She was, in a word, fearless. Nancy Riche was also formidable, feisty and extremely quick-witted. Sometimes that wit could be caustic. Some called her saucy. And she
didn’t mind. In fact, she owned it.
She was tough and blunt — but then, she had to be. She was, after all, an outspoken woman, fighting against women’s inequality in the workplace, in the union movement and in society at a time when few were doing so. She enlightened and educated her peers and inspired a generation of women with her gutsy, no-holds barred style.
She was very, very smart. And she always had a plan, a strategy.
She was also a deeply compassionate and generous person. She always found time for the little things — the things people tend to remember.
Her passion coated reasoned and well-researched arguments. But she trusted her gut instincts. And why wouldn’t she? They took her from the St. John’s Battery to the top of Canada’s labour movement.
She was a fighter, a rebel with many causes, all of which, for Nancy Riche — labour leader, feminist, social democrat — were intertwined with her singular cause: economic and social justice.
She was, indeed, a force of nature: a champion for workers’ rights, women’s rights and human rights. And a staunch New Democrat.
The labour movement and the NDP were the vehicles for which she was able to “raise” her voice. “It made sense and it still does — even if it doesn’t always meet my expectations,” she wrote upon her retirement from the Canadian Labour Congress in 2002.
This was classic Nancy. Frank, insightful, reflective and sometimes critical of the very progressive movements she called home. It was that critical view, and a healthy dose of it, that left no room for complacency. Nancy always had another mountain to climb. She thrived on the challenge.
She believed those who strived for a better world “must be ever vigilant, demanding and noisy.”
Perhaps it was her early life that prepared her for the trail she would later blaze. She often referred to several events in her childhood that sparked her lifelong quest for justice for working people, especially working women.
Her mother once told her the story of how she one day entered through the front door of the house in which she worked as a maid. A young boy greeted her mother, who carried a bucket of coal, and told her in no uncertain terms that she was not to use the front door. Her mother, Nancy recalled, was embarrassed by this. Nancy, on the other hand, was furious.
As a child, Nancy attended one of the best schools in the city — her mother believed education was the path out of poverty — but that
didn’t mean the little girl from the Battery was accepted. Indeed, she learned at a young age that class did matter. She recalled how hurt she was when she was the only girl in Grade 3 not invited to a classmate’s birthday party.
Upon her retirement from the second top job in our country’s labour movement, Nancy compiled a collection of letters by trade union women. In it, she recalled these stories from her childhood and said: “After all these years of being a trade unionist, a feminist and a social democrat, I haven’t changed my belief of what it is we are struggling for. Is it too much to ask that we all have the right to go through the front door, and that we all get invited to the (birthday) party?”
Making her own way
As the youngest of 11 children and the only girl, she found out early in life how to negotiate; how to get her own way. She explored her power. She was in charge. And she liked it.
Her close friends would say this contributed to her fearlessness.
Nancy Riche’s legacy will be as vibrant and as multifaceted as she was.
When she retired and moved home, she made a promise to put her indefatigable energy into the building of the province’s New Democratic Party. She knew this would not be a one-year project, that it would take time and commitment and drive.
From all indications, the NDP will make a historic breakthrough next week. It would have been so lovely for her to have seen it happen.
One of her other great gifts was the incredible difference she made for women in the labour movement. She truly supported women. She fought for us. She broke down barriers and made the path for women who came after her that much easier. She inspired women from coast to coast to coast to take on leadership roles in their unions. She told them “do the thing you fear and the fear will disappear.” And they did.
Nancy Riche has left us with a vibrant and, yes, rich legacy.
It lives on in all of those she inspired to be union leaders or progressive activists. It lives every time we do as she advised: be vigilant, demanding and noisy, and get the job done.
Lana Payne is president of the
Newfoundland and Labrador Federation of Labour. She can be reached by email at email@example.com.
Her column returns Oct. 22.