Joyce Fairbairn was a champion for women on Parliament Hill

Joyce Fairbairn, the former senator from Alberta who died this week, is being remembered for all of her contributions to public life — starting as an aide to Pierre Trudeau in the 1970s, going on to serve a distinguished career as a leader, a minister and an advocate.

Funny, though, that those very worthy contributions are not the ones that have stayed seared in my memory, as one of the journalists lucky to have known Fairbairn throughout her decades on the Hill. Like many who knew her, I will remember Canada’s first female Senate leader for her decency and kindness, and the stories — one story in particular, which I was recounting just days before I heard she was gone.

Fairbairn was a rarity in Ottawa, not just as a Liberal from Alberta, but also as one of the few women journalists to be part of the parliamentary press gallery in the 1960s.

She would periodically remind me of just how far women had come in the world of political journalism between her time and mine. In one conversation, Fairbairn matter-of-factly told me she had never attended a press gallery dinner as a journalist. As my jaw dropped, she explained how women weren’t invited to the event until after she went to work in the Prime Minister’s Office.

As a woman reporter, her job on the night of the gallery dinner, Fairbairn explained, was to get dressed up in her party clothes and go to her office, where she was expected to serve drinks and snacks to her male colleagues and the political types they were taking to the clubby, off-the-record evening of drinks and merriment.

After all the men had gone off to the dinner, Fairbairn would then head home and wait to hear on Monday about all the fun she had missed. I asked her whether she was outraged or simmering with resentment as she served the drinks. “No,” she said, “that’s just how it was.”

Fairbairn told me this story in the late 1980s, when women like me were part of a second wave of female journalists coming to work on the Hill. We were still few in number and most of us were still the only women in their offices. Women like Fairbairn—or her friend, Southam columnist Marjorie Nichols—were the ones who broke down the barriers for us and kept a careful eye on how we were being treated.

We were of course allowed to go to the press gallery dinner but, in my office at least, things got awkward when it came to what we were allowed to put on our expense accounts. Men were allowed to bill the boss for a tuxedo rental, but when it came time to figure out how women could get an equivalent benefit, the bean counters decided instead that no one, man or woman, would be compensated going forward for gallery-dinner attracted. Sorry, guys.

Fairbairn would tell us stories, but never gossip — she was simultaneously one of the most open politicos I encountered and one of the most loyal and discreet. We knew she remained in touch with Pierre Trudeau, but inquiries about what the reclusive former prime minister was thinking or saying went smilingly unanswered.

Her journalism background was also put to use on Liberal election campaign tours, where she served as a bridge between the traveling media and the political staff. Fairbairn had a keen eye for trouble and the troubled, and she would leap in to gently smooth rough edges.

In the midst of the 1993 campaign, one of my reporter colleagues had to get on the Liberal plane after unexpectedly losing a beloved dog. Fairbairn, who always seemed to be rescuing dogs to come and live with her, had somehow learned of this loss and was on top of things, as usual.

As we were all boarding the plane for a hectic multi-city sprint, Fairbairn took the grieving reporter aside and said she would be seated beside her for the duration of this campaign stretch. It was a small gesture, but a very human one.

In her public duties, Fairbairn was a formidable presence — always dressed in bright red, passionate about the cause of literacy and never failing to remind all around her that she hailed from Lethbridge, Alberta, where she spent her final years and where a school now bears her name.

Since learning of her death, I’ve been casting back through my memories of the private Fairbairn — the dog lover, the devoted aunt, the loyal friend and wife to Mike Gillin, who predeceased her in 2002.

When Pierre Trudeau died in the fall of 2000, I took my father up to Parliament Hill, where thousands were flocking to pay tribute at the former prime minister’s flag-draped coffin. We were standing just by the Center Block’s main door when Fairbairn sauntered over and introduced herself to my father as a grieving friend of the former prime minister. She regaled my dad with tales of what he was like to work for Trudeau senior and how hard it was to see him slip away in his later years.

By strange and sad coincidence, my dad and Fairbairn would both be diagnosed with dementia a dozen years after that encounter. Dad’s descent was mercifully short; he left us in 2017. Fairbairn hung on until just this week, at age 82.

It is a shame that Fairbairn wasn’t able to use those years after her early retirement from the Senate to revisit her first career, and write up all the stories she had gathered. Others will tell the tales of her advocacy, whether for literacy, the Paralympics or anyone trying to find where they fit in the rough and tumble world of politics.

I’ve chosen to remember her in a way I think she’d appreciate — as a leader and a mentor for so many on Parliament Hill, especially the women who followed in her footsteps.

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