Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Joyce Fairbairn: The crimson pistol

Joyce Fairbairn was a legend in the Parliamentary Press Gallery even before she went to work for Pierre Trudeau.

She was one of the few women who inhabited the storied hot room in the 60s, a feisty reporter from the Mad Men era who was admired more for her "great legs" than her native intelligence. Joyce always reminded me of Shirley Maclaine, with the short no nonsense blonde hair cut, the twinkling eyes, the sharp sense of humor. Joyce would have had no trouble hanging with Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack -- she would have eaten them for breakfast and they would have served her caviar and champagne.

Frank was the musical hero of her husband, the late Mike Gillan, who had befriended me in the early 80s when I left my fledgling journalism career for the comfort of a Hill job. I met Mike through Jerry Yanover and the two of them had charmed me into thinking I would be welcomed into the fold. The Liberals were like that back in the 80s. Unlike the other parties, the Liberals weren't an exclusive club; they welcomed everybody with a pulse. They also were experts at co-opting those of us who were never really politicos, but could see ourselves working for the big happy Liberal family with its nearly psychopathological inclusiveness.

Don't worry, be happy. Six and five, we're still alive. The politics of joy. Guardians of human rights, the national health care system, a national vision for Canada.

Yadda, yadda.

It was hard not to like the Liberals back then. And it was impossible not to like Joyce.

Even though she was diminutive, Joyce Fairbairn stood tall among the political backroomers. She taught MPs how to dress. She dressed PET down when he was becoming juvenile. While the rest of us were in awe of Pierre Trudeau, international man of mystery, Joyce wise-crackingly nicknamed him Bert after one of her scruffy little dogs when, for a time, he refused to manscape.

After Trudeau took his walk in the snow, Joyce went off to her due reward as a member of the Canadian Senate where she used her steely work ethic and determination to help promote literacy among Canadians.

She was one of the first of her kind to recognize the importance of using corporate partnerships to support social goals. She had no staff but a long reach.

I met up with Joyce during this period when the cartoonist Ben Wicks and I were working on a book for parents and kids that would encourage family reading together. Thanks to Joyce, we launched our book with a campaign that saw 2.5 million free books put into the hands of school kids across Canada. She even convinced Governor-General Romeo Leblanc to help us with our publicity campaign.  With Joyce's help, we managed to pull off the largest literacy event ever in Canada with no government money at all.

I didn't see Joyce much after I lost my taste for politics. The Liberal Party that I so loved became angry and petty, opportunistic and lecturing. During the days of Chretien and Martin, there was no room for joy only brinkmanship and narcissim among those who took it over.

I don't know how Joyce put up with the Liberal Party during those years, but she never complained, just did her own thing.

There were few opportunities for us to meet up after that. Mike and Jerry -- social instigators -- were no longer around to keep the band together.

I did see Joyce at an Ottawa Lynx game a few years back, wearing her signature crimson suits even on a day off. She still looked like Shirley Maclaine, sweet, nice, funny. Still the cropped hair and crinkly eyes, a little older, a little wiser, still a pistol.

Just don't ever cross her.

I was sad this week to see that she is now under 24-hour care for Alzheimer's Disease. I felt even worse that the Ottawa Citizen seemed to villify her for still trying to do her job whilst in the midst of a mental health crisis. I know Joyce and I can tell you she wasn't voting in the Senate to shore up Liberal fortunes; she was just doing the same job she did every single day since she graduated journalism school -- she was doing what she was paid by the people of Canada to do.

Giving them value for money. Unlike many Senators I could name who don't even bother to show up. You know who you are.

Now that she's taking sick leave, I hope the media will stop treating her like a feable old bag and give her some respect, to start to reflect on the contributions she has made to Canadians, to Albertans, to the disadvantaged and especially to the Liberal Party.

I can only wish her well, and hope she has some quality of life in the future.

Unfortunately, Alzheimer's is a hard taskmaster.

It's a sad last chapter for a great broad.

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