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'She was very brave for her era’
Frances (Fran) Baird Innes’ commitment to community and numerous causes — including the 1970s women’s rights movement in Newfoundland and Labrador, as well as the organization that became Planned Parenthood — are legendary among those who witnessed her efforts, but she remained modest about her role in it all.
“I loved her immediately. She was a little tiny thing and feisty as could be,” recalls friend of 40 years Marian Atkinson, who was in her 20s when she met the much older Innes through the St. John’s Status of Women’s Centre, which had its start in the 1970s on Military Road.
“She stood out in the crowd all the time and yet she was as humble as could be. She didn’t take credit for anything. … Spunky. That’s my kind of person. … I admired her, too. She was very brave for the era.”
“She was such an influence on my life,” said activist and filmmaker Gerry Rogers, who ended her career as a member of the provincial legislature in 2019.
“She was fearless and was one of the real pioneers around feminism and activism here in Newfoundland and Labrador. … She had such a strong sense of social justice.”
Innes died Jan. 30 at the age of 95.
Innes grew up in Grand Falls, where her father worked for Royal Stores and then the Baird family’s hotel.
When she set off for Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, some townspeople asked why her parents were sending her, since — as was the conventional wisdom of the time — she’d only be getting married afterward, Innes' daughter, Gail Innes, recounted.
Innes’ parents replied she had the brains and deserved the chance.
At university, she was active in student life, as well as demonstrating early advocacy by opposing the wartime internment of Japanese Canadians.
Innes graduated in 1946 with a bachelor of science degree, worked in Toronto, married and then returned to Newfoundland.
While raising her two children, Gail and son Bruce, Innes got involved in community volunteer work, and was president/director of the local branch of the Canadian Federation of University Women.
Gail Innes said her mother successfully lobbied for the establishment of children’s libraries, as well as the city’s first head start program, and was instrumental in organizing the Art Association of Newfoundland, serving as its first president.
Innes was founding president of the Newfoundland Family Planning Association, now known as Planned Parenthood.
Promoting birth control in society at the time was touchy, as churches actively campaigned against it, Gail Innes recalled of her mother’s efforts.
“The one thing about my mother is if she felt something needed to be done and it was the right thing to do, she was going to do it regardless,” Gail Innes said.
“She was not afraid to put herself out there.”
“She was not afraid to put herself out there.” — Gail Innes
At the same time, Innes would never put down anyone who wasn’t active in social advocacy, a demonstration of her kindness toward others.
When Innes decided that solving problems meant entering politics, she joined the Status of Women Council’s political action committee and ran for city council.
During Innes’ term on city council, 1977-81, Gail Innes noted her mother advocated for quality affordable housing, water and sewers for unserviced areas, daycare legislation and deferred taxes for senior homeowners in financial need. She was well known for her opposition to the destruction of the city core by large developers.
A 1979 news article on some city hall staff resignations noted Innes was among the new wave of councillors who asked questions, shocking city officials for their brashness.
Because Innes had favoured the ward system, she declined to run as a councillor at large in her second election.
Gail Innes said her mother knew it would be tough in her conservative ward, because of her profile advocating for such causes as Planned Parenthood, and she lost.
Prior to running for council, Innes had re-entered the workforce as a teacher and freelance journalist, including a time as a story editor in 1975 at CBC’s “Here and Now.” Gail Innes said her mother’s work focused on topics affecting women, such as rape and family planning, and she took flak for those views from some male co-workers, who called her “Frank.” She was working on a documentary on abortion — a controversial topic at the time — when her contract wasn’t renewed.
“She was one of that wave that opened up opportunities for all of us,” said Gail Innes, who had a career in professional dance before joining the academic staff at Memorial University. “It took a lot of guts. … It was not easy on them. They did it and we all benefited from it.”
Gail Innes said her mother instilled many values in her children, including to always look at the social conditions surrounding someone who was less fortunate and never just blame them.
“What I learned from my mother: follow your conscience, have compassion for others and be willing to sacrifice for what you believe in,” Gail Innes said.
Atkinson treasured her friendship with Innes that began at a time when women from teenagers to those in their 70s and 80s banded together to establish the St. John’s Women’s Centre, with a group of them, including Innes, giving money toward the down payment to buy a house on Military Road.
Atkinson said the volunteers renovated the facility into two apartments and the first office of the women’s centre — now located on Cashin Avenue.
"We were starting from scratch back then,” Atkinson recalled. “(Innes) was wonderful in organizing.”
Innes circulated a letter among friends asking for contributions to the $2,000 down payment.
This was crucial, said Rogers, as it created a facility that the Status of Women Council owned and allowed its members a space to conduct activism that they could not be kicked out of. The centre was the early home of the rape crisis centre and led to the transition house for domestically abused women now known as Iris Kirby House.
“What I learned from my mother: follow your conscience, have compassion for others and be willing to sacrifice for what you believe in." — Gail Innes
Lillian Bouzane met Innes at a public housing conference at city hall around 1972. They were combing their hair in the bathroom, said hello, and from that point on were lifelong friends and members of organizations that included the Status of Women Council and the writers' guild.
“She was a robust defender of distributing the tax money to everybody instead of just giving most of it to the rich,” Bouzane said of her friend’s social conscience.
Rogers noted Innes advocated for women and children facing poverty, as well as issues such as access to education and affordable child care, but was also an incredible storyteller and encouraged other women to enter journalism and media fields.
Innes’ articles and reviews appeared in a number of publications, including the Newfoundland Quarterly, and she was a longstanding member of the Writers' Alliance of Newfoundland and Labrador. Her children’s book “Mae’s Night Flight” was published in 1993.
Besides her children, Innes is survived by a granddaughter, Emily Innes.