The ‘Wil’ of the People: Brenda Mary Robertson – A political trailblazer and my grandmother

    In this week's "The 'Wil' of the People," columnist Wil Robertson touches on the life of New Brunswick's first female MLA and his grandmother, Brenda Robertson. (Aaron Sousa/AQ)

    Brenda Mary Robertson was a true inspiration and trailblazer. She leaves a legacy for not only those who knew her, but her community province, and country. She was the first woman to be elected to the Legislative Assembly of New Brunswick, but to me, she was also Nan.

    My grandmother passed away peacefully during the evening of Sept. 23, comforted by family and staff at her home in Monarch Hall, Riverview, New Brunswick. She was 91.

    Brenda Robertson’s last Senate of Canada portrait. (Submitted: Wil Robertson)

    Brenda became the first female elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1967. The headline of the newspaper article of the day did not mention her name, it merely stated her gender.

    When she first arrived at the Legislature, Brenda had to have colleagues of the likes of Richard Hatfield and Jean-Maurice Simard to guard the door while she used the male washrooms. There were no female washrooms at the time in the Legislature and Nan often was forced to lineup for the public restrooms. In her first caucus meeting, most of her male colleagues suggested she make them cookies and fetch their coffee.

    Brenda went on to be re-elected a further four times, becoming the first female cabinet minister in 1970, and holding several cabinet portfolios for every year subsequently until her appointment to the Senate in 1984.

    She was the Rt. Hon. Brian Mulroney’s first appointment to the Senate of Canada in 1984. The former Prime Minister of Canada (1984-1993) said this of Brenda in a statement to the family:

    “Over the years, she provided me and my cabinet colleagues inspired counsel on policy issues related to health care, social issues and Atlantic Canada. I was always proud of her contributions to the Progressive Conservative Party, but more importantly her major contributions to improving the lives of the people of New Brunswick and the people of Canada. I consider myself privileged to have known Brenda. Over the years she was a valued supporter and loyal friend. I will always remember her strong policy intellect, her sense of humour and her love of politics.”

    Her achievements were vast, substantive, and meaningful in social services and healthcare, leaving a mark that is still seen today in the form of the ExtraMural program, funding to Cystic Fibrosis medication, the coverage of optometry services for youth by Medicare, the name of the Social Services Department — which was the Department of Welfare prior to Brenda becoming the minister responsible for said department  and much more.

    In the Senate she worked tirelessly for the underprivileged and forgotten, championing issues of healthcare, accessibility and social services reform. She promoted and bettered our national democracy through her work on the procedures of the Senate, work of which was touted by many of her colleagues as important and meaningful beyond measure. Upon the occasion of her last sitting in the Senate of Canada, Senators rose to honour Brenda Robertson.

    Wil Robertson, seated, poses with his grandmother in the Senate Chamber in Ottawa. (Submitted: Wil Robertson)

    The Hon. Noël A. Kinsella said, “Clearly, this senator is a role model – a role model, yes, for women to participate in public affairs, but also a role model for all who wish to excel in service to society.”

    At her time of retirement from the Senate in 2004, at the age of 75, she was the longest active-serving politician from New Brunswick. Her career spanned across five decades but would leave a mark on many more. One of the manners in which this is the case was seen this month. The first woman elected passed, just weeks after a record number of women were elected to the legislature.

    Nan admired Indira Gandhi and achieved in her career what Indira once described, “To be liberated, woman must feel free to be herself, not in rivalry to man but in the context of her own capacity and personality.”

    Brenda certainly did so, and in her career, she showed the men who chastised her that she was not there to bake and serve coffee, indeed perhaps it was they who should fetch the coffee. For in paraphrasing the words of Hellen Keller, while they said what she set out to do could not be done, it was done.

    On Sept. 24, while tributes and condolences came from all corners of the province and the country, including from politicians and civil servants past and present, Premier Blaine Higgs said, “Brenda broke down barriers and served as a role model for generations of women. She was a dedicated and respected leader, not just in our province, but across Canada, serving 20 years in the Senate.”

    He offered his condolences on behalf of all New Brunswickers. He did so while flags at all provincial buildings were lowered to half-mast in honour of Brenda Sept. 24 and 25.

    The New Brunswick flag at the Provincial Legislative Building was lowered to half-mast in honour of Brenda Robertson’s passing on Sept. 25, 2020. (Submitted: Wil Robertson)

    Throughout her life and career, Brenda fought for the things she believed in and cared about, doing so in a way that led others to join her. Her leadership, achievements, passion, loyalty, and commitment were honoured during and after her lengthy career in the public sphere.

    In 1973, she was given an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Mount Saint Vincent University. Following this, she was awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Silver Jubilee Medal in 1977. In 1983, l’Université de Moncton gave her an Honorary Doctorate of Social Sciences. Brenda received the key to the Town of Riverview as well. She received the Order of New Brunswick in 2004 and was later bestowed with the Order of Canada in 2008. Brenda received the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012. In 2017, on the 50 anniversary of her first election to the New Brunswick Legislature, a portrait of her was placed in the Legislature, an honour bestowed on no other person asides from the Queen, outside of the regular portraits taken for protocol.

    Brenda Robertson accepts the Order of Canada in 2008 from then Governor General Michaëlle Jean. (Submitted: Wil Robertson)

    My family and I truly appreciate the outpouring of condolences, media coverage and messages regarding my Nan, Brenda Mary Robertson. We hope her legacy will be commemorated in a substantial manner fitting of her life, example and achievements in the near future.