She had started to do some writing.
Above all she had the family she had built, who loved her very much. Her parents and brother had died years prior, but she cherished her relationship with her niece and cousins. She was always there for her friends and delighted spending time with Johnson’s kids and young grandchildren.
Maybe, Johnson says, Billett would be a little bashful to see an article like this written about her. She was so modest, never seeking attention for everything she had done. Still, Johnson says with a laugh, there’d be at least some part of her that would nod and say: well, now’s an OK time to be honoured for all that.
"Carol was truly a person who led by her head and ruled by her heart," Johnson says. "She’s left a legacy, for sure."
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.