At 19, Heather Robertson wrote an editorial that enflamed the college jocks, sparking a career dedicated to fearless reporting. Regan Reid takes a revealing look at Canada’s feistiest journalist. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. 

At 19, Heather Robertson wrote an editorial that enflamed the college jocks, sparking a career dedicated to fearless reporting. Regan Reid takes a revealing look at Canada’s feistiest journalist. This story originally appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism. 

 

When I ask Heather Robertson if it was worth it to spend 15 years of her life fighting two class action lawsuits against the largest media corporations in Canada, her response is characteristically modest. “Oh sure, yeah,” she says quietly. 

But then she brings up Rob Roy, the film starring Liam Neeson (whom she loves) as the heroic Highland Scot who takes on the nobility. We talked earlier about her Scottish roots and her belief that it was in her blood to “stick it to the corporation," and I could hear the excitement rise in her voice as she described the film. “There’s this wonderful scene where Rob Roy’s wife is in the process of being raped by the steward or something and she pulls out her dirk and she stabs him in the nut!” She laughs as she triumphantly shakes her fists in the air. “And that’s where I come from.” 

Heather Robertson filed her lawsuits on behalf of all Canadian freelance writers who had their work reproduced on electronic databases without their knowledge, consent or compensation. She took on Canada’s media giants—and she won. “Here I was, this middle-aged Canadian woman, suddenly being robbed of my creative work by a laird,” she says. “I saw it as this tremendous challenge. I reached for my dirk and off I went.”

***

Heather Robertson wanted no part of a football team. In 1961, the University of Manitoba was again considering forming a squad, even though teams had already folded twice due to high costs and low support. But “the football boys,” as Robertson called them, wanted to try again—at the expense of the students and administration. So, as editor of the school’s newspaper, The Manitoban, the 19-year-old wrote a fiery editorial denouncing the proposal. “Again this year they are peddling football—an easy, instant remedy for all the ills that affect Manitoba,” she began. “Are three expensive games per season in a makeshift stadium in foul weather against teams from places most of us have only heard about and wouldn’t particularly care to visit going to suddenly make us full of college spirit?”

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The jocks called for her head. They wanted their team and they wanted Robertson fired for speaking out against it. So the student council called on her to justify her words. “She wasn’t objective!” the football fanatics argued. “It was an editorial!” she countered. As she stood inside the student centre making her case, she heard a dull roar outside as a group of protesting jocks shouted into a megaphone and demanded their team. Then, through the windows of the small room, Robertson watched in shock as the throng raised a stuffed figure by a rope around its neck. She quickly realized that the bundle of straw, with its long hair and skirt, was her effigy. It wasn’t enough to just symbolically hang her; the crowd outside wanted more. The mob lit a fire under the straw and soon “Heather Robertson” was up in flames. All this over an editorial?

The football boys were just the first of many opponents Robertson would face in her journalism career. She’d win some battles and lose others, be labelled a communist and get sued for libel. But when she was just a sheltered 19-year-old girl, inspiring a demonstration was incredibly exciting—journalism was exciting. She didn’t know it then, but the excitement wouldn’t end there.

Today, at 69, Robertson walks with a slight limp, has short white hair and wears slacks and loafers. She has a warm laugh, works on her garden and can’t help but talk about her kids (her son is a film editor who worked on the Angelina Jolie action movie Salt). But in many ways, Robertson is far from ordinary. For 15 years she fought two class action lawsuits against the largest media corporations in Canada—and won. She filed on behalf of all Canadian freelance writers who had their work reproduced on electronic databases without their knowledge, consent or compensation. The media giants paid millions.

Many journalists now associate Robertson with those landmark lawsuits. They celebrate her for standing up for her peers, keeping everyone updated on the case and, of course, for the “Heather Robertson cheques,” some in the tens of thousands of dollars. But plenty of the freelancers who were thrilled to cash those cheques know little about the woman who fought for them. They don’t know about her 50-year career, her 18 books and her three novels, or her role in the creation of the Professional Writers Association of Canada. Though Robertson’s lawsuits have been important to Canadian journalists, they are just the latest battle in a career marked by activism. “She was a muckraker,” says Don Obe, her editor at Toronto Life. “She was out to right wrongs and she was her whole magazine-writing career.”

To read the rest of this story, head over to the Ryerson Review of Journalism website, where this story was originally published.