Robertson, who co-founded the Writers’ Union of Canada, died at age 72 on Wednesday. She took on media giants on behalf of all Canadian freelancers whose work was reproduced in electronic databases without compensation—and she won.  

By Tamara Baluja, Associate Editor

Journalist and author Heather Robertson died at age 72 on Wednesday.

For more than a decade, Robertson championed on behalf of Canadian freelancers in two major lawsuits—and she won. In 1995, she went up against the Globe and Mail after it put three of her articles in its database. The lawsuit went all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, and in 2006, the ruling supported the right of freelance journalists to protect their copyright when newspapers put their work in databases.

Born in Winnipeg, Robertson graduated with a bachelor of arts degree in English from the University of Manitoba and started working as a reporter at the Winnipeg Free Press and then at the Winnipeg Tribune. She later became a prolific freelance journalist and author.

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Robertson was given the 2011 award for outstanding achievement from the National Magazine Awards Foundation. She was also a founding member of the Writers’ Union of Canada and the Periodical Writers Association of Canada, which advocated for fair compensation to writers (and later became known as the Professional Writers Association of Canada).

Elaine Dewar remembers meeting Robertson for the first time in 1974 when the former was a junior editor and researcher at Maclean’s.

“Her voice was so strong and confident and (she was) this amazing women’s right champion … and she walks in wearing a shirtwaist dress, high heels—looking like a housewife,” Dewar said. “I was completely taken aback.”

Their friendship blossomed over the years. The pair were enraged when they heard at an informational meeting on electronic rights that newspapers could republish the work of freelancers in electronic databases without their knowledge or consent.

“That’s what started the lawsuits,” Dewar said. “And she was brave enough to put her name on it. A lot of writers benefitted for her unbelievable tenacity.”

Don Obe, who was Robertson’s editor at Toronto Life, said she was a “muckraker,” who was “out to right wrongs and she was her whole magazine-writing career” in an article published in the Ryerson Review of Journalism (RRJ).

 “Although the freelancers are thankful that Robertson stood up for her peers, some question whether these lawsuits have actually benefited writers in the long run,” the RRJ reported. “The suits haven’t necessarily helped anyone maintain control over those rights because lawyers have simply created more comprehensive contracts, demanding rights to all media now known or ever to be discovered without increasing fees.”

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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.