Michael OReilly, president of the Canadian Freelance Union, pays tribute to the trail-blazing freelancer and her legacy.
By Michael OReilly
When Heather Robertson died recently, the world lost a great author and a passionate activist. I lost a friend.
The Heather I knew was a tenacious advocate for the rights of her fellow authors and freelance journalists. Although I knew Heather for many years by reputation only—a respected journalist and author—I came to know her personally as the driving force behind our long struggle for the rights of freelancers in this new digital age.
As the story goes, it was a dark and stormy night that first drew a small cabal of freelancers and book authors together in Toronto. It was 1996, and many of us had recently discovered our works were being resold electronically without our permission, and certainly without any compensation. After much discussion we formed an action committee and decided to seek legal counsel. Someone knew a good lawyer, so a small group of us that included Heather, the late June Callwood, Elaine Dewar and myself, headed off. Little did we know that this meeting would launch a legal fight that would last over a decade and that would help shape the business world for both freelancers and publishers.
It soon became clear that the only way forward was to launch a class action lawsuit. A critical aspect of any such case is the need for a named plaintiff, a person who can take the lead and represent the offended class of people. While we all shared in the burden, this named person would bear the weight of the action, including the consequences of failure. Without hesitation, Heather stepped in and stepped up. Hers was the case that would carry us all forward. And so she did.
The details of what became known as the Robertson Class Actions (Robertson vs. Thomson and Roberson vs. Toronto Star, Rogers Publishing Limited, et al.) can be read in history books now. It was a long and, at times, bitter and difficult fight. The wheels of justice grind slowly, especially in cases where small plaintiffs are facing giant corporations. And despite the wonderful David and Goliath metaphor that we all cling to, the fact is that in these battles, Goliath usually wins.
As the months dragged into years, and then over a decade, the case took a real toll on everyone but most especially on Heather. There were times when she faced real financial threat, but she never wavered. There were times when she could easily have walked away. She never did. And there were times when she could have justifiably accepted more for herself than others. She would never hear of it.
Through all the long years, all the way up to the Supreme Court, Heather remained focused on one simple goal: to achieve the best possible outcome for her friends and colleagues. In the end, the Supreme Court affirmed that publishers did not simply have the right to use our works however they wanted to without gaining the proper rights. Freelancers received settlements worth over $15 million.
I will remember Heather for her strength, persistence and resolve to do the right thing for others. But mostly I’ll remember her laugh. Through it all she remained joyous and giving. She was gracious and humble in the honours she rightly achieved, but most of all, she knew how to keep smiling through it all.
All I can say is, thank you, Heather. You will be missed.
Michael OReilly has been a full-time freelancer since 1992. His work has appeared in publications such as The Globe and Mail, Canadian Geographic and Maclean's. He served as a regional director, vice-president and president of the Professional Writers Association of Canada and is currently Founding President of the Canadian Freelance Union (UNIFOR 2040).
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