Heather Robertson, who began her career as a reporter in Winnipeg, spent years as an award-winning magazine feature writer and eventually wrote more than a dozen books, died of cancer on March 19th, on her 72nd birthday.
She learned her trade as a reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press and Winnipeg Tribune and years later wrote a wonderful essay in Saturday Night called “My Squalid Life on the Winnipeg Dailies.” She noted that the crusty old male journalists of the time weren’t sure what to make of this new crop of educated, first-wave feminists who had no intention of being confined to the newspaper ghetto called the “women’s pages.” She could be hilariously irreverent, as in this observation: “We had no tits. It had been customary to measure the talent of female staff members at the Tribune by the size of their bra cups; the women’s editor was a statuesque 38D, columnist Ann Henry a stunning 36 triple C. We were all As.”
As a feature writer, her work appeared in Maclean’s, Chatelaine, Toronto Life, Equinox, Elm Street, Canadian Forum, Canada’s History, Saturday Night as well as Weekend and The Canadian (the rotogravure magazines that used to appear in Saturday editions of newspapers across the country until the late ‘70s). Later she wrote more than a dozen books, both nonfiction (Reservations Are for Indians, an early investigation into social conditions on Canadian reserves, and The Flying Bandit, the story of flamboyant bank robber Kenny Leishman) and fiction that was often based on real-life figures (most famously, Willie: A Romance, about former Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King).
Robertson was a muckraker whose reforming spirit animated much of her work and her life. Her family had roots in organized labour and she once told the Ryerson Review of Journalism that “it was in my blood to stick it to the corporation,” adding that she had her grandfather’s copy of Marx’s Das Kapital on her bookshelf. Unafraid of controversy, she once wrote an harsh evaluation of U.S. – Canadian relations that irritated the executive ranks at Maclean-Hunter (then corporate owner of Maclean’s) and a withering critique of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto Life that caused the chattering classes to choke on their cocktails.
Her grandfather’s spirit carried into her life as a freelance writer, as well. Aware that writers were underpaid and often treated churlishly by publishers, she became a co-founder of both the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC). When she realized that publishers didn’t compensate her for putting her work on their for-profit electronic databases, she launched a class-action lawsuit against the country’s largest media corporations on behalf of all freelance writers that resulted in a multi-million dollar settlement. Robertson was among the first writers to understand that intellectual rights and the Internet would become a defining cultural issue.
It was for all of these reasons that in 2011 the National Magazine Awards Foundation gave Robertson its highest honour, the Outstanding Achievement Award.
David Hayes,Toronto-based freelance writer and member of the NMAF board.