Yesterday, March 29th, the Canadian literacy community lost their greatest champion. Senator Joyce Fairbairn passed away in her hometown of Lethbridge, Alberta.
Senator Joyce Fairbairn was the first to initiate a debate in either House of Parliament on the issue of literacy over 35 years ago. Instrumental in making the case that the federal government had a role to play in improving the literacy skills of Canadians, she played a significant role behind the scenes in the development of the National Literacy Secretariat in 1988, a role that was acknowledged by then Prime Minister Brian Mulroney when he announced the National Literacy Program.
When the Liberals became the government in 1993, the Senator was named Minister with Special Responsibility for Literacy. This was the first and only time that such a post was part of the federal cabinet. She stayed in that position until 1997 when she became the special advisor on Literacy to the Human Resources Minister, a role she played until 2004.
I had the privilege of working with Joyce for the 14 years I worked at the National Literacy Secretariat. She was a strong advocate for literacy and knew the issues inside out. She traveled extensively, meeting with literacy organizations, business groups, labour and, what gave her the most pleasure, literacy learners.
Always dressed in red, Joyce would grab the podium on either side in what we called her gunslinger pose, to speak from the heart about what she called the cause of her life. As she once promised, “we will succeed, and I will march with you every step of the way.” (Second Canadian Conference on Literacy and Health, October 17-19, 2004.)
She and I spent many hours traveling together. We often tussled about the best way for her to deliver her message. She was feisty in arguing for her approach while I was stubbornly trying to make my point, both of us seeking the same objective of “spreading the message.” Despite our differences, she called me “an honest and professional critic of my own words!” She once wrote about a speech she delivered which I had helped with, “…the speech rolled out with high emotion. Tears were shed even by a ‘tough nut’ like yourself which was the best accolade I could ever receive.” Those words hang framed on a wall in my house.
The senator lost her husband in 2002 and then in 2013 she retired from the Senate having been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a condition from which her mother had also suffered. A cruel irony for a woman who made her career using words, networking, being independent.
I hope her legacy lives on. She was the driving political force for literacy in Canada. We need to remember and celebrate her efforts.
I have talked, in every corner of Canada, in other countries as well, about giving each and every individual a fair chance. A chance to fulfil their utmost potential. My friends, our country, our world, is far too precious to become somewhere that people merely cope. It must become a place where people have a fair chance to contribute and participate, and have a job and a decent wage to provide a vigorous future for themselves and their families. This is not about special treatment. This is not about privilege. It is about glorying in the knowledge that not only puts bread on the table, but entertains and comforts and enhances the soul.